Humble Home Brewing Beginnings

As I wandered into Berkeley’s Oak Barrel home brew store for the first time, admiring the floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with shiny equipment and unique ingredients, I was both overwhelmed and excited to be pursuing this new hobby. After meandering for a bit, enjoying the smell of fragrant hops (what are hops?) and yeast that filled the air, Bernie, the amiable owner, approached and directed me to a beginner’s home brewing kit. Included in the kit was John Palmer’s “How to Brew” which, over the years, I have probably read through at least 15 times.

Since I was attempting to brew a gluten free beer, I was not able to use any of the readily available, barley-based malts or syrups. In my first few batches I used a hard-to-find, concentrated, sorghum syrup as the source of my fermentable sugars. Since the gluten free beers I had tried at that time had all utilized sorghum, I figured that was the logical thing to do.

After pouring the syrup into the boiling water, I added bittering hops to balance out the sweetness. In the last few minutes of the boil, I threw in a pinch of fragrant aroma hops to impart a clean, citrusy aroma to the finished beer.

After cooling the beer in my bathtub (which I had filled with ice), I transferred it to a five gallon, glass carboy fermenter and added some ale yeast. I had read that the ideal conditions for fermentation were a dark, temperature-stable location where the carboy would not be disturbed. In our small home with 2 cats and 1 dog, I figured the best spot would be in our linen/coat/utility/storage closet, with a beach towel placed under the carboy to insulate it from the cold hardwood floors.

As fermentation week progressed, the ale yeast would wildly bubble, indicating that it was consuming the fermentable sugar and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. I peered in upon my little science experiment several times a day, each time slowly opening the closet door as if I were trying to avoid waking a sleeping animal. Amidst the cool darkness, I could smell the sweet, bread-y aroma resulting from the rhythmically burping bubbles of carbon dioxide being released from the carboy.

After fermentation, I transferred my concoction into bottles, affixing a gold cap atop each. Another week or two later, I pulled a bottle out of the refrigerator, pried off the cap and was elated to hear the familiar sound of a well-carbonated beverage. It sounded like beer, sort of smelled like beer and I was really, really hoping it tasted like beer. As I took my first sip, I found myself holding the cool, carbonated beverage in my mouth, waiting for the taste and mouthfeel to introduce themselves. It never happened. What I had produced in my first attempt was a sweet, bitter, low alcohol, thin-bodied beverage that more closely resembled a poorly made cider than a delicious craft beer.

I was down but I wasn’t out. Not yet. I knew I could do better.