Cigar Aficionado

Out of the Closet Home Brewer

It was an offer I couldn't refuse. To announce its 2007 Samuel Adams American Homebrew Challenge, the Boston Beer Co. wanted to send Cigar Aficionado a home brewing kit, complete with equipment needed to make some suds of our own.

A few days later, a box of supplies arrived. The next step was telling my better half that I was turning the apartment into a brewery. The look in her eyes said, "Oh great. There isn't enough beer stocked in the fridge that he has to start making his own."

I also had to deal with something every beer-curious male must inevitably face: coming out of the closet. There's a fine line between being a beer drinker and being a full-on beer geek, and I was walking it. Was I ready to stop living a lie? What would my friends think? Would I be accepted? It is beer after all, right?

After a weekend of personal reflection and pints aplenty, and knowing I had the support and encouragement from friends and colleagues, I decided to go through with it. I was ready to begin a new life as a homebrewer.

Getting Started

Looking back on it now, getting started was the most difficult part of the whole process. I laid out all of the materials -- about two-dozen items -- on my kitchen table and stared blankly. I had attempted just-add-water beer-in-a-bag once in college, but this was a different animal, and it dawned on me that I might be in over my head. It also dawned on me that if I really wanted some beer, why not walk up to the corner store and drop a few bucks on a cold six-pack of my choice?

Not knowing where to start, I researched homebrewing techniques and procedures. I read through Charlie Papazian's Complete Guide to Homebrewing and John Palmer's How to Brew. I watched a DVD called the Art of Homebrewing by Jim Koch, the founder and brewer of Samuel Adams, and scoured the Internet for everything I could on the subject. But I still wasn't sure of myself because I was overloaded with information. Everyone seemed to have differing thoughts and theories on what to do and what not to do, why you should do it, when you should do it and how long you should do it for.

In the end, I realized it was going to be trial by fire. So with bits and pieces from all my research, and some apprehension, I put on my beer apron, cracked a cold one, and set off to make my first ale, remembering Papazian's formula: "Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew."

Brew Day

The advice stressed most was sanitizing the equipment to prevent bacteria from spoiling the beer. That means every piece of equipment that was going to come in contact with the beer -- from the fermenter (a 6-gallon plastic bucket) and the utensils down to the bottles and the bottle caps -- had to be sanitized. This isn't the most enjoyable part of the process to be sure, but knowing it could mean the difference between potable beer and beer you pour down the drain was reason enough to make me take it seriously. To sanitize my equipment, I mixed 1 tablespoon of household bleach in five gallons of boiled water and soaked everything for 20 minutes. When it was time to use a specific item, such as the strainer or the thermometer, I rinsed it in boiled water that had been cooled.

The wort cooling in the sink

With the sanitation complete, I was ready for the first big step: the boil. I brought 2.5 gallons of spring water to a boil in a lobster pot and added 3.3 pounds of dark malt extract, stirring it continuously until the extract dissolved. I then added 1 pound of Muntor's crushed crystal two-row dried barley malt and 1.5 ounces of Cascade hops pellets. Boiling these ingredients gives the beer its bitterness, flavor and aroma, and allows their proteins to coagulate so they can be strained off later. In brewing terms, this liquid is called the wort.

After boiling the wort for 40 minutes -- stirring it often to avoid scorching -- it was time to add the finishing hops. (The first hops addition is referred to as bittering hops.) I used 1.5 ounces of Fuggles hops pellets. While most of the alpha acids of the bittering hops are boiled off, adding finishing hops late in the boil increases the beer's hop flavor and aroma. At this point, I let the wort boil for 20 more minutes.

With the boil complete, the next step was cooling the wort before adding it to the fermenter. I wanted it 80 degrees and I wanted to do it as quickly as possible to avoid any bacteria from tainting it. To expedite things, I placed the pot in my kitchen sink and filled it with ice and water.

In the meantime, I prepared the most important ingredient: the yeast. Yeast is critical to the fermentation and what it does, in short, is metabolize the sugars that are extracted from the grains during the boil, turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. I used dry top-fermenting yeast, used to make ale (as opposed to bottom-fermenting yeast used to make lager) and rehydrated it in one cup of warm, pre-boiled water in a sanitized Mason jar for 15 minutes. I then proofed the yeast to make sure it was alive by adding one teaspoon of honey.

With the wort sufficiently cooled by the ice bath (I used a sanitized thermometer to make sure it was 80 degrees), I added it to the fermenter, which contained 2.5 gallons of pre-boiled spring water added prior to the boil, using a sanitized metal strainer. After letting it settle for 20 minutes, I added the yeast, sealed the fermenter and plugged it with an airlock.

Now it was time to wait and hope that all this work would result in a half way decent beer. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much, but I was feeling more comfortable in my beer apron and in my beer brewing ability.

The Waiting

There are differing opinions about how long the wort should remain in the fermenter. Some say let it rest one week before transferring it to a secondary fermenter, which is called racking. (Racking reduces sediment and allows for a more complete fermentation as it leaves the inactive yeast behind and invigorates the active yeast.) Others say two weeks. Others yet say don't transfer it at all, especially if you're a first time brewer, as the chances of infecting your beer with bacteria is high. Call me a wussy, but I chose the latter.

I let the fermenter sit for exactly three weeks in a shaded area and for the most part kept its temperature between the recommended 70 and 75 degrees. It was the beginning of June, however, so I was naturally worried that the beer might spoil. Temperatures in my apartment rose to 80 degrees on a few occasions, but only for short periods.

As the bottling day approached, one thing occurred to me. I hadn't been saving any bottles. For approximately five gallons of beer I needed 48 bottles. One person suggested going down to the local redemption center. Instead, I bought two cases and challenged myself to systematically drink them. As much as I was enjoying my new identity as a homebrewing beer geek, it was time to re-embrace the beer drinker in me.

Bottling Day

At this stage, the sanitation laws of homebrewing are again of the utmost importance. I boiled several gallons of water, added a tablespoon or so of bleach and let the caps and bottles sit in it for a good 30 minutes. I also sanitized the siphon, which I needed to get the beer from the fermenter to the bottles. On the kitchen floor I laid down several beach towels as I was expecting this step to get messy.

Before bottling, one more step was necessary: adding primer, which gives the beer its carbonation once it's bottled. To do this, I boiled 3/4 cup of priming sugar with 2 cups of water. I let it cool, then gently added it to the fermenter trying my best not to stir up any lingering sediment and let it sit for 30 minutes.

With the bottles, caps and siphon sanitized, I took a deep breath and was off. I began filling the longneck bottles to about an inch from the top. The beer was flowing and plenty of it was spraying on the kitchen floor and on myself (giving my wife another reason to say I smell like a brewery). I filled 30 bottles (I didn't make it through both cases in three days) then capped them. My first homebrew was almost finished.

At this point, I took my first taste. The hoppy aroma was very enticing. It was amber in color and had a cloudy appearance, but tasted flat and thin. There was a hoppy character to it, and the dried malt flavors were obvious. While it looked good and there were some aspects to its taste that gave me hope, I was still wary.

I kept the bottles in a cool, shaded place for one week, when I couldn't resist another taste. This time, the carbonation was better and the conditioning added some body to the beer, but the character was still a bit thin. The flavors were more balanced, however, and my initial concerns were suddenly gone. For the first time, I knew I had a beer that was not only drinkable, but also tasted pretty good. My transformation from beer drinker to full on beer geek was nearly complete.

With the July heat starting to bear down, I decided to move the beer to the refrigerator. I was advised to keep it room temperature for two, but the rising heat forced me to act. A week later, I tried the beer for the third time. A smile came to my face. It was good enough to pass out to a few friends and when I did they agreed that it was indeed beer and, better yet, it was beer you could drink. My hopes were up. Now for the last hurdle.

Judgment Day

Jim Koch has been to the Cigar Aficionado offices several times, but on this occasion I was especially excited and a little nervous too. He arrived to lead us through a tasting of the 2007 bottling of his Sam Adam's Utopias, but before we got into it, I presented him with my homebrew. He was genuinely happy to see that I had attempted what he has been so successful at, and immediately cracked one open. His first impression was encouraging. From the aroma, he was surprised that it was my first homebrew. He noted hops, citrus and a flowery note.

Jim Koch (left) sharing a bottle of his Utopias with the author/beer geek, who returned the favor with a bottle of his own home brew.

Then came his first sip and it was back down to earth for this homebrewer. It wasn't that it tasted bad, in fact, he said, it tasted very good compared to thousands of homebrews he'd sampled in the past, just that it was lacking carbonation. He questioned if I had properly sealed the caps as he felt gas might have escaped. It should be more carbonated, he said, and suggested that adding an extra teaspoon of priming sugar could help, but most likely it was because I hadn't crimped the bottle caps tight enough.

Damn. I was positive those caps were on as secure as they could be. Oh well, I was happy with the results. Plus, there's Papazian's formula again. "Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew." So I did. My own.

The Aftermath

So am I a certified beer geek now? I don't feel like I am -- at least not completely -- but I am out of the closet, for once you make one homebrew, it's like you're forever painted with that brush. The truth is, I feel liberated. I'm also encouraged. Not one person who drank my beer croaked and no one was forced to bow down to the porcelain god. Even Jim Koch had a few good things to say.

In the end, I don't know when I'll brew my next beer, but I definitely will. In the meantime, I have a new appreciation for beer and the process of brewing those sweet, sweet suds.