Diary of a Rookie Homebrewer
By Lorin Wilkerson | Photos by Jeffrey Buras
Portland, Oregon is not known as ‘Beervana’ for nothing. While it may be a little-known or unimportant milestone to some, during 2005 Portland surpassed Munich, Germany as the burg that has more breweries within its city limits than any other in the world. What’s more, the vast majority of the beer crafted by these local artisans is damn good stuff. Some of it is absolutely spectacular. Portland is to beer what the Bourgogne Valley in France is to wine: a place where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a master craftsman, creating in small, delicate batches a product with which the mass-producers couldn’t possibly hope to compete. I am fortunate to live at the beating heart of the craftbrew world, and for an avid, adventurous beer drinker, there are only a tiny handful of places in the world with the opportunities that exist here.
A couple of years ago, I had spent a little time talking with the guys down at the Belmont Station about my desire to embark on “the great adventure of brewing my own beer,” I believe were the exact words I used. (Belmont Station is a beer store in Portland that is home to over 1000 different varieties of beer from every corner of the globe.) I sometimes spend an inordinate amount of my paycheck there, and so I received (as always) enthusiastic and knowledgeable advice. I was told, more or less, that Steinbart’s was the best homebrew store in this part of the galaxy and I would do well to seek them out.
After inquiring of some homebrewing acquaintances of mine who recommended a few things as well, I dutifully reported all this to Santa Claus (read: my girlfriend Kristin) who made sure to note that for Christmas this year, little Lorin wanted nothing more than all the ingredients and equipment necessary to brew his own batch of beer from start to finish. Boy, Santa done good.
Christmas Morning, 2006
I took the carboy (that is, a clear, five-gallon glass jug with a narrow neck) out of a brown cardboard box adorned with a golden stick-on bow, and visions of barleywine danced through my head. I held it up and had a friend take a photo of me pretending as though I had just finished guzzling this Herculean amount of beer in one long swallow. Upon opening the other box, I saw a number of strange looking devices, some pamphlets, and (mercifully) Charles Papazian’s treatise, “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing,” affectionately nicknamed the “Homebrewer’s Bible.” There was also a complete kit for brewing 36 (count ‘em) pints of Woodforde’s Nelson’s Revenge Bitter Ale. Being a gigantic fan of British beers, this pleased me to no end. Still, it was a bit overwhelming to look at all these items, more than half of which I didn’t know the names of nor how they were used, and try to figure out how in the hell I was going to get a 5 gallon jug of halfway decent beer out of this incomprehensible, intriguing menagerie of breweriana.
I sat back for a moment in genuine thoughtfulness to analyze just exactly why it was I wanted to brew my own beer in the first place. Before the explosion of craft brewing in the U.S., a valid reason would have been the simple desire to try something other than the ubiquitous, whiz-colored American light lager that was the only product available in the vast majority of stores. But criminy, I can pick from over 1000 different types of import and domestic craft brews in one magnificent store alone (again, props to my homies at Belmont Station,) many of them such heavenly, ethereal quaffs of ambrosia that to imagine I myself could brew something so perfect smacks of heresy. So lack of variety and unsatisfactory quality of available product were definitely out as motivating factors.
It certainly wasn’t peace of mind or the quest for some sort of beer-induced satori. I spent several days just absorbing various books, magazines, and pamphlets and handling the equipment to get a grasp of how it was used and what it was called. This was to be followed by weeks of mental anguish with that first batch, wondering if the end result of it all would be 36 pints of skunky, eye-watering, liquid crap-o-rama. It wasn’t about the Benjamins: it costs 30-60 bucks for the ingredients necessary to brew one batch. No, when all of those things were taken into account, the reason I decided to begin crafting my own beer was something more nebulous. So then, what exactly was my motivation?
Flashback: A Trip Down Memory Lane
I have been a lover of micros for about 15 years now. I can still remember the first time I tried any beer more exotic than Molson’s or LaBatt’s Blue. I was at a party in Bend, Oregon circa 1993, with a journalist who was one of my advisors at a little college paper that I was writing for at the time. The only beer in his refrigerator had a bright blue label with a picture of a bird on it, and was called Blue Heron Pale Ale by Bridgeport Brewing Company. I had only recently become aware of the micro-brewing phenomenon, and was interested in sampling an Oregon product. I cautiously cracked it open, took a swallow and immediately thought it was the most disgusting thing I had ever tasted. Absolutely nasty. I couldn’t even finish the thing. I wandered around his house with it for an hour or so to be polite, letting it warm, occasionally sipping it to see if it got any better. It didn’t. I finally poured it down the kitchen sink, furtively looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was witnessing this awful party foul. Fortunately, no one saw. And fortunately for me, I am now able to appreciate Blue Heron Pale Ale as an excellent example of its type.
But the road from then to now took a few twists and turns. After that experience, I went back to drinking Mickey’s Malt Liquor from the 22 ounce Green Hornet bottles. About a year or so later I ended up at an outdoor party where the featured beer was a keg of Deschutes Brewery’s Black Butte Porter, right out of my high-desert hometown of Bend. I sat on the patio and put my hand down to lean back when my palm pressed down onto the glowing-red cherry of a cigarette butt. It might have been the searing pain of my burned flesh or the brisk, wintry air; perhaps it was the developing groupthink at the time, which held up craft-brewed beer as the more highly evolved aesthetic. Whatever it was, after tentatively sipping a red plastic cup full of velvet, chocolaty goodness from the battered keg, I thought to myself: ‘Wow. I could get used to this.’ I had several more cups…
I would cite one more incident that finally cemented my evolution into a fully-fledged if nascent aficionado of fine beer. It co-developed with my desire to try snowboarding–a pastime that has regretfully fallen by the wayside as my carcass has aged somewhat-less-than gracefully over the last decade. Bend is one of the snowboarding meccas of the world, and at that point I was hanging out with a group of rabid, knuckle-dragging snow warriors who came back into town from Mt. Bachelor each day with new yarns to spin and bruises to sport. We spontaneously declared every Sunday night “Oktoberfest Night,” mostly because it gave us an excuse (as if we actually needed one) to gather and ritualistically drink good beer one evening per week. There was a whole post-adolescent, college-amigo-hetero-crush thing going on that catapulted the friendships into a position of supreme importance in our lives, only to blow away suddenly like so much beer foam in a dry high-desert breeze. Here today, gone tomorrow, but all the more poignant and bittersweet for its brevity. I digress, but the point is, this dynamic was linked directly to my final transformation to the dark side. Of beer, that is.
I worked at a local grocery store with one of these folks, and it seems that particular year, Deschutes Brewery had either brewed too much of their winter seasonal Jubelale or our store had bought too much. Whatever the reason, there was a ton of that stuff available at my workplace, and it was going for dirt-cheap–the price for Jubel that year was 2 bucks a six-pack. Needless to say, thanks to my bottomless employee charge account Jubelale became a staple of our weekly gatherings. (This is a very advanced beer: complex combinations of intense hops are balanced out be a blend of rich, dark malts; no beginner’s brew here.) Though all good things must end, through the haze of Oktoberfest Night bong-smoke and the time-filtered memory of laughter and warm hearts on frigid Sunday nights, I fix this as the time when I finally put aside boyish beers and became a man. And the rest, as they say, is history. Despite a brief infatuation with Pabst since moving to P-Town (if you didn’t already know, we drink more of it here than anywhere else in the world, and I still prefer a good old PBR if I’m in the mood for a light American-style lager), I have been a lover of good beers for well over a decade now. And though I still enthusiastically enjoy my share of each new batch of Jubelale, I don’t think it will ever taste quite as sweet as it did that first year I drank it.
Analysis: Let the Brewing Begin!
Why in the heck has it become so important for me to drink my own beer? I mean my own, as in my own sweat and tears went into making it. I guess that is the point after all. To use the old tautology, first you visualize the action, then you actualize the vision. Home brewing is something real.
Why cook your own dinner when you could go to a restaurant and get someone who is probably a better cook to do it for you? It’s so you can be an integral part of something important, so you can be an active participant rather than a helpless bystander in the process of your own nourishment. It’s what 20th century American philosopher Albert Borgmann refers to as a “focal practice.” Sure, I can go to the store to buy beer; I will always continue to do so and there’s nothing wrong with that. But something that requires craftsmanship, a disciplined evolution from apprentice to journeyman to master with all the requisite learning experiences along the way, now there is an ethic worth striving for. Bold words, you say, for someone who just a couple years ago poured his first five-gallon pot of steaming, malty wort into the carboy, a receptacle whose name he did not even know a week prior to that. True enough.
Having been a musician since the age of five (at one time I received a full-ride scholarship for playing the harpsichord, believe it or not), having been a singer and percussionist and pianist in far more performances and with more ensembles than I can possibly remember, I know about “focal practices.” The term speaks for itself: it is something that requires focus, just like homebrewing does. I am a great lover of music of all kinds, and have probably listened to more varieties of music thus far in my life than the average person even knows exists. I may not be the smartest man in the world, but I am one hell of a music nerd. But however much I love music, simply listening to it, as enjoyable and vital to my overall experience as a musician as that may be, merely listening without creating would be chopping off half of the experience. More than half. I’m sure that my appreciation for, my love and understanding of music would not be anywhere what it is were I not an active participant in its creation, realization, and evolution. Music is an art of sound expressed through time. No one performance or even one hearing will ever be the same as another.
I view crafting beer the same way. Each batch is unique and requires effort, labor, forethought, knowledge. My love of beer can no longer exist within the confines of being a mere spectator, however satisfying and engaging that is in its own right. It is the desire to create, to act, to experience the process from the inside that has led me to start brewing my own beer. I have used the word ‘evolution’ and its various forms several times, because it is one of those simple, incredibly powerful words that express so many things. Change through time. Advancement from one stage to another. Mutation from a simpler form to a more complex. This is how I view my decision to begin homebrewing.
My first batch, the Nelson’s Revenge, was decent: at least my sanitization procedures (crucial to any brewing process) were adequate to prevent spoilage by unwanted bacteria or wild yeasts. My second attempt, an experiment in mashing my own grain, was much more satisfying. I brewed a porter and chucked in about ten ounces of espresso to give it a coffee after-lilt. Quite nice. That barleywine I dreamed of back on Christmas morning is now becoming a reality. I used champagne yeast that is capable of handling the high alcohol content of this style of ale, and it is incredible to watch it work.
I feel as though I’ve entered into a relationship with the yeast that is symbiotic in the truest sense of the term. I’ve given it the perfect environment; swimming around in a sea of deliciously malty sugar, countless generations are born and die right before my very eyes. It is a microcosm of tiny living things that are fulfilling the very deepest meaning of their existence. They will eventually impart to me the wondrous substance known as beer, revered by man since the days of the ancient Sumerians. I’m strangely humbled, and very aware of the nexus between all living things.
It’s an awful lot of effort. Although I’ve gotten faster over the last year and a half, every time I brew it seems to take up a good chunk of a precious Saturday, and I’m exhausted by the time I finish. But it’s worth it, for all the reasons I’ve enumerated above. It feels like I’ve taken not only my appreciation and respect for beer but also my own personal development to a new level. Maybe it is a kind of enlightenment I seek after all. Or maybe it’s just a new hobby, science-experiment, and getting loaded all rolled into one. Whichever, I feel a powerful thirst coming on…