There comes a moment in every foodie’s life when he or she decides to try and replicate a dish at home -- to cook. This restaurant visit, meal, bite thrusts one onto an uncertain journey of experimentation that ultimately leads to a triumphant dinner party punctuated by the loving stares of friends…they pause with half-chewed mouthfuls as a glazed look of astonishment washes over their faces.
Or not. Okay, more often, not.
This same narrative is beginning to apply more and more to the beer-lover. The much bemoaned “fizzy yellow water” that dominated the American beer scene in the 20th century didn’t inspire many weekend warriors to take up their favorite beverage as a true hobby. But slow inroads have been made in the past few decades by small breweries both domestic and foreign that challenge the way we think of beer in this country. And beer lovers have begun a journey of their own.
The practice of homebrewing has, until recently, been the domain of the eccentric spendthrift, the earth-dog individualist, or the rare, determined, business-minded enthusiast with dreams of cult fame. However, when your local Whole Foods starts stocking carboy handles and two types of rubber bungs, you know a shift has occurred in the pursuit of brewing one’s own beer.
From what I can tell, my journey to homebrewing has been a familiar one -– craft beer appreciated at home or a bar, an assertion to like-mined friends of a favorite (often obscure) “style,” an inkling that an infinite well of happiness is as far away as access to a couple of plastic buckets and some helpful guidance.
Several months ago, a friend of mine (A homeowner-friend. A suburban homeowner friend –- you know, the type with more square footage than a West Village-pre-war studio) bought a 5-gallon beer kit from a local homebrew-supply store. We struck out on our own journey of culinary discovery, first with an American Pale Ale (the most forgiving and well-advised for the fledgling brewer), and then with a Dunkelweisen, Irish Stout, and more recently, a Porter. The results were successful enough to spark hubris in this New Yorker that, damn the space restrictions, homebrewing is possible for the Manhattanite.
And as is the case with most thunderclaps of inspiration, someone had beaten me to the punch. Brooklyn Brew Shop peddles comprehensive beer kits for the city-dweller at reasonable prices and with the matchbox-apartment in mind. My first step into New York homebrewing was, as it turns out, predetermined. A one-gallon kit it would be.
Brooklyn Brew Shop’s kits are “all-grain.” That means that the process is comprehensive, and no “malt extracts” are employed in the creation of the beer. Extract brewing (using a syrupy malt-goo, created in a magical beer-land far, far away) is simpler, and a completely legitimate means to a pint. And given the space restrictions of most New Yorkers, it is much more realistic for large batches. But with a one-gallon batch of Chocolate Maple Porter, all-grain is completely within the boundaries of possibility.
A quick rundown of all-grain homebrewing:
1. Sterilize all equipment the beer will touch with a liquid magic elixir like SaniStar (or you can use a bleach dilution if the thought doesn’t terrify you to your core).
2. Boil your grains in a couple quarts of water, producing and oatmeal-like “mash”; strain hot water through the mash, giving you a dark starchy water (the “wort”).
3.Boil the wort for about an hour adding hops along the way; first bittering, then flavoring, then aroma hops.
4. Cool the wort as fast as possible, and siphon the cooled wort to a fermentation vessel – in this case, a one-gallon glass jug.
5. Drop, or “pitch,” yeast into the jug (with kits, dry yeast will usually suffice.)
6. Pop a rubber cork (or “bung” – giggle if you must) into the mouth of the jug, attach a portion of sanitized tubing to the bung and drop the other end into a container of sanitizing fluid.
7. Within 24 hours, you’ll see the CO2 bubbles flying from the mouth of the tube, and your beer is underway.
At this point, if your first New York brewing experience is anything like mine, your 3 square-foot kitchen will look like an undercooked gingerbread man just jumped on a grenade to save your life. Dark brown splashes of sugary liquid will decorate the tile walls and stovetop of your brewery as well as your person. Don’t sweat it – you’re new to this. And that poor bastard trying to make his fist soufflé is in much worst shape, believe me.