Monday, January 12, 2009

My First Home Brew

God may have rested on the 7th day, but from now on, I'll be spending a lot of my 7th days brewing beer.

Yesterday was "my first step into a much larger world." A world where one doesn't necessarily have to go to the pub, corner deli, beer distributor, or state store to purchase beer. In this world, all things are possible, including making your own brew.

Nate Green, who's been home-brewing for a number of years, showed me the ropes yesterday. Brewing seems to be a combination of art and science, and as a neophyte, a lot more art in my case. We steeped grains, waited, made wort, put in the malt, waited till it came to a boil, dropped some hops, waited, dropped some more hops, put in the yeast, cold-broke the wort, and finally, poured the concoction into the fermenter, a.k.a. the plastic bucket I had bought six hours prior. Quite a lot of steps, but all in all, not that difficult. As you can see, it's a lot of waiting, but we passed the time shooting the breeze, and oh, drinking.

Home brewers rank up there with the Masons in terms of brotherhood and secrecy. As good a friend as Nate is, he was a bit reluctant to bring me into the club. But apparently the background check was clean, and begrudgingly, he allowed the profane (me) to enter the temple. After a tasting of the first batch, Nate will determine if I'm worthy enough to continue, at which point he'll show me the secret handshake.

Want to start brewing? Aside from the obvious (stainless steel pot, fermenters, thermometers, etc.), here's what you need:

1) Somebody that knows what the hell they're doing. For me, that was Nate, renaissance man extraordinaire.

2) Beer to drink. It's an unwritten rule and part of the "ritual," to use Mason-speak, that you have to drink beer while you brew. And be prepared. Getting the wort ready to ferment takes a few hours, so you'll be drinking over an extended period of time. You have to bring your A game. And related to that--

3) Have pop-off bottles ready. You can reuse commercial bottles for your brew, but they must be pop-offs. Better that they're brown bottles too, because brown lets in less light than green. (Wort/beer is photosensitive, but not as bad as I am at the beach without a shirt on.)

4) Time. Most of brewing is waiting, but as long as you have something to drink and somebody to rap with, it's time well-spent.

Funny anecdote:

Knowing that I would eventually need pop-off bottles, Nate and I stopped at the beer distributor in the hopes of finding a beer that a) we could drink while brewing, b) came in a brown bottle, and c) used a pop-off cap.

"Do you know which beers are pop-offs?" I asked Nate.

"Can't think of any off the top of my head. But most of them aren't," he said.

No joke, but we started our own Quixotic quest by wandering the aisles and looking at the cardboard cases to see if we could determine whether the bottles were pop-off.

I asked Nate, "Can you tell if any of these are pop-offs?"

"About as much as I can tell if they're twist-offs. Maybe we should look inside."

So we took to furtively opening the cases or reaching through the hand-holds to feel the bottle caps.

"Do you have any idea?"

"No," Nate said, chuckling.

Realizing how ridiculous we were being, we tried to figure out what beers would most likely be pop-offs.

We hovered around the specialty beers for awhile, assuming this was our best bet. We tried using the Force, but to no avail. Obi-Wan would be so ashamed. Dejected, I was about to purchase _______ (EDIT: removed to protect the innocent) but stopped when I saw it was $37 a case. I'm a man that loves his beer, but even that's a bit steep for me.

Very discouraged and now wearied, I decided to just buy anything we could drink and worry about finding the elusive perfect bottle in the future, but, to both our lucks, my eye caught a case of Amstel Light. I know, I know. It's light beer for sure, but it does taste good. I couldn't remember if it was pop-off, so shamefacedly, I carried it to the counter and asked the cashier if it was.

"Just try to open one up," he said.

So we could have just asked the whole time.

But we made out well: decent beer stored in brown bottles with pop-off caps. In our defense, we are men, which means we're programmed to exhaust all other options before we resort to asking anyone for help. We can't help it.

Hopefully, in about four or five weeks, I should have a nice red ale. If not, the Masons will kill me and throw my body into the Potomac.


Nate Green said...

Brain, you've got a 90-day probationary period.

So if you're worried about this first batch tasting less like an Irish red and more like Irish arm-hair, you just need to get a second batch going to increase your odds of tasty quaffing.

And since I'm your sponsor, I'm willing to make the sacrifice to another afternoon of drink ... er ... brewing research.

Brian O'Rourke said...


That's cool. I've had a lot of probationary periods in my life, so they don't faze me that much anymore.

I think you're right about a second batch. Which would require another fermenting bucket. Another bucket would free me up to make some stuff Jenna's not crazy about, i.e. stouts. Win-win situation.

marco said...

In our defense, we are men, which means we're programmed to exhaust all other options before we resort to asking anyone for help. We can't help it.

So you suscribe to Stephen King's school of thought?

Women play with dolls,ask for directions,don't like sports and mathematics and prefer narratives with maybe a hint of menace but lots of feelings,romantic love and domestic values;

Men play with tin soldiers,prefer to get lost in the desert rather than ask for directions,like sports,are good at math and want adventure filled,adrenaline and testosterone driven yarns with lots of casual sex.

The bottles of homebrewed beer I buy (honey/chestnut/dark stout) are costly,but I cherish them religiously.I wonder if I shouldn't try myself.You make it look easy.

Gracie looks so cute-you're sure you're not exaggerating a bit?

adrian mckinty said...


Funnily enough I've been brewing a little myself these days - a bock german dark lager and of course a porter. it was necessity really that drove me to it. cant get them round my neck of the woods.

good luck with this project, your house will smell like heaven for two weeks and then it will get all sour and weird and then heaven again.


Are you everywhere on the web? I can only imagine the Italian, German and French language blods you're on.

marco said...


My first comment on Brian's blog.Long overdue,especially after I made fun of him for his golf/baseball viewing habits.
But he always talks about films I haven't seen.

It's funny,every year I make about half a ton of wine,of which I drink very little,for my parents,and I've never thought of brewing beer.

I can only imagine the Italian, German and French language blods you're on.

I do check blogs in these languages,in that order,but the comments are always depressingly pertinent.
You won't believe it,but no author writing in languages other than English has ever told me that,had he been gay,he would have asked me out.

My gothic v-word is grayseed.

Brian O'Rourke said...


I shudder to think I might subscribe to any of Stephen King's ideas. Eek.

Home brewing is not as difficult as it might seem. Most of it is just figuring out the terminology. Fortunately, I had a seasoned drinker--I mean, brewer--to help me, in Nate. It also helps that the home brew store near me sells grains, malts, etc with recipes. Makes things a lot easier.

I recommend giving it a shot. There are a lot worse ways to spend a few hours than brewing and throwing some back while doing it.

As for Gracie, don't let her picture fool you. I wouldn't be surprised if we found 6-6-6 somewhere on her body.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Adrian -

Good luck with the lager. I hear they're more difficult to brew than the ales, because they're a bit touchy when it comes to temperature. I'd love to do a cider, but that would require some pretty expensive equipment and a lot more patience than I have. Perhaps someday.

Plenty of Foster's where you are, I take it?

Brian O'Rourke said...

marco -

I wish I could speak my native tongue as well as you speak your second, third, fourth, fifth...nth tongues. And most of the Latin and Greek I studied in school is long gone now.

What kind of wine do you make?

adrian mckinty said...


VB round my neck. Its not good. Not even close. Its like Schlitz. Or worse.

Yeah I'll be honest I'm worried about the bock. Might be a total loss, but happily the porter's doing just fine.

marco said...


My grandparents house is in the country,but while there are a couple of good wines in the vicinity,the soil there isn't good for winemaking.Some have tried,strictly for personal consumption,but their wine is an evil thing.
We buy the grapes from a guy in a nearby village-they're a variety of Sangiovese,like almost all red grapes in Tuscany.
The resulting wine is sweet with a hint of bitterness due to the high tannin content,and has a strong body.
It's not bad,in fact sometimes is pretty good,but it's not exhibition material either,and is only meant to provide a year's worth of table wine for my family.

I do drink wine from time to time,but I've always preferred beer.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Adrian -

Ah, Schlitz. When I was in college and broke, Schlitz tasted great to me. Funny how it works like that.

I've never heard of Victoria Bitter before. But I'll be sure to stay away from it.

How's the Guinness there? The wife and I went to the St. James Gate Brewery while in Dublin, and they of course claimed that Guinness traveled fine.

Brian O'Rourke said...

marco -

Given all your wine-making experience, you'd probably be an excellent brewer.

I wonder if Bono brews. I'll have to keep an eye on the NYT (read: I'll have to read McKinty's summaries of Bono's columns).