It’s Always Five O’Clock Somewhere…

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 | Food

…in which I talk about home brewing, even if I am cutting a lot of corners.

When I first got interested in home brewing, I saw Mr. Beer as a gateway into a more involved, more traditional home brewing. I though, I’ll use Mr. Beer as a way to learn the concepts of beer, what makes the simple ingredients come together into a malted, alcoholic beverage. And besides, the starter kit isn’t that expensive. So when Heather bought it for me as a gift, I made the first beer and saw this kind of “Kool Aid of beer making” as a jump off point for true home brewing. I mean the kit is kitschy and you use all pre-processed ingredients, but the concept is sound.

Now that I’ve been doing it for a few years, I’ve found that while it still may be kind of a shortcut to true brewing, you still have a lot of room to play, and you still end up with real beer. I’ve discovered that you can use their refill kits as a starting point and play around with the additives to get a dramatically different result. There can still be a lot of art in this color-by-numbers home brewing kit. So, damn the naysayers, I’m gonna keep on doing it my way.

When I first started, like a lot of things, I was tentative to think outside the box. I followed the directions to a T and made the beer that had been included in the starter kit. It was kind of a pain in the ass, and it takes an hour or so of your time just so you can wait 3-4 weeks for some kind of result. There’s no indication of the freedom you can have with it down the road. So I dissolved the sugar, I added the canned hops/grain/malt mixture, and I put the toy-like plastic keg in the dark for a couple of weeks. Then I saved up some Shiner bottles and their screw on caps and bottled up the beer and waited another coupe of weeks. After all was said and done, I had a fairly weak, bland, unexciting beer. But you know what? It was still beer. And that was the key. That was the inspiration to go further.

I kind of forgot about the thing for a while after the first batch. It lurked in a dark cabinet, out of site and out of mind, for probably a year. One day, though, we were walking through World Market and I happened to notice they had some refill kits on the shelf so I picked one up and planned to make it. In anticipation, I started drinking Grolsch just to get the bottles (a home brewer’s staple). This second batch, being almost a year after the first, was done line by line off the instructions again, to refresh my memory. I do believe I added some additional spices, but nothing crazy. It was a much better kit to start from and turned out a much better beer for it.

Mr. Beer Refil Kits
From these, Come beer

It was then that I started really looking at the book that came with the keg, and perusing the Mr. Beer Forums. I learned that you can use alternative sugars, or mix flavor kits, or even add fruit and spices. I learned that the official Mr. Beer site as a variety of recipes beyond the refill kits that they sell. I really started to think about the refill kits as “bases” for more complex beers, than the beers themselves. And that’s when I felt free to experiment.

My first such experiment was to take a refill kit of Whispering Wheat Weizenbier from the Mr. Beer International Series and throw away all of the sugar (corn sugar solids, that is), and replace them with 100% natural, orange blossom honey. I also zested in an orange peel and threw in some coriander for added effect. The result was a nearly mead like beer that smelled almost exclusively of honey upon opening the bottle. I’m not going to say it was perfection, but it was pretty damned good. I had a great flavor and a smooth color. The citrus was a little tame, but the honey was gorgeous. Now granted, you’d have to really appreciate mead to really get this beer, but I thought it was a great first shot.

The most stressful part of these experiments, of course, is the waiting. You come up with this brilliant (to you) idea, and throw it all together in an afternoon of creative passion, and then you put it in a dark hole for two weeks. Then you get a teaser of it as you smell the liquid pouring from the keg to the bottle. Finally, you peak in anticipation when you move it from the dark hole into the refrigerator, but even there it must stay for another 48 hours. All I ever think about during that time is “Did I sanitize it well enough? Did I overdo it with such-n-such or this-n-that? Did I stir the yeast in correctly?” Finally, after nearly a month of waiting, you get to pop open the first bottle and you want your closest beer buddies to be there to smell that first gaseous escape. Pouring it into a glass, you admire the new color you’ve created and check to see what kind of carbonation it’s captured. You smell it, you swirl it, you listen to it, and finally, you taste it hoping that all of your guesses were right.

Molasses Spice, straight from the bottle
Dark, Cold, and Spicy

I mean, this isn’t like cooking where you can kind of taste your way along. It’s all an experiment in delayed realization. This second “craft beer” I’ve done is dramatically different from the mead beer. This time around, I started with an Octoberfest Vienna Lager refill kit and replaced all of the sugar (corn sugar solids, you recall) with dark molasses. That’s right, we’re making rum-beer this time. I also added a healthy helping of mulled clove. I genuinely could not wait to see what this one came out as. In fact, my anticipation ran so high that when it came time to bottle, I couldn’t help but take a sip (and share a sip with my friend Sean) of the warm flat beer, straight from the keg. The clove was powerful and the molasses was so rich, I truly couldn’t wait to bottle it up, chill it and take the first taste.

Sadly, I was alone when I opened the first bottle, but it was still incredible. It was only a couple of days before some gamer buddies came over to play a little Gamma World when I could truly appreciate a home brew the way it was intended, with friends. Steve could not stop raving about how good it was, which to be honest, felt really good. I mean, I liked the beer, but it’s so much more to know other people like it, too, and to know that they’re not just giving you lip service. The fact that he was gushing so, made me sure that he was being genuine.

The one mental challenge I’ve yet to leap over is the idea that this beer that I’m making is my everyday beer. I’ve consciously decided to invest the majority of my beer funds into Mr. Beer kits and additives (I even ordered a muslin hop bag for adding extra flavor), rather than buy beer off the shelf. I still have to figure out the pacing of it all so that I don’t run dry while waiting or a keg to finish or bottles to carbonate, but I’m sure it will all come in time. Of course, while I’m waiting, I can always drink a little Grolsch just to empty the bottles.

At any rate, I feel confident in this new direction and my sense of creativity and experimentation is satisfied with this ramen-esque beer system. Yeah, I admit, the gist of it all is “just add water,” but as I’ve learned in only three batches, there’s a lot more to it than that. Let me know if you need some tips, and keep and eye out for my upcoming “brew blog” where I post recipes and reactions to my latest creations.

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4 Comments to It’s Always Five O’Clock Somewhere…

April 20, 2011

Ha, maybe I wasn’t clear enough in my praise of that molasses rum-beer. Or Steve gushed too much and drowned me out. 😉 It was really really good. I’d call it a liquid gingersnap beer. So far, I think its the best you’ve done, too.

Hmm, you need to put out a beer fund bank for us to contribute some to cover the costs. Unless you consider our taste testing a job. 😉 Then I think we’re fairly well compensated. Oh yeah, and the pre-work emptying Grolsch bottles for you. Man, we’re slaving for the stuff now! lol

April 21, 2011

That reminds me… If I am going to take up this home brewing thing, I’ll need to find some nice Grolsch bottles. And a deep dark keg sized corner.

April 21, 2011

Oh, I didn’t doubt your appreciation of it at all, it’s just that Steve couldn’t say enough about it. I definitely enjoy sharing these beers that I make, it’s just not enough to drink them myself. I’m pretty sure the savings that I’m seeing from making the beer is being lost in the sharing, but I’m okay with that.

As for a beer fund, I would never ask for money, but I’d never turn it down either. Additionally, I would gladly brew requests (as I’m doing for my brother, this week). He perused the Mr. Beer site and found a recipe that really intrigued him, so I picked up all the ingredients and will be putting it together tomorrow, most likely.

April 21, 2011

Well, for Grolsch bottles, you can either pay $8.50 for four with beer in them, or you can pay about $2 a piece for them empty on eBay.

As for the dark, keg sized corner, I’m sure there’s the foot of a closet, or an unused cabinet that you can co-opt. The only thing you need to really pay attention to is the average temperature. If I recall correctly, you want it to be 50°-70°. Before I found the cabinet that I use now, I kept thinking that the crawlspace under the house would be a perfect nook.

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April 2011