Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Day 296 - Brewing Beer

I have never brewed beer. This craft has been something I have wanted to learn for the extent of my adult life, but the lingering uncertainties I had about the process prevented me from acting on that intention up to this point. Quite simply, my lack of knowledge on brewing made me wary of the time and investment required by the process, and the last thing I wanted to do was take the dive and produce an undrinkable product. As a result, I told myself I would wait to learn to brew from an active brewer, hoping I would one day happen upon such an opportunity during the normal course of my life.

That perspective did little to help me gain the brewing experience over the course of the past 12 years, however, which made it easy to decide that learning to brew beer needed to be a part of my “I have never...” year. In turn, I kept my eyes open for opportunities to learn as I spoke to people about my journey and made plenty of visits to breweries along the way. Although that effort led to a few potential brewing opportunities, the details and timing of each made it nearly impossible for me to fit them into my calendar. As a result, I began to settle on the idea that I may have to gain my first experience brewing beer through solo trial and error, which left a lot to be desired.

Luckily, that perspective changed when a conversation with a friend I met along the way in my year of new experiences turned to beer. During my first experience riding a unicycle my instructor, Cory, who I had met previously at my Circus Arts class, let me know he was also a passionate home brewer, which was quickly followed by an offer to walk me through the process. Excited by the prospect of having some guidance in my pursuit of a long held goal, I quickly took Cory up on his offer, narrowing in on a few dates that would work for the two of us. Eventually, that effort led us to tonight, and it set me up to gain my first experience brewing beer.

A pre-made brew waiting for bottles

When I arrived at Cory’s apartment this evening, he was quick to start me into the brewing process. In an effort to give me the full experience I sought, Cory had brewed a batch of beer ahead of the night’s event and collected materials to brew a new beer while we worked this evening. Explaining the combination of the phases of brewing would permit me to gain the experience of crafting beer and bottling a finished product, Cory laid out our approach for the evening. As I listened, I did my best to retain all of the work we would be putting in during the course of our efforts, which made it apparent the process would be much more particular than difficult.

Sterilizing supplies
Testing the pre-made brew
A quick sample

Doing my best to wrap my head around the task we were about to undertake, I looked over the materials Cory had placed in front of us and recounted the information he had explained. “Alright, are you ready to go?” Cory asked enthusiastically as I continued pondering. “Don’t worry, I’ll walk you through everything. It will be easy,” he continued, acknowledging my effort to take everything in, “The best way to see how it all works is to do it, trust me.” I nodded in response to Cory’s remarks, which drew a smile from his face. “Good! Let’s do it!” he said moving to counter in his kitchen, “This is going to be fun!”

Starting a new brew
Loading into the fermenter 

Over the next hour Cory walked me through sanitation processes and the basics for starting a basic brew. In time, we moved through preliminary measures and moved to the mixture of the beer’s main ingredients to create a basic mash. To my surprise, the process was incredibly simple, but it required a level of precision unlike any other culinary experience in my life. The exact measurements of ingredients, volumes, and temperatures were ever-present as we worked, with Cory making sure each of my actions followed our recipe correctly. The conclusion was a beautifully scented, light mash ready for yeast and fermentation.

Adding yeast
Ready to seal and ferment for three weeks

As I added the final ingredient to the mix and sealed the fermentation tank, the reality of having to wait for the brew sank in. “How long do we have to wait to taste this?” I asked Cory as I looked up from the vessel. “At least three weeks,” he said as a matter of fact, wiping his hands in preparation for the bottling of his previously crafted brew. The information gave me a rare feeling of impatience, which I quickly identified was rooted in my excitement over the process. Coming to terms with the idea waiting nearly a month to test the results of our efforts, I turned my body away from the tank and looked down the counter. “...On to bottling then?” I asked abruptly. Cory grinned and looked down to a rack of empty bottles resting nearby. “Sure,” he said before pausing momentarily, “but just to let you know bottling is why most home brewers quit. It’s not the most exciting thing in the world.” I didn’t hesitate in my response. “Well, this home brewer isn’t quitting. I’m here for the full experience. Let’s do it!”

Cleaning bottles

My zeal for the next phase in the process spurred Cory to action setting up our workspace as a makeshift bottle washing and cleansing station. In a matter of minutes we were soaking bottles in solvent and washing them with a jet of water shooting off of his tap. Although the process made it obvious why many people despise bottling, Cory and I made the most of the repetitive task, taking turns running bottles down the line as our racks filled with clean bottles. In turn, we made short work of the process, which left us with two dozen bottles waiting to be filled with fresh beer.

A quick dry
Bottling the previous batch
Crimping caps after adding sugar

Without delay, Cory and I made some final checks on the waiting batch of beer Cory had previously brewed before connecting the final equipment necessary to drain the fermentation tank into bottles. Although the process was straight forward, measurements of alcohol content and bottle volume were critical in the process, which left us with a little more than 20 bottle of beer ready to seal. After added a touch of sugar for carbonation, we then sealed each bottle with a sealed cap and assessed our work. Satisfied with the results, we took a step back and worked through the night’s accomplishments.

One week to carbonation... Then drinking time!

In little less than four hours, Cory walked me through the process of brewing beer from start to finish. In doing so, he helped me learn a process that had eluded me in the first 30 years of my life and he helped me achieve a goal that had been on my “to-do” list for quite some time. Although I will have to wait to see the results of my first brewing effort, the ability to make good on my objective of brewing beer is something that will stick with me for some time; even if my beer leaves something to be desired when I finally get a taste. Regardless, it is easy to know after our work tonight that experiences like this one matter. They leave the door open to limitless possibilities, and they help me identify new ways I can put myself into a craft. I don’t know where my brewing efforts will go from here, if anywhere, but knowing I finally made good on my desire to brew gives me a reason to feel good about this life. In the end, that’s all that really matters in living.

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