Dustin Hall / BrewtographyProject.com
I have an embarrassing confession to make: Though I write about beer for a living, I’ve never homebrewed.
(Wait -- okay, actually, on a whim, a bunch of college roommates and I once tried to brew a pumpkin beer...but it was so foul that we had to dump it down the drain. I think we even threw some of it into the street. College!)
Today, as a beer writer, I drink plenty of the stuff, but have yet to be involved in the process of creating it. If you’re a craft beer fan, you might be in the same boat.
But after attending a homebrewing class at Denver, Colorado’s CO-Brew -- a hands-on homebrew store and small-scale brewery all-in-one -- I’m seeing beer in a new light. I’m not going to bore -- I mean, captivate! -- you with all of the details of how beer is brewed (that’s what BrewWiki.com is for), but I do want to share with you how homebrewing totally changed the way I think about beer. And hopefully, if you’re so inspired, you can hunt down a brewing class in your neck of the woods that’s as awesomely interactive as CO-Brew, so that you can have a similar awakening.
Here’s what I discovered brewing a Belgian Golden Ale at CO-Brew, and how it shifted my perspective:
1) Brewing is hard work
The most work anyone ever has to do to drink a beer is to pop open a bottle or pump a keg. And let’s be honest: that’s not much work. My brewing session, however, started with me dumping a bag of malt into slowly heating water, and then mixing the malt around with a wooden mash paddle (like an oar you’d use to navigate a floating keg-boat on a glorious sea of beer). “That’s a little bit of cardio in the brewer’s day,” said Matt Jacobs, the brewer who showed me the ropes.
credits:"Dustin Hall" width:800 align:center
Later on in the brewing process, I used a little shovel to scoop out spent grain (i.e. used malt, after the pre-beer liquid “wort” has been extracted from it) from the mash tun (i.e. a vessel used to make wort, which yeast will eventually turn into beer).
Now, people who take the class from CO-Brew aren’t ever asked to do this part, but I wanted to give myself as complete of a homebrewing experience as possible. (I know -- I’m a true hero!) And let me tell you -- shoveling spent grain is tough and annoying. But the process of crafting any artisanal product comes with its annoying bits, and I’m glad I did it. Even more so when Jacobs told me that a local farmer comes at the end of every week to pick up the spent grain, and feeds it to his chickens and goats.
credits:"Dustin Hall" width:800 align:center
2) Brewing is 90% cleaning
If you imagined brewing to be 50% dipping your hands into bags of hops and smelling them, and 50% staring down pints of beer and nodding with approval like they do in beer commercials -- that’s not quite the homebrewing experience. “Most of brewing is cleaning,” explained Jacobs, who put in time at Denver’s Baere Brewing Co. before joining CO-Brew (since our meeting, he’s left for the beer nirvana of Portland, Oregon!). “We have a few regulars who’ve been homebrewing for 20 years, [but ask us to brew their beers] because they don’t want to do the cleanup.” I don’t blame them. I’m not sure I want to scoop out spent grain ever again. And that’s just the beginning of the brew. On the plus side, Jacobs did say that by this point, he’s gotten cleaning down to a science, and can get it done fairly quickly.
3) Brewing makes you think about ingredients you might never have considered before
These days, it’s all hops, hops, hops! That’s seemingly the only ingredient beer nerds want to talk about. Which particular hops are in the beer? Where are they grown? Is the beer dry-hopped? Wet-hopped? Hip-hopped??
Hops are important! There’s no doubt about that. But you can’t even begin to make beer without malt. I’ve never once wondered what sort of malts were used in a beer, and they are responsible for a great deal of a beer’s flavor.
Luckily, Jacobs -- a bit of a malt nerd -- clued me in on its importance. “Malt, for me, is the heart of beer,” he explains. Since CO-Brew doubles as a homebrew shop, he was able to point over to some shelves filled with different malt varieties. He also explained that there’s someone called a maltster who uses water to germinate barley, thus activating enzymes that can convert its starch to simple sugars. I knew that there are hop growers, but did I ever think about someone with the job of babysitting sprouting barley? No. No, I did not. Not even once.
We tasted a few different malts. I learned that Munich malt, which can be used in German bocks, tastes like Grape Nuts. Pilsner malts, which we used for the Belgian Golden Ale, also tastes like cereal -- but lacks the sweetness of the darker Munich. I also learned that Guinness uses roasted barley (not malted barley, like we were using that day). We didn’t get to taste any roasted barley, but I bet it tastes like cereal. I’m like, 99% sure.
4. Brewing requires patience
Sometimes I’ll go to a busy bar, and won’t be able to get the bartender’s attention for a few minutes. Or I’ll wait the same amount of time in line at a bodega to buy some beer. That’s pretty much the the longest I’ll wait to get a beer. Unfortunately, I brought this same dumbass attitude to a brewing class.
Five minutes in, after I’d poured the malt, I found myself asking, “And now there’s beer...right?” Oh, how Jacobs and photographer Dustin Hall (also a homebrewer) would laugh. I was only half kidding.
But while classes like this one cram brewing into a three-to-four-hour session, I found out it can be even more fun when it’s not a hurried activity. Hall explained to me that he likes to brew over the course of a day with friends. You can even do other stuff while you wait for steps in the brewing process to complete!
And of course, no matter how long the brewing process may take, the beer will require at least another couple of weeks (or a month, for lagers!) of fermentation before it can be enjoyed. In a world in which immediate gratification is so often the norm, slowing down and taking deliberate steps to craft an artisanal product can be an incredibly rewarding experience.
5. Brewing your own beer makes it taste one million times better
A few weeks after I brewed with CO-Brew, I went back to taste the finished product. I enjoyed the tart peach blonde I’d had there a few weeks earlier, a beer I hadn’t helped brew. I figured I’d drink my beer and enjoy it just the same. But when the owner Jamie Williams handed me a tulip glass of beer I had a literal hand in making, something happened: I felt an ownership of the beer that made it taste like nothing I’d ever had before.
Not only was the 7.9% ABV Belgian Golden Ale objectively delicious -- with a silky mouthfeel and glorious banana notes in the finish -- but I savored it way more than any beer I’d buy in a taproom. I knew exactly what it took to make it, and drinking it made me think about tasting malts, scooping out spent grain, and pouring in hops. My memories of brewing enhanced the overall drinking experience by tenfold.
Before leaving, I asked my girlfriend to take a photo of me drinking my beer in front of CO-Brew’s sign, which I told her was for this story. The truth is, I really only wanted that photo for posterity; I wanted to remember just how proud I felt having worked for my beer, and earned the right to drink it.