Saturday, March 26, 2011

Amateur zymology

I, my friends, am a brewer.  I like beer, and I like to make beer.  I wouldn't say I'm a pro at it, but I've been doing it off and on for many years.  I started brewing in college, and anywhere I've lived for more than a few months, the urge to gather the materials and ingredients necessary to brew up a batch begins to occupy a prominent place in my thoughts.  Not long thereafter, the kitchen fills with a sight like the one you see above.  An over-sized pot on the stove, filled as close to the brim as I can manage with sweet liquid goodness and topped off with a foamy head evocative of the first sudsy glass I'll be pouring in a few weeks' time.

There are surely plenty of websites out there that will do a better job than I will of explaining the brewing process.  And there are excellent manuals on the subject, like the one I use: a beer-stained volume entitled The Complete Joy of Home Brewing.  Rather than walk through the process then, I'll instead be sharing some of my own personal experiences with brewing, along with some photos that will hopefully get your mouth watering and mind turning over the idea of trying to brew it yourself someday, if you don't already.

All homebrewers in the US, and therefore all microbrewers there, as well as everyone else who enjoys drinking something beyond commercial pilseners, all owe the fine hobby to an enlightened Act of the 95th Congress which was later signed by Jimmy Carter.  Before then, homebrewing was illegal in the United States, ever since the days of Prohibition.  During all those years, there weren't many people in North America who were drinking anything more innovative than beers like Rolling Rock, Heineken or Michelob, if they got that far beyond your standard commercial beers.  

I imagine during that time the reputation of North American beer was deeply sullied in the eyes of beer aficionados throughout the rest of the beer drinking world, even while the commercial Pilsener style was turned into big business and exported around the globe.  Such that one can drink a Japanese Sapporo, Jamaican Red Stripe, Colombian Aguila or Belgian Stella Artois and still be drinking what is essentially the same beer: a light, bottom fermented lager brewed with barley in addition to adjuncts such as rice and corn to thin out the malt flavor of a heartier ale or dark lager.

As I've said in an earlier post, the Pilsener style is great, and especially enjoyable on a hot day.  But home brewing offers the opportunity to delve into the much simpler and yet incredibly diverse realm of top-fermenting ales.  Without worrying much about the difference between top and bottom fermentation, suffice it to say that top fermented beer is essentially achieved at room temperature, and is thus a low-tech method to make alcohol out of sugar.

Every batch of beer I've made has been an ale, and usually with an assortment of equipment and ingredients thrown together from any source I had access to.  The first batches I made were crafted from materials bought at the local home brewers' supply store.  When I was brewing North American ales in Ecuador, I did my best to time the batches of beer I made to coincide with visits to the US, when I would bring ingredients down with me, like these pungent hop pellets.
Even with personally imported ingredients, brewing beer in Ecuador always presented its challenges.  Virtually every culture in the world is steeped in some sort of alcoholic beverage, and Ecuador's mestizo heritage has each foot in a different mash.  But neither of them involve beer.  From its indigenous roots comes chicha, a fermented beverage made from native corn.  From its history of colonial plantations we have such beverages as rum, which I wrote about before, and aguardiente, which is to rum more or less as moonshine is to American whiskey.  

Today, one can still try all of these fine imbibes, and while rum tends to be produced in commercial distilleries, chicha and aguardiente both hale from the same homebrewing spirit as beer does in the US.  My weekend bike rides in Cuenca often ended with a stop at a roadside stand selling mapanagua, for example, which is aguardiente mixed with fresh squeezed cane juice and a lime.  The gentlemen who sold it to me grew their own cane and distilled their own aguardiente, and each visit brought some nice conversation while they ran the cane through their on-site mill for my drink.  Truly, these fellows were fine examples of small batch distilling, and were certainly working within their own element.  I, on the other hand, was obstinately dedicated to making North American beer in the tropics, where neither hops nor barley have historically been grown.  Before I could even get started, I had to get my equipment together.

The first and most difficult step was getting myself a couple of big, glass bottles.

Once I decided I wanted to brew, I started looking around for these iconic vessels, beloved to home brewers as the place where their beer comes to life, frothing prodigiously with yeasty bubbles.  I like having two of them because I follow a two-stage fermentation technique.  Such bottles were once used in Ecuador for delivering drinking water to people's homes, but since the advent of cheap plastic, they have become an oddity found in few other places besides traditional drugstores, who have them on display to contribute to their boutique image.

In fact, I found more than a few of them in some such pharmacies, but the owners were unwilling to part with them.  Simultaneously, Ecuador's government had enacted a stiff tax on imported goods weighing more than 4 kilograms, and anyone who has had to lift and shake a 5 gallon glass carboy to clean and rinse it knows it weighs a lot more than that.  So importing them from the US was also out of the question, even on an airplane, where their bulk and fragility made it prohibitive to bring them aboard as either carry-on or checked luggage.

And so my ambition for craft beer in Ecuador was put on hold, even as my personally imported ingredients aged in what I hoped was a graceful way under refrigeration.  Until one day, when I was walking home from lunch with a friend from the coast.  I had been telling him about the big bottles I needed, and after lunch we walked by an antique shop he suggested we check out.  Inside, sure enough, were precisely two dusty bottles of exactly the kind I had been waiting for.  I bought them, took them home, washed them over and over, and was ready to brew.

The only other equipment that presented some challenge to acquire were brown bottles for storing and pouring the beer once it was ready for drinking.  Fortunately, while there isn't much craft brewing going on there, Ecuador does have an active beer drinking culture in the form of its beloved Pilsener.  It also has a bottle deposit program which has left the country replete with durable glass 22-ounce sized bottles.  A big supply of those was all I needed, and Nancy's family had a collection of neglected specimens that I could use.  Rather than try to clean out the mold that had grown at the bottom of them, I decided I would just return the bottles one by one for fresh, beer-filled ones, and clean out the new bottles right away once they were empty.  5 gallons divided by 22 ounces is about 29 bottles, and so for good measure I made sure my friends and I drank about 30 bottles of Pilsener in the coming weeks.  This left us in good spirits, and with all the fresh and clean bottles I needed.  

Now that I review the photo, I see that I ended up with 36 bottles after all.  It's always better to have too many than not enough.  Also featured in the above is an empty of one one of my favorite North American craft beers, personally imported and consumed for inspirational purposes.

The rest of the equipment I needed was easy to find, and so it was time for brewing, at last.  For an amateur brewer like myself, that means a process that includes cracking grains, like the ones you see in the plastic bag.  Ziploc and a rolling pin is the way I crack them, short a hand-cranked grain mill as I am.

For the batch of porter I happened to be making, I was using some of the darkest roasted barley I could find, which gives the beer a nice brown/black color and an even nicer malted flavor.  Put that together with your malted grains, hot water, and when the time is right, your favorite assortment of hops as pictured above.  Then you end up with an aromatic stew that fills the house with a pleasantly sweet smell for the next several hours.  And of course, eventually you get beer, which is ultimately the point of all of this.

Once you're satisfied that your beer is well cooked, you fill up one of those big bottles with it.  If you're as lucky as I am, you even have an assistant who smiles and holds the funnel.

Once you've brewed your beer, you mostly have to wait.  You've stacked up a sugary solution with the natural preservative power of hops, and then loaded it with activated yeast under more or less controlled temperatures.  Often overnight, all those natural forces you've set up begin to have their way with one another, bubbling away in a sure sign that alcohol is being coaxed forth from sugar molecules before your very eyes.

But once all that initial activity is over, the beer will just sit there for quite awhile longer, and unless you look closely it doesn't look like much is happening at all.  But at the bottom of the barrel you'll see a bunch of thick residue forming, and the idea is to keep your tasty beverage away from it.  That's why many brewers, even low-tech ones like me, opt for a two-stage fermentation in which the liquid is transferred carefully to a fresh vessel and the detritus is left behind.  This all ads up to invoking yet another scientific principle in your own kitchen, that of the siphon.  And that's about all the action you'll get from your beer for a couple of weeks or so.

Until it's time to bottle, which means more siphoning, and also the satisfying task of capping your carefully kept empties.  Looking at the progression of photos, it would appear that I had nothing better to do between the various steps in the process than let my beard grow.  And after this fateful day, when the beer found its final resting place before its eventual consumption, came more waiting.  Once in the bottle, the beer is conditioned.  It sits undisturbed, naturally clarifying thanks to the forces of gravity drawing the final remnants of particulate matter to the bottom of the bottle.  It also develops carbonation naturally, due to the extra sugar solution I introduced upon bottling.  In the presence of this fresh dose of sugar, the last vestiges of active yeast living in the premature beer awaken one last time.  It produces carbon dioxide and pressure to preserve the beer for months within the bottle, and also puts bubbles in your beer - again, with time.  If you're impatient, you could drink the beer the moment it's bottled.  Just throw it in the blender before you drink it, and it will be just as bubbly as a well-finished product.  But most brewers will agree that a couple more weeks and it will naturally develop the perfect foamy top, all by itself.

And that's the end of the story.  Bottles full of beer are like potential energy, and you get to choose when to unleash it, and with whom.  But after all that waiting, you've had lots of time to consider what to do with your newly found powers. Choose wisely!