Come see Jason Senior hold his hose on Yeaster Sunday. (Photo: McKenna)
For most of us, beer is pretty much a miracle you can buy by the six-pack.
We seldom think about how beer is actually made. Instead, we simply enjoy how beer tastes, how it makes us feel and the fact there’s a strong correlation between how much beer we drink and how much more attractive those around us look.
But it turns out you can make the sudsy stuff right in your own kitchen. And now thanks to help from the hoppy-headed crew over at Mammoth Brewing Company (MBC), which has begun offering free monthly classes on home brewing, learning to brew is easier than ever.
After attending the first class, held the first Sunday of each month at their free beer tasting room facility and home brew store on Berner Street (Yes, I just used the words “free” and “beer” together and now my life is officially complete!), here are some McCliffs Notes from Home Brewing 101.
HISTORY: One of the first things you learn about beer is that most historians obviously don’t drink enough of it. That’s the only rational explanation as to why America is called the “melting pot” and not the “brew kettle.”
After all, making beer is as American as apple pie and baseball, hangover cures and drunken-dialing. Beer has always been the beverage of choice in our country: from one of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin (“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”) to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists such as Dave Barry (“Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.”); famous America philosophers of antiquity, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (“God made yeast, as well as dough, and he loves fermentation just as dearly as he loves vegetation.”) and modern-day philosophers/TV stars such as Homer J. Simpson (“Beer: The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”). Heck, even our next-door neighbors to the north worship the stuff, classic examples being Canadians Bob and Doug MacKenzie (“My brother and I used to say that drownin’ in beer was like heaven, eh?”).
Home brewed beer has actually been around for some 3,000 years before JC even showed up and started turning water into wine, which helps explain why he never bothered turning water into beer, as it wouldn’t have been as impressive. “Big deal, buddy. I can do the same thing and I live under a rock!” a Home Brewer at the time might have said.
You can even make the argument that America was literally founded because of beer. The journal entry from one Pilgrim states that the real reason the first Americans decided to land on Plymouth Rock is because they were running out of beer on the Mayflower.
THE RULES: There are three main rules to Home Brewing. 1.) Cleanliness is godliness. Since beer is a live product, not all that different from milk or newborns, a clean environment is essential to assure the beer is conceived and ages in a healthy manner. 2.) There’s no such thing as bad beer. Some beers just don’t taste as great as others. 3.) Don’t take it too darn seriously. It ain’t heart surgery, it’s just beer, so have one—just don’t have one-too-many—while brewing.
WHAT YOU NEED: There is actually very little equipment needed to brew a batch of beer. The basic home brew kit (which runs about $150) consists of a 20+ quart stainless steel brew pot to cook in, a thermometer, a big spoon, a measuring cup, a big glass or plastic jug to ferment in, an airlock, a hydrometer to measure alcohol content, a big plastic bucket to bottle from, a bottle capper and about 50 spotlessly clean bottles to put the beer in. [Besides the MBC shop, home brew supplies are also available at Manor Market in Bishop.]
Of course the most important piece of equipment you need is a good attitude. As MBC Brewer and class proctor, Dustin Stewart, explained, “You’re making home brew, for crying out loud. It’s supposed to be fun.”
THE PROCESS: Beer consists of four ingredients. Water, grain, hops and yeast. While all kinds of other things can be added, anything from wild local sage to coffee and bourbon to peaches, the core of what makes beer never changes.
“Beer can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be,” explained Jason Senior, MBC’s Brew Master. A man also known among the local beer geeks as “The Mountain-biking-beer encyclopedia,” the “Beer-isionary,” and “Brew-saurus.”
The first step is to steep the grain into what’s called the wort. Some Home Brewers will skip this step, as was the case with the pale ale in the first home brew class, and simply add water to a grain-based syrup known as malt extract. The wort or malt extract is then boiled for the better part of an hour, with hops added three different times during the boil to add flavor, bitterness and aroma to the brew.
It’s during this part of this roiling boil process when, much likes campers huddled around a fire, most of the drinking and beer BS-ing takes place.
“I’m in the ‘snow plow’ stage of home brewing,” said skier/new home brewer Mike Munson, best known as “Mike from Mammoth Pet Shop”
“I really love beer so I decided to buy a kit and give brewing my own a shot. And I got addicted real quick,” he explained, as we sampled a nutmeg-infused pale ale he’d recently brewed up. “The satisfaction of creating something you thought was so hard is really cool, and the reward of getting to drink what you’ve made is pretty neat … something anyone can do.”
After the boil, the beer is then put into the fermentation jug and yeast is added. After initially fermenting for up to a week, sugars are added and the beer is then put into sanitized bottle to age for about another three weeks or so before being enjoyed.
From cleaning to boiling to bottling, it’s estimated that it takes about one full workday, eight to 10 hours, to brew your own batch of beer at home, with the average cost running less than 30 bucks and yields around two cases. Not a bad deal, and certainly not a bad way to spend a day.
As Norm Peterson on “Cheers” so brilliantly put it: “A reason to live? Give me another beer.”
The next free Home Brew Class will take place at the MBC Tasting Room on Berner Street (behind Burgers) starting at 10 a.m. this Sunday. They’re scheduled to brew an Imperial Pilsner.