In the late 1960’s, I was a graduate student living in Berkeley and subsisting on the GI Bill and Linnea’s meager check from working at the Ski Hut. Making things seemed a good way to stretch our funds. I heard you could make your own beer, so I bought a large crock, some canned malt, a package of dry yeast, and a bottle capper. I don’t remember where I got the hops. Then I methodically collected a supply of used beer bottles. The directions were to cook the malt with water, pour it into the crock, add yeast, cover it with muslin and wait a few weeks before bottling. Stories abounded about the bottles of eager tasters exploding in closets. It all seemed simple enough.
I waited the full two weeks, bottled the brew, and waited another week for it to age. It didn’t taste very good. In fact if it hadn’t been for the alcohol it provided I wouldn’t have drunk it at all. It gave new meaning to the phrase, “struggling student.” I made a few batches after that but eventually gave it up. As I lifted each bottle to my lips I thought, are you really this desperate?
Some years later, I was visiting my friend, George, who lives on a farm in northern Washington. He brought out a few bottles of unlabeled beer, and said, “Try this.” I did. It was really good, a smooth yet hoppy ale. This was roughly the same time as Sierra Nevada started brewing, so I don’t know if I was comparing George’s beer to the California product or if I was going back further to my time in England in the early sixties. In either case, I decided that if you could brew beer this good at home you should. My economic situation had improved, but so had the size and needs of my family.
A great deal had changed since my early forays into brewing. Home brewing had been refined in England. There, brewers were able to get quality ingredients, and they had refined the home brewing process, producing ales and stouts that could and did rival anything found on tap at your local pub. Soon enough, this information made its way to the States, and small companies (one suspects operating out of a garage) began to appear. George got his supplies from William’s Brewing, a small company in San Leandro, California that operated only by mail order (as it still does). I learned from the William’s catalogue that sterility was important and that the precious fluid needed to be protected from yeasts and bacteria that might be floating around one’s kitchen.
Sealable fermenters, priming tanks, airlocks, thermometers, and hydrometers, none of which I had in Berkeley, would lead to good honest beer. I also learned that the large commercial breweries used a lot of rice. An honest beer used malted barley.
William’s offered brewing kits composed of syrup malt extracts, hops, yeast, and sugar. When I had accumulated enough bottles I brewed my first batch. And then another. And another. I have lost count by now, but rough reckoning leads to a total of over three hundred five gallon batches, and all of them good.
When I moved to New York from Susanville, California, I had the time and space to switch from using kits to whole grain brewing. Crushed barley is soaked in hot water for an hour to turn the starch into sugar. Then water is run over the mash to separate the brew from the grain and the result, wort, is boiled for an hour, adding hops at appropriate times. After the beer cools, you siphon it into a fermenting container, add yeast, seal, and wait for a few weeks for the yeast to transform the sugar into alcohol. Then bottle. The initial process takes about five hours, so it isn’t something you do after work.
Basic beer brewing has only three ingredients that can be varied—grain, hops, and yeast—but by using different combinations a seemingly infinite variety of beers can be produced. Malted barley, for instance, can be light for lagers, slightly darker for ales, and really dark for stouts and porters. Hops are used to keep the beer from being sweet, and William’s current catalogue lists twenty –nine varieties. He offers even more varieties of yeast, each giving a particular flavor to the finished beer.
Many brewers experiment with different recipes as well as variations on the basic brewing process, but I have settled on three recipes that give me beer that I like: an ale and an oatmeal stout for the fall and winter months and a lager (which requires refrigeration) for the summer months. A used refrigerator in the basement conveniently holds five gallons of bottled lager. A storage room in the basement also has room for the three hundred or so bottles I have accumulated and the fermenters, priming tanks, grain crusher, mash rake, bottle capper, mashing pots, air locks, tubing, hydrometers, thermometers, and wort chiller that I have acquired over the years.
I usually brew the ale and stout in September and October, six or seven batches, enough to last through the winter, and then in April or May I will brew four batches of lager. This essay began in musings about my current brewing cycle. The nights are colder although we still have some warm days. A few trees are beginning to lose the leaves, but fall color has yet to arrive. I like the feel of the barley as I scoop it out of the sack, weigh it and drop it into the crusher. It also has a distinctive smell that is amplified by the crushing, not strong but suggestive of the earth.
Most of the brewing process simply involves waiting for the chemical changes in the brew to occur, but care must be taken when the wort is boiled. If the heat is too high the brew will boil over (which is why I do this stage in the garage). Even after the heat has been adjusted it is possible to have a boil-over somewhat later. It is easy to get distracted when you are just waiting around for the next process.. Rosamond comes home later in the day and says it smells like a brewery. She doesn’t mind and likes the finished product. I heard once that Martha Washington did the brewing for George. It is just a form of cooking after all.
All during the year in the evening I fetch a few bottles from the basement. I like the taste, the color, the slight effervescence, the feeling of ease and well-being it brings. And that I made it myself.