Like many youngsters, I was always curious about how things were made: food, babies and, er, food. Vertically challenged, I’d perch on a stool at the stove to observe the concoctions my parents brewed, taking notes for later. Since then, my yearning to explore hasn’t waned, including a nagging curiosity about beer. I now know it isn’t delivered by the beer stork, thanks to a recent discovery and a Sunday afternoon.
I found out my buddy Robb Larson dallies in homebrewing.
Although he was already cool, the fact that he can make alcohol graduated him to guru-cool. Suddenly, as if channeling my inner 10-year-old, I envisioned the solution to a lifetime of intellectual masturbation — my need to watch, learn and brew swelled. Robb reluctantly agreed to amuse me.
I’ve frequented breweries and hung out with the professionals, but making your own feels different. And making it on a rainy Sunday evening in a friend’s garage is even better. Robb has been making his own IPAs, stouts and ales since 1996, and his cluttered yet relatively organized garage was proof: kegs, a retro-fitted fermentation fridge and countless beer-ish gadgets. He looked legit.
Lighting a fire under a huge pot filled with water starts the brewing process. Robb meticulously chooses his hops, grains and malts like Emeril, smelling, measuring and timing every ingredient in the mix. Then the familiar childhood aroma of cooked Grape Nuts penetrates the humid air, originating from the steeping specialty grains (crystal and carapils malts). The addition of Chinook hops cuts the earthy scent with their characteristic lemony smell, followed by pink grapefruit-y Amarillo, Cascade and Centennial hops. The process reminds me of creating stock — boiling ingredients together to achieve harmonious flavor.
We pass the boiling hour tasting other recipes, fresh out of the keg. My husband, the beer enthusiast, floats in heaven as he savors chocolate milk stout, Belgian and maple ale. As I try each one, Robb’s hidden talent materializes. Although he sheepishly admits one of the brews came from a kit — the maple ale — most are from scratch, employing some short cuts such as malt grain extracts.
The creating complete, he funnels the wort into a 6-gallon glass carboy, chills the caramel-colored liquid down to 75 degrees, then adds the carefully chosen yeast. Robb explains that different yeast strains affect body and flavor; like using the same spice all the time, employing the same yeast can get old. He varies his choices.
The whole brewing process takes under three hours, including clean-up. I considered how long it takes to make wine. One major selling advantage of beer: It’s ready within three weeks for ale, around six for lager (fermented at a lower temperature). Wine clocks in around six long months, if you’re lucky. But the best part? To brew about 5 gallons of beer, the ingredients cost around $40, or 80 cents per beer. $200 will cover the initial equipment.
Three weeks later, my e-mails began bugging Robb about our infant IPA. His eagerly awaited words reflected what any chef would want to hear: Our "IPA turned out delicious. … complex, bitter and hoppy, just as I had hoped." Mmm … Hubby and I agreed it had a citrusy, flowery, fresh-baked bread aroma, followed by a lemon rind, cedar taste. A pleasant, hoppy astringency lingered long after the sip. I thought it tasted like what we smelled while we brewed it, which is more than I can say about many wines. Not that my vinous habit is going away. But I felt a part of this alcoholic recipe — personally invested, proud and wanting more.