Homebrew: A Lament

by colin ramsay

july 2017

Illustration by Sally Strong

Illustration by Sally Strong

The holy grail for any beer lover would be, surely, the ability to produce vast quantities of the wonderstuff on a budget. Brewing at home provides an opportunity to do just that. A goblet of eternally flowing beer tailored to your own personal platonic ideal of ale. Why drink water ever again when you have a constant supply of nectar available?

Beer brewing at home often starts at the most basic level: a tin of proto-beer that contains gloopy malt extract and some dry yeast. Combine with a load of sugar and hot water, leave in a warm place to develop into homebrew, bask in the adulation of your peers.

It literally could not be easier. Except when you open your bucket of booze and you find it smells weird. Or it’s covered in some kind of beer snot. Or it all frothed up and vomited out of your bucket. Or it just tastes a bit rubbish.

In truth, making homebrew can be a bit of a challenge. If your beer is smelly or has slime on the top, it could be infected - it’ll taste disgusting and your friends will hate you. The most common reason for this is that you’re a dirty little human and didn’t clean your kit properly. Next time treat yourself to some Star San - a sterilising miracle in a bottle. Once you’ve cleaned your brew kit, spray it with food-grade sanitiser, you don’t even have to rinse it off. Star San could save your beer. Use it.

Assuming everything was clean, there’s another source of potential infection: everything. Even the very air itself could carry filth that will turn your spectacular inebriation fluid into piss-like vinegar water. Get a fermentation bucket that you can seal. Make sure you’ve got an airlock to let the beer vent as it ferments, which you’re going to sanitise as well, aren’t you?

Even if your beer doesn’t stink to high heaven, and it’s not covered in scum, it might just happen to taste like malty water. In that case, it’s simply because you just didn’t care enough. You thought you could just stick it in a cupboard and have it be delicious, didn’t you? Well, you were wrong. Beer absolutely has to ferment at the correct temperature; too cold and nothing will happen, too warm and you may get unwanted fruity flavours. Solving this might mean putting your beer in a shed to keep it cool or wrapping it in a duvet to keep it warm.

If, after all of that, you’ve ended up with something that’s vaguely beer-like, good job. Now you have the option of giving it a little bit of life by carbonating it. The easiest way to do that is by putting it in bottles and adding a grain or two of priming sugar. Hey, you know all that cleaning and sanitising you’ve come to know and love? Well now you’ve got another 40 bottles to practise with. Hop to it. Bottling beer comes with its own set of tribulations; too much priming sugar and you will find that your once friendly beer becomes a lethal explosive, capable of sending shards of glass into the eyes of your closest comrades... I mean it. Bottles can actually blow up. However putting too little sugar in will result in severe disappointment. Flaccidity. Putting the perfect amount in but then leaving the bottles at the wrong temperature could result in off-flavours.

All of this hard work is just for the simplest beer kit available. The next steps up in complexity include partial grain, full grain, brew-in-a-bag, yeast starters. Then, before you know it, you’re talking about stuff like krausen and vorlauf, you’re buying temperature regulators and giant vats, and you’re still just making beer that tastes like knock-off Doom Bar.

In due course, on a day not so long from now, you’ll crack open a bottle of your beer that’s been conditioning in a cosy nook. It’ll pop open with a satisfying fizz, it’ll pour with a satisfying head. It will settle. As you raise the grail to your lips, instead of smelling death, effluent, or jockstraps, you’ll smell beer. The flavour, beer. And that feeling of pride? Well, that’s beer too. And on that day rejoice, sit back, and get sozzled for free.

Colin Ramsay, Falmouth, UK. Savvy business man, genius software developer, published writer, and self-proclaimed beer hunk.

Sally Strong, Falmouth, UK. Uniquely styled hotshot illustration graduate from Falmouth University.