PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- If we're going to keep up this coverage of the beer industry -- craft beer or otherwise -- it's probably a good idea for someone at this publication to brew a batch or so of their own beer.
Consumers do not have to be brewers to know what they like in a beer, where they like to enjoy one, how they feel about being marketed to by breweries and what influences their decision in the bar or beer aisle. Still, it helps to know the process behind that beer, the cost involved and how much value you're getting out of each beer.
That was at least some of the thinking that went into our first batch: A five-gallon stash of milk stout that's carbonating as you read this. It was all done on a starter kit cobbled together by my wife and father-in-law for Christmas and despite my initial fears -- that a misstep would contaminate the batch, that my measurements were off, that using the kitchen stove instead of a dedicated high-output burner had botched the process -- the first sips are making me wish the next few weeks of carbonation would end already.
The big takeaway from the first batch is the reinforcement of my already profound respect for brewers. The end result is fun and tasty, but the journey toward that finished batch is tough. I'm going to spare you the step-by-step tedium, but just to let you know, there's a whole lot of patience involved. My first beer is a clone of Longmont, Colo.-based Left Hand Brewing's flagship Milk Stout pulled from the pages of the Clone Brews beer recipe book written by Tess and Mark Szamatulski. When we spoke with Tess Szamatulski for a homebrewing story a few years back, she noted that she and her husband had a much easier time drawing customers into their Maltose Express homebrew shop in Milton, Conn., when they could provide recipes of brand-name beers they already loved.
Considering how much beer you end up with after even a small pilot batch like ours, it pays to really enjoy it. Just realize that much of your brewing process is going to be taken up by the following:
1. Cleaning and sterilizing: It doesn't matter if you have a fancy kit with automated sparge arms and false-bottom boilers or a little plastic-bucket fermenter and a giant pasta pot for your stovetop. If any part of it touches beer without boiling it, it had better be clean and sterile. You're brewing beer, but you're also conducting a basic chemistry experiment that can go horribly wrong if you contaminate the equipment. A little bleach residue in a carboy or fermenter can kill your yeast before it does its job. A little bug or foreign substance in your siphon lines or vessels can contaminate the beer and make it taste godawful at the end of the process.
I can't claim that this is one of my favorite parts about the brewing process or even one that I particularly enjoy, but I'm starting to see the value in it. When you taste a homebrew made with compromised yeast or a contaminated wort, you remember that taste for a long time. That taste is the flavor of hours wasted and money thrown away. For the few extra minutes it would have taken you to boil some of your equipment, flush your lines and rinse everything in iodine solution (my personal preference, mostly because it saves you the added step of cleaning out residual bleach or ammonia), it could save you an entire batch.
2. Boiling and cooling: This isn't just for sterilization, mind you, but for the whole hurry-up-and-wait brewing process itself. When you're steeping your grain and malt, you're basically making a big ol' batch of tea. That tea takes some time not only to get up to temperature, but to reach its peak flavor. In our recipe, that alone took 30 minutes.
Then you're straining that tea into another pot, running more perfectly heated water through the leftover pile of grain (mash) and adding more ingredients. Then you boil for another 45 minutes before adding hops, then another 15 minutes. An IPA or imperial will give you more to do during that boil, but even when it's over, you still have to wait for the whole thing to cool down to less than half of its original temperature before throwing yeast in. Do so too early, and you're just sentencing that yeast to an untimely, sweltering death.
More advanced brewers invest in cooling coils that you can submerge into your pot and run cold water through to bring that temperature down more quickly, but they're not cheap and don't exactly help brewers acquire the patience necessary for the next time-consuming task.
3. Waiting: If you didn't just wholesale slaughter your yeast, it's going to be very busy for the next week or so turning sugar into alcohol in your primary fermenter. When that's over, however, you're going to put your beer into yet another fermenter and wait weeks for it to finish the process. Eventually, the little water gauge will stop bubbling and the final gravity will be in the range your recipe calls for. With our beer, that didn't happen for a month.
Even when that's over, it can take another few weeks just to carbonate if you're bottling it. Brewing isn't about the beer you want right now, but the beer you know you're going to enjoy a few weeks to months down the line.
Is the wait worth it? If you've done everything right, absolutely. You'll have a beer you love in a quantity that will last for a while. You'll also have saved a whole bunch of money in making it. The ingredients for our recipe cost roughly $56 and change in total. If we'd used all grain instead of substituting malt extract for some of the larger grain amounts, it would have cost even less (but added a lot more time to the mash and boil). Compared to the $38 per case that Left Hand Milk Stout fetches at Binny's in the Chicagoland area or $44 a case charged by online beer retailer Half Time, it's a substantial savings.
More importantly, you'll have informed your decision the next time you go into a bar, bottle shop or beer aisle in the same way you would when you go into a restaurant after cooking at home. If you know what goes into preparation and know the value of having someone produce that beer for you immediately instead of preparing it yourself, you get a better sense of your threshold for pain and what you're willing to pay for.
It'll also get you thinking about what else you can do on your own. I've planted a few Willamette and Cascade hop rhizomes for future batches and started reading Joe and Dennis Fisher's The Homebrewer's Garden to see what malts and herbs I can add to the stockpile. It's not about how much money I can save, but what I can make next and how good I can make it. I'm still working my way through Charlie Papazian's The Complete Joy of Home Brewing and Andy Hamilton's Booze For Free for guidance and have bought the grain, malt and hops for my next batch: A version of Paulaner's classic Bavarian hefeweizen.
It's a straightforward beer and a short list of ingredients, but I don't think I'll even refer to a beer recipe as "easy" again. Someone's putting time and effort into your beer, but it's tough to gauge how much until that someone is you.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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