Thursday, October 13, 2011

Getting thirsty

All the talk of Prohibition has gotten me thinking about one of my favorite topics, beer. The world's greatest beverage and I go way back, you could say it flows along with my Czech and Irish blood. What's more, my surrogate grandfather was a German, and he enjoyed his bier at least as much as my father enjoyed his pivo. For many childhood years I spent my summer vacations up in Milwaukee with my grandparents, and with each trip inevitably came a brewery tour. One year it would be Schlitz, another Pabst, still another, Miller. These were not just factory tours, the breweries themselves were magnificent works of industrial architecture that played an extremely vital role in the history of Milwaukee. The companies. very conscious of public relations, put a great deal of effort into those tours which of course would end with a sampling of the product.

Since I was underage, the highlight of the tours for me was the brewhouse where gigantic copper kettles would boil thousands of gallons of wort, the sweet liquid that is derived from the malted barley which is the basic ingredient of beer. It is here where the hops are added, at the beginning to stabilize the brew, then at the end to contribute to the flavor and aroma of the beer.

The Pabst brewhouse was the most beautiful of the three, a nineteen century structure lined with steel, cooper and ceramic. Ceramic tiles also lined the magnificent kettles which resided in a room that featured a wonderful stained glass window featuring, what else, the history of beer.

But to me the most wonderful part of a brewhouse, was the smell of the boiling wort mixed with the spicy, herbal smell of hops. Folks either love or hate the smell of brewing beer but to me it brings back a particularly happy time of my life, and I love it.

I fell in love with the process of brewing beer, long before I learned to love drinking beer. The latter corrected itself soon enough, it was in Milwaukee in fact where I enjoyed my first legal beer as the drinking age in Wisconsin was 18 back in those days. It took me much longer to brew my own, it was during a brief period of bachelorhood in my mid-thirties when I finally had the time and inclination to pursue a life-long interest. As is usually the case with me, I plunged into my new hobby head first and for a few years, it was my main passion. Everyone who knew me back then knew not to bring up the subject of beer because it would begin a monologue which would last, well let's just say, longer than necessary.

Anyway, the bachelorhood and the brewing lasted concurrently for about five years. While I don't miss the bachelorhood part one bit, there are a few parts of brewing besides of course, the steady supply of beer, that I miss. Most home brewers brew with malt extract, a powder made from malted barley which you boil in water, add hops, then yeast after the mixture cools down. You could say it's a little like making instant beer.

That wasn't enough for me, no sir. I started with grain just like the real brewers, malted barley, ground it by hand, then mashed it by mixing it with water and cooking it at a very precise temperature. This is the process that extracts the good stuff from the malt into the water, and also chemically converts the starches from the grain into sugar, most of which will later be converted into alcohol. There is a fine line between success and failure in the mashing process, and it more than doubles the amount of time, but to me it was the essence of brewing my own beer, very much akin to processing my own film.

That was grunt work to be sure, the real fun came after the wort cooled down, and the yeast was added to the five gallon glass container that would be the home for the brew for the next few weeks or more. Usually, fermentation would begin the next morning, if not, anxious hours would be spent waiting to see if I would end up with real beer, or near beer. Fortunately for me, fermentation always took place. It was a joyful moment to discover that the hours of careful preparation and work were not for naught, when the brew would come alive as the yeast did its magic, feeding off the sugars I created in the mash, creating the byproduct of alcohol. Different batches fermented differently, but there was always a bubbling cauldron of activity as the yeast gleefully fed and fruitfully multiplied as it did its magic. Eventually most of the sugars would be converted, the yeast would go dormant, and it would be time for what now could be rightfully called beer, to age. Usually two or three weeks were enough, then it was time for bottling. That was the least fun part of the process. The bottles would have to be disinfected with bleach, then boiled, as were the caps. Each bottle was filled individually and capped. That process alone took at least four hours. Then came the anxious wait as the still active yeast in the beer would continue to do its work in the air tight environment with some freshly added wort to produce carbon dioxide, the all important carbonation.

After a few impatient days, the beer was ready to drink. How was it? Well some of it was pretty good if I do say so myself, although quite honestly not as good as the best commercial beers I've had. All of the batches were drinkable, better than many commercial beers, although to paraphrase a famous backhanded compliment, some may have had a taste that only a brewer could love.

But the satisfaction of brewing my own from scratch made even the lesser of my brews well worth the effort.

Eventually however the time and effort became too much, I just couldn't bring myself to bottle what could very well have been my best batch of beer, a Belgian ale. I sadly dumped all five gallons of the brew that had gone bad from sitting around too long, down the sink, and knew it was the end of my days as a brewer.

I became a father not long after that and even imagining going back to brewing now is something I can't even comprehend.

But it was fun while it lasted.

Now you know, don't get me started talking about beer!

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