Pretty much everyone has had a tragic encounter with a home brew experiment gone terribly, putridly awry. When my boyfriend, Chris, and I told our friends that we planned to make some beer, the stories spilled out: lackadaisical hippies; cocky frat brothers, all of whom confused proficiency in consuming great quantities of beer with the ability to produce it.
They all ended in the same, sad place: Victims being force-fed some vile concoction that represented the sum total of their friends’ knowledge of grains, fermentation and sanitation. The lucky ones recognized something was off before downing the whole glass.
But Chris and I had confidence (however misguided), a kit from our local home brewing store, and direct orders from Jane to give it a whirl. So we did. Our kit is nothing special -- a gallon jar; a plastic airlock; rubber tubing, and enough grains and yeast for two batches of beer -- plus a list of instructions written by an optimistic brew master, who assures us: “If you can make oatmeal, you can make beer!” We’ll see about that.
6:36 pm: We risk irreversible eye damage; death
Our instruction sheet begins with a command: “Sanitize! Sanitize! Sanitize!” To that end, we have a plastic envelope of a powder called C-Brite. Sample warning (emphasis theirs): CAN CAUSE IRREVERSIBLE EYE DAMAGE. MAY BE FATAL IF SWALLOWED. WILL BURN WITH THE EVOLUTION OF CHLORINE AND TOXIC GASES. But failure to sanitize is the number one cause of stinky, bacteria-filled beer, so we dip our utensils in the horrid, toxic solution -- carefully avoiding our eyes! -- and move on to step two: Bring two quarts of water to 160 F.
I stir in our grain, a dark malted barley. It smells malty and toasty! Like breakfast cereal! Like Grape Nuts, in fact, which come to think of it is barley. For the next hour, we are supposed to keep our cereal-like substance -- technically referred to as a “mash” -- between 144 -- 153 F.
6:48 pm: Heating water -- not so easy
Not content to leave well enough alone, Chris digs out an old candy thermometer to take a comparative reading. It reads 180 F. The thermometer included in our kit reads 152 F. Too hot? Too cold? Just right? Who the hell knows? We are on the very first step and we can’t get it right!
After 10 minutes of fretting, we turn back to the instruction sheet, which reads, “Add water if too dry or hot.” Oh. We drop in a fresh cup of water and turn off the heat.
“It’s so weird,” says Chris. “It looks like brains. But it’s beer.”
7:43 pm: Taste; add rodent kibble
In our next step, called “the sparge,” we pass four quarts of water through the mash to extract a foamy brown liquid called wort. I catch some of the grains overflowing from our perhaps-a-wee-bit-too-small strainer and start nibbling. Toasty and wheaty! And so sweet! Syrupy even, which makes sense when one considers that the last hour has been all about extracting sugars from our grain.
The dog and I start eating the now-discarded mash by the spoonful. When our wort comes to a boil, I add four roasted and peeled chestnuts -- I used the kind that come in a vacuum-sealed foil bag -- and the hops, compressed, green, grassy pellets that look exactly like the kibble one feeds to rabbits or hamsters or guinea pigs or other rodent-y pets.
9:40 pm: Where’s our beer at?
After cooling our wort in an ice bath in our kitchen sink, we strain it again and funnel it into our gallon jar. About a third of our liquid seems to be missing. We consult the instructions: “Don’t worry -- you just reduced your beer a bit too much. You can add a bit more water in the next step to get it up to the full gallon.”
We add the extra water -- an amount I would call “quite a lot” -- to the jug, along with the yeast. Our beer smells like beer! I fish out the chestnuts from the bottom of the pot. They are delicious sour, hoppy, beery morsels.
9:50: The waiting commences
We take the now-full beer jug into the spare bedroom, place it on a towel, lock the door and hope none of our household creatures manage to wander in and drink the toxic C-Brite (kept in a little dish on the floor to keep the rubber tubing fresh).
In two weeks, we will bottle the beer. Two weeks after that, we break it out and find out if we have made a delicious batch of chestnut brown ale, or just become another cautionary tale for our beleaguered friends.
Stay tuned! We will broadcast the details of our glory or humiliation to you, our readers.
For the kids at home: You can find the kit we used online at brooklynbrewshop.com, and at select Whole Foods stores across the country. But you can easily suss out the method and a list of materials using the “The Joy of Home Brewing,” written by nuclear engineer/home brew messiah Charlie Papazian, get supplies from the Internet or a hardware store, and ingredients from the bulk section of most natural foods stores, or anywhere that sells whole grains.