Two hours into brewing my first batch of beer, I was finally able to relax. Elbows on the countertop, my shirt dark with sweat, I was re-reading the recipe’s fourth and trickiest step: fermentation. On the stove boiled the starchy brown liquid that would become beer, called wort. I was adding hops every 15 minutes, checking the temperature occasionally, reading, and enjoying the soothing heat and aroma that filled the kitchen, a smell like dark wheat bread, or a newly opened bag of pretzels. Then, from behind, from the yellow light under the microwave, where a moment before I could almost see the smell in the steam, there was a splash and a rolling hiss.
The wort was loose. It frothed out of the stockpot and turned my stove into a bath. I grabbed the pot’s hot handles and moved it to another burner. I wiped up the mess. “If you can make oatmeal, you can make beer,” the brewing book had promised. I can make oatmeal. I can make lasagna. I can make gnocchi in a Gorgonzola Dolce sauce that sends my tastebuds soaring. I can make oatmeal. Recently, I found out I can’t make beer.
Beer starts as grain. Grain can be boiled in water and eaten whole (wheatberries). Grain can be ground into flour, combined with water, mixed with other ingredients to form dough, and cooked (bread, pasta). Grain can be simmered long so that it softens into soup (congee, oatmeal). When it’s lucky, grain can be simmered in water so that the warm liquid saps all of the grain’s sugar. When its stars are out, grain becomes a wort. Wort is dusted with yeast and left to sit while the yeast turns sugar into alcohol. Beer is grain, water, and yeast–oatmeal with a few extra steps.
Then why was the beer so tricky? For three hours, you are heating, cooling, stirring, checking, straining, and stressing, all over a gallon of wort that will be ten beers in three weeks. If you are looking to profit from brewing, to flip a few dollars into a few cases, then you should brew at least five gallons at a time. Really, you should run to the beer store and get a six-pack of Victory.
But there is something to be said for the hard way. Let’s take that something from cookbook author and English professor Harold McGee, who writes, “The pleasure of tasting a good beer or wine or spirit grows with the recognition that its flavor is the expression of many natural, cultural, and personal particulars: a place and its traditions, certain plants and the soil they grew in, a year and its weather, the course of fermentation and maturation, the taste and skills of the maker.”
If the “pleasure of tasting a good beer” intensifies for the drinker who can link flavor to base plants (grain, hops), the course of fermentation, and the brewer’s role in the brewing, then I was developing a better taste for beer by attempting to make it at home, even as my wort charred in the burner. Here is the value of fumbling with carboys and siphons in your kitchen. For your effort, you will better understand brewing, the strange alchemy of fermentation, beer as a whole, where it came from, and how it got into your keg, can, or bottle. For your good work, every future beer you drink will taste better.
Tell yourself this when the wort bubbles over. When you’re stirring and your brother Nick has a glass thermometer dangled over the stockpot’s lip, and when the mercury shoots high above the 152-degree limit, cut the heat and cool yourself. When your strainer is ten sizes too small, when the instructions in your book read like gibberish, and when, after three weeks of waiting, the siphon rockets ale onto your rug, relax. There’s more beer than you could ever hope to drink at the store down the street.