Diary of a Homebrewer
By John Millington
I was a late-blooming beer drinker. I didn't really appreciate it until one night at the Golden West Saloon, after tasting a sickeningly oversweet stout. I couldn't even finish it, and I asked if Mathias the bartender had any IPA so I could wash the taste out of my mouth. All I wanted was bitterness. What I got was that, plus a load of finishing hops, too. I had just drank my first BridgePort IPA, and I was in love. That's when I began to make some effort to seek out what I had been missing and sample more variety.
The next step came a couple years later when I was desperately searching for a Christmas present for someone and spotted Charlie Papazian's The Complete Joy of Home Brewing at Page One. The holidays came and went without me ever getting to see the intended recipient of the gift, so a couple weeks into the new year, I decided the book was mine. I don't think I really intended to brew when I first read it, but I quickly realized, Hey, I can do that!
After making a quick and easy stout of my own, I set out to try to brew some hoppy pale ales like the ones I had enjoyed so much. I didn't quite hit the quality of the true brewmeisters, but my pale ales were still delicious. There are so many styles and temptingly different directions to take a beer. By my fifth batch, I was already off the beaten path and taking some chances. Batch No. 5 is also known as "The Vanilla Disaster," due to soaking a vanilla bean in the secondary fermenter for 10 days. (So that's how they make vanilla extract!)
Some of my batches are simple and true to established styles, and those are usually pretty good. If you want to make an American pale ale (or APA), it's hard to go wrong. The worst thing that can happen is realizing you'd been too stingy; wishing you had spent another 10 bucks for more aroma hops. I quickly learned that lesson. After taking the summer off because the house was too hot for ale fermentation, I enthusiastically kicked off the fall brewing season with an over-the-top APA called "America, Fuck Yeah!" It contained all-domestic ingredients and featured an indulgent abundance of Simcoe and Amarillo hops.
"America, Fuck Yeah!" contained all-domestic ingredients and featured an indulgent abundance of Simcoe and Amarillo hops
When I stray into experimentation, the end results can be great or god-awful. I fondly think back to a mocha stout that included baking cocoa and coffee, a dessert beer I handed out at the office with the instructions, "Share with someone you love." Another good one was my first lager, bottled in May of this year, which I flavored with kaffir lime leaves and lime zests I had soaked in tequila for a week. Forty percent of its sugars came from agave nectar, which helped to dry it out and keep it light, and the warmer late-spring weather makes these bottles go down fast.
The not-so-good brews end up with names that end with "Disaster;" so far, it's always been due to an excess of some unusual ingredient. My first hopless beer contained a whole pound and a half of heather tips (hence its original name "What's Your Damage?!"), a couple ounces of yarrow and surely just a tiny, mere hint of rosemary: half an ounce. Now it’s called "The Rosemary Disaster" and I have 40 bottles of chicken marinade.
Not all misadventures have sad endings, though. When you mash rye, the resulting wort (the grain-liquid that gets fermented) can be sticky and gummy, which makes it hard to drain from the grains. I spent hours wrestling with that problem, even stopping to drill bigger holes in my lauter tun (which is essentially just a big colander). After the brew, the fermentation was so low-key I thought I had somehow killed it. And yet, "The Rye Disaster" turned out to be an OK beer. I miscalculated the ingredients for my Belgian-style wit and it came out 9 percent ABV. So I called it an imperial wit. Yeah, I meant to do that.
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