My First Time: Home Brewing

When a Manhattan-domiciled twenty-something couple happens to have an extra vacant room in their apartment, a phenomenon as rare as a basset hound walking a tightrope, the obvious question arises: What to use it for?  The list of possibilities seems endless. A study or workspace, would seem the practical, if boring, choice. A bedroom for the kids? Er, we did say “twenty-something.” In Manhattan, after all, 30 is the new 21. Maybe a man-cave for all those fantastic electronicy doohickies? Or maybe, when all else fails, beer.

The dimly lit space of a New York City apartment, often getting a fraction of the light normally found in a typical suburban home due to the looming brick facades blocking out most of the sun, provides the perfect shady spot to store a carboy of fermenting beer as it slowly bubbles its way to full-on beery goodness.

Brewing beer may sound like a daunting task, especially for an urban-bound individual like me, given that space is limited and the fear of stinking the whole joint with the raw aroma of wheat, hops, and various malty substances over the several weeks it takes for beer to ferment. But, actually, it’s straightforward for even the most uninitiated (like myself), if you’re willing to put up with an hour or two of smelliness one weekend afternoon and don’t mind having a five gallon jug of beer sit in a corner of your apartment/house/hovel for the next two weeks to a few months (depending on what type of beer you decided on).

My wife (then girlfriend), as a Christmas present, bought a starter kit from Northern Brewer (www.northernbrewer.com). (Side note: Best girlfriend EVER). It gets you started with the basic stuff you’ll need like a big plastic carboy to store the beer, a bottling bucket with spigot to bottle it, and various tubes and siphons to move it from carboy to bucket. You’ll also need two cases of bottles (also sold by whatever beer-making company you patronize). Usually provided in the starter kit are bottle caps and a capper, a device resembling a giant staple remover which “crimps” the caps onto a bottle head to seal it.

Then, you decide what kind of beer you want to brew. Northern Brewer (and likely most beer-making companies) have pre-packaged ingredients for most different kinds of ales, lagers, stouts, what-have-you. Just follow the directions and you’ll be drinking intoxicating goodness in a couple of weeks or months. Our first batch was a low gravity (ie, low alcohol content) Scottish ale. Later, we tried a stout and a hefeweizen (the latter being our favorite thus far).

The first step in brewing is likely the most tedious: sterilizing EVERYTHING. The kit comes with a powdery soapy substance to which one just adds water and soaks all the equipment. And I mean all of it. If any bacteria get into the mix during fermentation, it could be the beginning of a stinky batch of beer (or so I am told by the instructions). Once you’ve done that, you’ll need a 2 gallon pot to boil all the ingredients on your stove top (this mixture of pre-fermented boiled beer is called the “wort,” which sounds amazingly unappetizing).  You’ll be pouring in large globs of malt syrup (refined from various grains) steeping specialty grains in the mix for extra flavor, adding hops (little pellets that look like large mouse turds), and even adding honey, depending on what that particular beer calls for. Surprisingly, until you add the hops, the mixture remains relatively odor-free.

The process usually takes about an hour after you add water and bring it to a boil. Oh that’s another thing. If you are a real stickler for perfection, you can also filter the tap water you are using (ie in a Britta or some other filter), but this usually takes forever and should probably be done the day before you brew.

Once you’ve boiled for an hour, you have to cool the wort as quickly as possible to prevent bacteria from building up. We just fill our sink with ice and cold water and submerge the edges of the pot until it cools off to below 100 degrees or so. After that, it’s just a matter of pouring it into your carboy, adding 3 more gallons of water, sloshing it all around, adding yeast (usually provided) and waiting a few weeks (this is when the beer actually becomes alcoholic). Once the requisite number of weeks has gone by, it’s time to throw in some ordinary everyday table sugar, pour the whole mixture into your bottling bucket (complete with spigot on the bottom), fill up your bottles, and crimp the caps on using your new-fangled giant staple remover (aka capper). The sugar is consumed by the leftover yeast in each bottle and creates the carbonation. Another two weeks and you can pop open one of those babies and settle in for a long night of Risk: The Game of World Domination or a marathon showing of Commando, depending on your tastes.

I’d be lying if my wife and I didn’t butt heads a few times over the directions or shout “I just sterilized that!” every time one of us manhandled one of the various tubes, buckets, etc. lying about. Our first time boiling the wort took most of a Saturday, while each beer batch after that diminished in hours as we became more familiar with the process. Once acclimated, you should be able to finish the boiling process, from prep to clean up, in two to three hours (assuming you don’t filter your water).

So, I highly recommend the process for anyone interested – Sure the initial kit is a bit pricy ($100 or more), but the beer batches themselves run as low as $22 or so (for 2 cases of bottled beer!) and the only real time commitment is a few solid hours on a weekend. Plus the stink factor, once you’ve got everything contained, is non-existent. So, next time you’ve got a spare room, corner, square-foot, what-have-you, think about all the things you could use it for. And then think of all the beer you could make. And drink. Plus, if you re-use your bottles, it’s good for the environment. And that’s just a damn virtuous thing, ain’t it.

Todd Moore

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