Got Beer? Brewing with a Newbie

It had been a long time since I last brewed beer, and I was absolutely determined to get it done. But when one spends all of their time caring for a tiny human, finding six hours to indulge in a hobby is extraordinarily difficult. But then opportunity struck.

I was discussing my favorite fermented fluid with a new friend, and homebrewing came up. She expressed an interest in learning how to do it. It didn’t take long for us to agree on a style of beer — a coffee stout — and soon we had a date set and child care covered. Eagerly I hunted down the ingredients, all grain, all the way, baby. Everything came together perfectly.

And then I realized homebrewing is much simpler than I used to make it. They say you become much better at what you do when you start teaching it to others. So in going over the steps, ingredients, jargon and equipment, I started to realize just how much of homebrewing I’ve been doing the hard way.

A lot of my equipment went missing since I last brewed, so I had to re-think some aspects of the process. No filter for my funnel? Let’s toss the funnel. It’s a stout; it’s not like we need to worry about clarity. It’s going to be black as pitch.

We began by heating up the water, and she asked questions that brought me back to the basics of the craft.

“So we bring it to a boil?”

“Not yet,” I said, “We’re going to bring it to about 160 degrees, then start mixing it with the grains in the mash tun.”

“And that would be the big water cooler-looking thing?”

“Exactly,” I said. I explained starch-to-sugar conversion, and she caught on quick.

“So how long does that take?” she asked.

We wound up watching most of The Hobbit while waiting, alternating between checking the temperature of the mash and enjoying the air conditioning inside while watching Martin Freeman stammer and splutter.

When it came time to sparge, we heated the water back up to temp and sprayed the mash. The wort came out looking like motor oil and smelling like coffee already, despite there not being a single ground bean in the mix. Not yet, anyway. Wonderful chocolate-coffee aromas wafted in the breeze.

“Looks like a bubbling cauldron,” she said.

“You’re not far off. What do you think those old witches were making?”

We brought the wort to a boil and let it go, adding hops (EKG and Tettnang for those who are curious) and honey.

“The honey’s gonna make it sweet,” she said.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said, “Honey is 90% fermentable. We’re going to get some dry flavors out of it.”

I always add honey to my brews. Among other things, it’s naturally antibacterial, so in case there are any problems with contamination, the honey is an extra safeguard.

At long last, it was time to cool. In went the wort chiller, out went the flame and on went the water. Despite the hot day, it cooled very fast and we indulged in some cool beers and nerd talk while the big bucket of black gold got down to a more agreeable temperature.

That’s when I realized we’d forgotten the coffee.

My first idea was to filter the wort through the coffee grounds, but that would have been a logistical nightmare. Instead, I steeped them in the still-hot brew and crossed my fingers.

Time passed and the wort came down to about 75 degrees. We poured it all into the fermenting bucket and sealed it.

This was when catastrophe struck, as it always does somewhere in one of my brews. The little rubber gasket on the fermenting bucket lid popped out as soon as I stuck in the airlock. In nearly every brew, there’s a moment where a certain amount of MacGyvering is necessary. This time, credit went to my brilliant wife who came up with a genius solution to the conundrum: Play-Doh. And astonishingly, it worked perfectly.

A week and a half later, once fermentation had come to its near-end, we cracked that sucker open to test it. Dark, dry, roasty deliciousness poured forth, and there was much rejoicing. The brew now sits carbonating in bottles, but by the time these words reach print, at least a few of those bottles will be empty.

As for the teaching session, my very apt pupil was a quick study, and looks forward to another brew day. Very good, young padawan. Yes. Very good.

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