Vince Capano is a two time winner of the Quill and Tankard writing award from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Brew Number One
It’s easy to love beer and not be a home brewer. And it's logical There are so many great craft offerings out there that an amateur trying to match their quality would be on a fool’s errand. Besides, instead of laboring through hours mixing, mashing, and the whatevers of home brewing you could be sitting on a comfortable stool drinking beer at any pub. Well, that’s what I used to think. I’ve turned to the dark (or in this case light) side. I just made my first homebrew – an English Bitter. Actually I’m not positive exactly what style it is other than just plain beer but calling it something, anything, makes it taste better I’m sure.
Becoming a part of the formerly dreaded home brewing crowd was not an easy decision. After all, for a lifetime I was a totally committed evangelist against it, having led the fight in columns for BeerNexus and other publications. Don’t get me wrong, I respected those in the opposite camp no matter how misguided I thought they were. And they respected my opinion. Well at least I thought so until I was hit by an intervention from two preachers from the Salvation Through Brewing Army. Their weapon of choice wasn’t a mixing spoon or bottle but rather a pen. These 21st Century brewing missionaries dismantled my wall of resistance just by writing on the joys and ease of their beloved pastime. Of course the groundwork for their seeds of revolution had been nurtured in hundreds of conversations over the past 15 years since both are fellow Cask Commissioners in my beer club.
First up was Dan Hodge, my BeerNexus colleague who, before becoming an award winning home brewer and beer writer, was a top salesman. He once had a job selling fourth floor elevator buttons. He was so good at it he sold several to the owner of a three-story building. Legend has it he actually talked himself into buying the very thing he was hawking and then overpaid for it. Let me try one more - Dan's salesmanship was so superior that for a while he earned a comfortable living selling three quarters for a dollar. Time to quit while I'm behind. Anyway, I didn’t have a chance when that very same Dan Hodge penned an article here on BeerNexus aimed at all non-home brewers in general, and guess who in particular. “To Brew Or Not To Brew” countered every argument I had ever mustered against home brewing and it answered questions I never even knew I had. My defensive parapets, now weakened to the core, were soon to be torn down by yet another incoming barrage.
I received three short e-mails – which for some strange reason were more impressive than one medium length one – from Dan Soboti. Mr. Soboti is the genial owner of the Gaslight Brewery and Restaurant in South Orange, NJ and also the proprietor of U-Brew (guess what business they’re in). His first two missives were clearly based on some secret psychological profile on me since he tackled my most hidden fear – failure. What if my homebrew flopped and I became the textbook poster boy for failure around the world? Would that so embarrass the suits here at BeerNexus that they would give me a pink slip? Sure I know the recession is waning but if I got fired the recession would instantly become a Depression. Now admittedly that might help my stand-up comedy act (I work cheap if you’re interested in a booking) but laughing at and not with me isn’t recommended in my bible of guffaw getting - The Three Stooges Handbook of Sophisticated Humor and Existential Philosophy.
I was ready to say forget it Charlie, I mean Dan, but then I read his third email. It was the directions to follow in making a homebrew. What? Only ten easy steps? Wow, and it was written in simple English. No jargon, no pretensions, and no words longer than three syllables. In fact the only three syllable word in the whole thing was Dan’s last name. I should be able to do this. I told Dan I was all in; well almost all. I insisted that the entire adventure had to top secret between the two of us. If word got out I would then be able to easily trace who was the dastardly information leaking mole. That explains why our first meeting was under cover of darkness, near the fire escape door of U-Brew. The adventure was starting.
I was scheduled to pick up my brewing equipment – buckets and boxes of serious stuff on Tuesday at 2 PM, since that the quietest time of the week at U-Brew. To make sure our clandestine meeting remained just that I arranged to have Dan open the back door when he heard my special series of long and short knocks in this manner: -... . . .-.. That last dot is a period by the way. Dan nodded politely but then insisted I just come in the front door. Okay, but I didn’t worry, I had a backup plan guaranteed by Professor Auguste Balls to preserve my anonymity - a hunchback disguise (does the name Quasimodo ring a bell?) endorsed by Inspector Clouseau himself.
Ready to finally brew I opened the first box. Mysterious tools and equipment tumbled out. There was something that looked like a small torpedo with numbers, a long wire brush, a glorified nut cracker like device, a long glass tube with some sort of rubber tip, and a few other items never mentioned or hinted at being needed to complete those ten simple steps.
In box number two I found a small tub of who knows what (the technical term), a bag with what looked like cat litter inside, a can filled with unknown liquid, and several small bags with more items that defied description. Making things even murkier was that each bag had something scribbled on it. Using my Enigma machine I was able to decipher one that read “Irish Moss”. Why Dan included some sort of plant food indigenous to the Emerald Isle was beyond me, but he’s the expert so Irish Moss it is. At the bottom of the box was a 85 page book of directions – “How To Brew”. What?? Eighty-Five pages?? What about the ten simple steps? A panic call to Dan clarified things – “forget the book. Follow the ten steps. Trust me.” I think it was the “trust me” that got me nervous.
Oh, did I mention the two plastic buckets that came with the boxes or did the boxes come with the buckets? All I knew was that they were big. And one was defective. It had a hold near the bottom. Another panic phone call and I learned that was where a spigot would go to fill my bottles. Heh, heh, I knew that. I was just testing Dan.
Step one was easy. Get a big pot. Well it would have been easy if I had a big pot. Of course people not having big pots is just another reason for the existence of Wal-Mart, the home of cheap big pots. Thank you Sam Walton, you saved me enough money to buy a six pack to drink when the real work began.
Interestingly the first word in the ten directions, the instructional booklet, and out of Dan’s mouth was the same – sanitation. No problem. Dan had said some special cleaner was part of my equipment. I searched through the box and found a porous bag of said stuff. It seemed to have little grains which I assumed turned into a kind of soap like cleanser. Fortunately I then saw a small tub with “sanitizer” written on its side. In my defense it was easy to miss if you only looked at the top and bottom. Good thing I noticed too; something tells me that bag of grain wouldn’t have worked well. I would probably have had to use most of it up to get the buckets clean.
I was on a roll. Boiling, pouring, adding, stirring, and smelling. And it was a great smell by the way. People must pay extra to live next to a brewery. Now however, my big question was Wort to do next? Ah, the directions said to dump the liquid from the big pot into the big bucket. No problem, but which big bucket? I double checked the directions– use the pot without the hole. Tricky.
Direction number three said to add the yeast to the bucket when the liquid was 65 to 78 degrees.. And just how was I going to know the temperature? I checked the kit. That torpedo thing was the only item with numbers on the side but nothing registered when I dropped it in the liquid. Probably just a fancy paperweight. I did see a strip of paper with numbers but that I assumed was the identity of the kit's factory inspector. Not wanting to bother Dan with yet another phone call (and reach the triple digit mark), I simply touched the side of the bucket. It felt slightly warm. My official estimate was 72.61 degrees, plus or minus forty or so. Just call me the human thermometer. In went the yeast.
“Look for bubbles in the air lock” Dan had instructed, so I looked. And looked. And looked. No bubbles. Not ready to panic, I went with my never fail, ace in the hole, home brewing chant: “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble….. and bubble…. and bubble.” After 17 minutes of intense chanting I reluctantly called Dan. Ten minutes after that I was at U-Brew picking up another packet of yeast.
The bubbles eventually came and in due time, went. I smuggled a small sample of the result into U-Brew for Dan to taste. His verdict: “It’s time to bottle.” Ever so patiently Dan explained just how to siphon the beer from one bucket to the other and how to use the bottle filler. Ah, so that’s what that long hose/glass thing was. And the torpedo object he explained was a hydrometer. Somehow that, and not magic, he said was the real reason why it didn’t sink when I had dropped it in the bucket.
I double cleaned each of the 48 brown 12 ounce bottles I got from U-Brew. The moment of truth was finally at hand. Following Dan’s instructions to the letter I inserted the long tube into the bottle, gently pressed down. The beer flowed! I was so mesmerized by the beauty of it all I somehow forgot to remove the thing from the bottle. I did however notice when a massive beer puddle reached the tops of my shoes.
My handiwork eventually produced 31 twelve oz. (more or less) bottles. I was a brewer.
Making the bottle labels was fun too. I considered the slogan “Beer in Every Bottle” but settled on an honest description of how the beer tasted – “It’s Not Terrible”. Selecting the name of the beer was easy. If the beer was respectable then the name would be a timeless tribute to my two motivators and to my most understanding mentor. If it was a disaster then it would absolve me of all responsibility in the affair.