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Although the process of turning water, malt, hops and yeast into fine ale is not rocket science, my first attempt put me in such a foul mood that my teen son and the dog both kept their distance. “I wish to hell Nora had just given me a gift certificate to Total Wine!” I screamed to no one in particular after the propane burner blew out for the umpteenth time and I scorched my forearm on the brew pot yet again while trying to relight it.
Nora is my wife who thoughtfully shelled out $125 to buy me a beer-brewing kit as a gift. Total Wine is the liquor superstore with a seemingly limitless variety of delicious craft beers that you only need a fridge and bottle opener to enjoy.
I was sure I’d ruined the batch. First off, I didn’t account for water boil-off, and ended up with about 3 gallons of wort (the cooked but not-yet-fermented beer) instead of 5. Then, the gloppy brown sludge that developed in the fermenter looked more like something you’d expect to see flowing out of a latrine than tap. But it eventually cleared up and tasted pretty darn good. It also packed a wallop, quickly washing away the pains of beer-birth and convincing me to try it again.
That was more than four years ago, and I’m still going strong. If you’re a novice, buy a starter kit and sign up for a group lesson. Of homebrewing, I can say this: If you think you’d like it, you’ll love it. But there are a few pitfalls you’ll want to avoid, like …
While some people brew beer in their kitchen, I highly recommend doing it with a propane burner outdoors unless you think you may enjoy cleaning sticky wort residue from the deepest crevices in and around your stove area. Actually, the brewing process is pretty simple. Boil up some water, add several pounds of malt extract, periodically sprinkle in a few ounces of hops for bittering, flavor and aroma, and cook. After about an hour, the wort is done. Then you chill it from boiling to about 75 degrees before pouring it into a glass or plastic fermenter and adding yeast—the magical-but-heat-sensitive fungi that eats the sugars in the malt and converts them into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
But no matter how big your brew pot, at some point, you are sure to experience an overflow. As the sugary malt boils, it can quickly foam up and overflow—usually when you are momentarily distracted by a phone call, a late-arriving guest to your brew party or the dog choking on a chicken bone. The remedy is easy enough: Kill the flame momentarily. But I can only imagine what a mess this would be in the kitchen, as opposed to outside, where the dog will lick it up once he finishes spitting up or ingesting that chicken bone.
2. Exploding beer
Cleanliness is next to godliness when it comes to brewing—surprising since man first started making beer 7,000 years ago, when life was a lot dirtier. Nowadays, it’s vital to sanitize your brewing equipment or else you risk your beer catching a bacterial infection.
I realized that my batch of White House Honey Brown Ale had been compromised when a bottle exploded, spraying sticky honey brown beer all over my home office, where it was stored. As I carried the two cases of freshly bottled beer outside, another one blew. It broke at the base of the neck, and the capped end took off like an Atlas rocket, glancing off the side of my head and soaring over a six-foot fence into the neighbor’s yard.
I donned protective glasses, a long-sleeved shirt and gardening gloves, then cautiously uncapped each of the forty-six remaining bottles and poured them into the sink of our detached laundry room while emitting a fairly continuous string of bad words. I believe that my White House Honey Ale got infected due to a bad pack of yeast and not anything I did.
That was the only beer I ever made that detonated. Typically, you can prevent bacterial infections by using one of several types of sanitizers. I prefer an iodine-based one that is easy, cheap, effective and all you really need, so long as you don’t involve the government.
3. The ER
Exploding bottles aside, homebrewing is normally a fairly safe hobby. Still, I once experienced a medical emergency during the beer-chilling stage of the operation. Instead of spending about $70 on an immersion wort chiller (copper tubing that you run hose-water through), I froze a 1-gallon jug of spring water, sanitized it by dunking it in my iodine solution, then carefully cut the plastic all the way around with a sanitized blade to free the block of ice before dumping it in the wort. For more than three years, this method worked fine (even though combining a razor-sharp blade with a slippery object and an afternoon of beer drinking seemed inherently catastrophic).
One Sunday afternoon, as I cut off the plastic and chatted with pals, the blade slipped and encountered my wrist. It took two hours, six stitches and a $200 emergency room co-pay to fix, so now I recommend using a wort chiller.
But I did finish that batch. And you know what? It was bloody good beer!
Getting started: If you have a homebrew shop in your vicinity, buy a starter kit and sign up for a group lesson. Another option is to go to an online supplier. The kit will usually include a booklet and/or DVD describing the brewing process. Get a deluxe start-up kit rather than a bare bones one, because you will need most of the extra stuff sooner than later. You’ll also need a stainless steel or aluminum pot that holds a minimum of 7.5 gallons and a propane burner if you plan to cook the wort outside (highly recommended).
Time frame: Cooking up the wort takes about two hours. It typically spends one week in the primary fermenter and two to three weeks in a secondary, after which you bottle it. Bottling takes about 1.5 hours. The beer needs to be bottle-conditioned, during which it carbonates for another week or two. So it takes four to six weeks in total, and your 5-gallon batch will make about two cases (48 bottles) of beer.