Written by Dave Kim for brooklynrail.org
Served at President Obama’s Super Bowl party this year was the White House’s own honey ale, which an unnamed White House chef had homebrewed especially for the occasion. While Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers threw touchdown passes on the big screen, the Obamas and their guests knocked back beers made with fresh grains and a pound of honey from the first lady’s beehive. This was no spur-of-the-moment menu addition: the president had purchased the brewing equipment himself. Each bottle produced even sported a custom label.
The White House Honey Ale, served to a shortlist of government brass and celebrity guests like J-Lo and Marc Anthony, shows just how high the profile of independent brewing has risen in recent years. Gone are the days when beer enthusiasts, tired of the same old factory lagers in their grocery stores, had to make their own suds out of sheer necessity. One would think the availability of great craft beers throughout the country would make brewers lazier, but it seems to have only ramped up the competition. Estimates for the number of brewing hobbyists in North America now vary between 750,000 and 1.2 million. Here in Brooklyn there has been something of a beermaking explosion since 2009, when brewing supplies suddenly started appearing in flea markets and kitchen-supply shops. There’s even a store in Gowanus devoted solely to beermaking, Brooklyn Homebrew, which opened its doors last year and by the owners’ accounts is doing brisk business.
“We’re playing catch-up to the rest of the country,” said co-owner Benjamin Stutz, regarding the city’s booming homebrewing scene. “New York has been way behind. This was meant to happen years ago.”
To see what the fuss was about, I decided last summer to give beermaking a shot. I bought a kit from the Brooklyn Brew Shop, another local business that sells grain mixes and brewing supplies at Brooklyn Flea on weekends. Since then I’ve made three five-gallon batches—two IPAs and an American brown ale—with varying degrees of success. And before I get into any details about brewing and all its intricacies, I’ll report that making good beer is only as difficult as you want it to be, which is to say that it’s really not difficult at all.
Ancient Sumerians made their beer by boiling bread into a sloppy gruel and fermenting the stuff in jars. In 5,000 years, not all that much has changed. Now we remove most of the solids before fermenting, but the first stage of beermaking is a lot like making Irish oatmeal. The brewer seeps grain in hot water for about an hour and the resulting mixture, or mash, is the base for what will eventually end up in the bottle.
None of the individual steps to making a homebrew requires any formal culinary training. Most beer styles today require just four ingredients—malted barley, yeast, hops, and water—all fairly robust components that don’t need much babysitting. The process itself is easy. What’s hard, at least for a first timer, are the logistics of the process, the bits of foresight and common sense that aren’t listed in any recipes but are easy to neglect.
It is not difficult, for example, to heat up a pot of water. But really, you’re heating five gallons of water in a giant stock pot on a tiny New York stove, and you’re forced to angle the pot in a way that makes part of the gas flame lick out over the edge, just enough so that after an hour, which is how long it takes to get five gallons of water to 160 degrees on a single burner, the oven mitt that was hanging on the wall behind the pot catches fire—and suddenly things become difficult. Suddenly you’re using kitchen tongs to pull the smoldering oven mitt off its nail—and into the water you just spent an hour heating up. This is demoralizing. And morale continues to tank when you finally have your five gallons of 160-degree water and realize that if you pour 14 pounds of grain into it, then basic laws of water displacement dictate that the mixture will no longer fit your six-gallon pot. So you decide to pour the water into the grains, rather than the other way around, and you try to transfer 45 pounds of piping hot water into the only large-enough container you have, which happens to be a round cooler with an impressive capacity but a smallish mouth, and the water ends up mostly missing the mouth and tipping over the cooler full of grains—all of this happening just before your roommate comes home and wants to know why there’s an inch of scalding liquid and a pile of wet barley on the kitchen floor.
Any number of boneheaded errors like these will force you to make adjustments, not the least of which will be buying a bigger stock pot with a much wider base, that sits over two burners and fits eight gallons safely. And for those with limited patience, there’s something called malt extract, which is basically instant beer base in powdered form that will cut your brewing time in half. But let’s just say that your first batch will have “learning experience” stamped all over it. If it all goes perfectly fine and you don’t end up with sticky floors and a downstairs neighbor who wants to punch you in the mouth, then, well, kudos to you.
My favorite part of brewing is the boil. After draining the liquid, or wort, from the mash, you have to boil it with hops for at least an hour to give your beer its bitter, sometimes floral and fruity flavor. Hops come in dozens of different varieties and are usually sold in compressed pellets, which look a lot like rodent droppings when you shake them out of the package. The smell of fresh hops is something magical. Each type of flower cluster has its own unique flavor and aroma, and even these variations can be fine-tuned by adjusting boiling times and mixing and matching brands. You throw in hops at 10- or 15-minute intervals and the roiling wort smells better and better with each addition.
Once the wort is hopped, you have to cool the liquid down to 70 degrees and add your yeast, which converts the sugars in the brew to alcohol. Like hops, there are many kinds of yeast to choose from, and a lot of breweries have their own strains that they’ve adapted and used for generations. When the Vikings made beer, before humans even knew what yeast was, every family used its own brewing stick to stir their wort. The sticks were treated like heirlooms because they held yeast cultures unique to each family. In this way, yeast is just as important to determining the beer’s flavor as malt and hop varieties are. Different brands will produce alcohol at different fermenting temperatures. They will also cause variances depending on what kind of malt you’re using, and it’s important to make sure that your strain is compatible with the style of beer you’re aiming for.
What I’ve managed to do here is make the brewing process sound really complicated, with dozens of choices to be made at each step, dozens of brands and strains (not to mention sticks) to be narrowed down—all adding to the infinite possibilities involved in brewing a single batch of beer. All of this is true. But there are recipe books and online forums that will have done all the work for you. You can visit stores like Brooklyn Homebrew and Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg, where you can talk to one of the employees about the style of beer you like and walk out with all the right ingredients you need to make it. There are also viable shortcuts and time-savers at each step of the process. If you’re not a stubborn ass like one first timer, who wanted to do advanced all-grain brewing right off the bat and didn’t quite read all the directions, then you’ll have cut a few corners and avoided little annoyances like second-degree burns and, later, exploding glass bottles.
Really, though, homebrewing is safe and fun. When you’ve made a few beers and feel you can share your best batch with people who don’t have to pretend to enjoy it, there are plenty of events where you can do so.
On a Saturday afternoon in February, I attended Brooklyn Wort, a homebrew competition held at the Gowanus Studio Space. Thirty brewers participated in the sold-out event. What began last August as a small gathering at Sycamore, a Flatbush bar, is now a crowded tastings bazaar with 17 major sponsors, a live DJ, and hot food catered by the beloved Red Hook pupusa truck. Official paid attendance was 250, but there were way more bodies than that squeezing through the aisles and helping themselves to beers like the “Doomsday Dubbel” and “Chocolate Hall and Oates-meal Stout.”
“There’s been a lot of interest since our first event,” said Justin Israelson, one of Brooklyn Wort’s organizers. “Last year we had 20 brewers and they all signed up within a day. This year we had 30 sign up within an hour.”
Competitors ranged from first-year hobbyists trying not to take things too seriously to semi-professionals in their own branded T-shirts. Some hoped to open brewpubs in the near future, while others banked on getting brewing contracts and distributing to stores. Nearly all of them had day jobs that had nothing to do with beer. The only factor that unified this motley pool seemed to be gender—of 30 contestants, 29 were men.
“This is my first competition,” said Sarah Bell, the lone woman brewer, “but I heard the last one was all male. So I guess that’s some progress.”
Bell’s entry was a porter made with malt that she’d mailed to her mother in Alaska, who toasted the grains in a smokehouse reserved for Chinook salmon. The result was a dark, savory beer that by Bell’s own admission wasn’t really marketable but had its fans. Nothing polarizes beer enthusiasts quite like gimmicks, but I think the opportunity for weird experiments is one of the best things about homebrewing. How else can you try something like the “Ferang,” an ale made with star anise and Thai spices? Or an IPA, normally a style defined by its hops, that tastes strongly of pineapple? Not all of the experiments were successes but a few got nods from the tasters. A Belgian strong ale, made by steeping hibiscus flowers in the brew during fermentation, took second place in the judge’s competition. The People’s Choice award went to an ale called the “Squid’s Fist,” which was flavored with black and green peppercorns and reminded at least one taster of French onion soup.
But the contest’s Best in Show was a solid example of its style, an American brown ale brewed with conventional ingredients. Jason Sahler’s “J. J. Bollerack’s Big Brown Ale” won the judges over with balance and texture, not exotic or unlikely additions. Sahler, who works in online advertising, also runs a blog called Sustainabrew, which combines two of his chief interests—beer and sustainability—on a single platform. He hopes to start his own brewery that can produce award winners like his brown ale while incorporating sustainable practices. It seemed ironic and fitting that the guy who spends his days connecting beer with radically disparate elements like green design and corporate social responsibility won the contest for staying within his beer style and nailing it on the nose.
It is not uncommon for winners of homebrewing contests to go on to careers in the industry. Greg Doroski, who won last year’s Brooklyn Wort, now works for Long Island’s Greenport Harbor Brewing Company. The beer community is small enough in New York that talent and experience is quickly recognized and rewarded. Nate Yovu, whose black IPA won third place, spoke of recently scoring a job at Captain Lawrence, a brewery in Westchester County, after homebrewing for over a decade. He had the grateful giddiness of someone who’d played in the minor leagues a long time and had just gone pro.
“I’m kegging right now,” he said of his new gig. “Bottom of the line, basically. But I’m living the dream.”
Brewers who want to share their beers but aren’t ready for competitions can head to the Brooklyn Kitchen, where a homebrewing salon meets the last Sunday of every month. I took a few bottles of my third batch, an all-grain brown ale I decided to call “Walden Pond Scum,” to last month’s meeting. The salon convenes upstairs in the store’s workshop and is as geeky as I’d imagine a Star Wars appreciation meetup would be—only you’re sitting in a state-of-the-art test kitchen with fine cheeses at your table, and you’re discussing digital temperature regulators or kegging systems instead of Millennium Falcon specs. And you’re drinking beer.
Fifteen people showed up, a big turnout. Each attendee passed around his or her (there was one woman) homebrew and talked a little about it. The styles varied from classic American IPAs to Belgian-style abbey ales. One guy introduced his double chocolate raspberry stout, which got everyone excited. He warned us that it was a little overcarbonated and sure enough, when he pressed his thumbs against the swing cap, it shot a stream of milky brown stout six feet high. He spent the next five minutes cleaning the ceiling with a rag and fielding questions about his flavoring methods.
I waited till several bottles had been passed around and then quietly opened mine. I was nervous. The “Walden Pond Scum” had been my toughest batch yet, and though I’d learned a lot since my disastrous first time, I wasn’t sure if this one had fermented properly. Temperatures had fluctuated wildly over the winter and my apartment had terrible insulation.
Discussion at the table was focused on a Sierra Nevada clone that was going around. The brewer had tried different hopping methods, including the addition of hops during the fermentation rather than the boil, which is a process called dry-hopping. I watched my ale go from hand to hand, skipping several folks who were still working on other tastings or expounding at length about bitterness units or, for some reason, hop seasons in New Zealand. Finally, someone who’d been handed my bottle asked whose it was. I meekly raised my hand.
“It’s a variation on an American brown ale,” I said, hoping I sounded like I knew what I was talking about. “I used like six or seven different malts. Northern Brewer and Cascade hops. Pretty bitter for a brown.”
There was a pause as the few folks who’d poured my beer tried it. I stared into my tasting glass. My ears burned.
“Nice beer, man,” someone said, after an eon of silence.
“Yeah, it’s got a good mouthfeel.”
And then they moved on. Someone brought out a mason jar of starter yeast and the conversation veered away. But I was beaming.