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20201025-gm-hops

The secret to brewed beer is the hops (and the barley and the sugar and the water and half a dozen other things). Reporter Bill Lynch sits in with a veteran brewer as he makes beer the right way.

Dried out bug corpses floated to the surface of the water. They came up whole and in pieces — a single, thin leg or maybe an antenna rested on an air bubble. The bubble popped and the bug appendage drifted away toward the side of the bucket.

They looked like crickets. I hoped they were crickets.

I groaned and looked at the six-pack of bottles I’d already sanitized in the solution.

What were the odds that some bug parts were stuck to the inside of glass? How much did I want to risk that?

Images of getting a mouthful of vermin in a sip of home-brewed beer played through my mind. Worse, what would have happened if I gave these away as a gift?

This was my own fault.

Veteran home brewer Ray Richardson gave me the bottles for free. He’d kept them in his garage or in a basement, probably. Of course, he had. They hadn’t been locked up in a climate-controlled, food-safe vault. The bottles were spares.

Of course, I needed to rinse them out first, but I’d been strictly following the directions that came with my home brewer’s kit. My instructions covered sanitizing, but the assumption was that I’d have a little common sense.

The bug bits continued to float in the water.

I had to start over, wash out all the bottles carefully and then sanitize them. It was a minor setback, another time killer — not fatal, but another delay.

Not every One Month project takes the entire month. Some take a little less time or the action is concentrated into just a few days.

Making beer was slow. Everything had to be done in stages. You brewed beer and that took time. Once the beer was brewed, it had to be put away to ferment. Then you waited. Eventually, you poured the fermented beer in bottles.

Then you had to wait some more.

In the downtime, I’d been reading a little about beer and trying a few new things. But I felt like I was sort of wandering in the wilderness until Jed Walkup, the president of the Kanawha Home Brew Club, asked if I wanted to come over and brew with him.

Jed was a lot more advanced than me. He brewed from bulk grains, instead of from a pre-measured, pre-packaged kit. He followed his own recipes, balanced his brews using computer analysis, while I just hoped that what I brewed didn’t make me sick.

The kits were fine, he told me. I could relax. What we were both doing wasn’t all that different.

“It’s the difference between making brownies from scratch and doing Duncan Hines,” he said.

There was nothing absolutely wrong with boxed brownie mix, Jed added.

“But you can control the subtleties better from scratch,” he said.

That’s part of the fun in brewing your own beer — figuring out what you really like, what you really want and building a beer that’s entirely yours.

And it’s cheap — sort of.

“My cheapest batch runs about $15,” Jed said.

That’s $15 for 5 gallons or roughly eight six-packs. At that price, each beer costs less than a postage stamp.

Other, more expensive beers Jed made were about $50, which brought the price per beer to a little over a dollar each, somewhere between half and a third of the price of comparable store-bought or premium beers.

“That’s just the ingredients,” Jed corrected. “There’s a bit of an upfront cost.”

Like any hobby, the tools cost you.

Jed had a repurposed burner from a turkey fryer, a cereal grinder hooked up to a Craftsman hand drill, and a modified chest freezer that kept several 5-gallon, stainless steel soft drink kegs and a tank of CO2.

“The enemy of beer is oxygen,” he explained. “Just about every beer is better when it’s on draft.”

Besides, bottling is a hassle.

Jed had at least a thousand dollars in various pieces of equipment and in a storage system, but it likely had paid for itself at least a couple of times by now.

Jed got into home brewing while a student at WVU. He started out with a kit and then spent some time brewing beer with a more experienced hobbyist.

“You learn as you go,” he said.

Jed started his brew by heating water and grinding a mix of grains, a couple types of barley and a little oatmeal. Each of the barleys added something to the taste profile of the beer Jed wanted to make, an Imperial Stout.

The oatmeal would give the beer a certain amount of thickness.

Grains are ground to release starches, which turn to sugar when boiled.

There was a sweet spot for brewing, Jed explained. The water needed to get between 144 and 148 degrees to create the sugars. The lower the temperature in that range, the simpler the sugars.

“The yeast will eat that right up,” he said. “It makes the alcohol, but you’ll end up with a very dry beer.”

Boiling hotter created more complex sugars, which the yeast might not be able to entirely digest. This could create different flavors in the beer and make the beer taste sweeter, but boiling too hot released other chemicals that gave the beer off-flavors.

We brewed beer.

Jed loaded the milled grain in a mesh bag and stuffed it in a repurposed, insulated cooler. He poured scalding water over the grain and then used a metal paddle to stir the mash.

I helped and held the bag.

Done, he covered his cooler and let the grains steep. Then he showed me around his beer-making operation and fed me pizza.

Jed started the club a few years ago, after he and his wife moved to Charleston.

The club was for fun, for beer fans and for the ambitious. Jed hoped a home brewing club might lead to another craft brewery in Charleston.

“Some of the breweries in the state came from home brewers who got really good at what they did and then decided to take the plunge,” Jed told me. “There’s a lot to it, obviously. You’d need a million bucks just to get started with a brewery.”

Sure, Charleston had Black Sheep Burritos on Summer Street, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t support a second place.

“And it would draw people to Charleston, bring more energy downtown,” he said.

We talked beer and tasted beer for a couple of hours. I told him I had high hopes for my batch. It’s not like I need another side project, but I wondered if maybe I could grow barley or hops and make my own beer from scratch.

“Well, the deer won’t eat the hops,” he told me.

I was halfway sold just on that.

At home, I got my second-hand glassware washed, rinsed and sanitized. I added corn sugar to my brew and then slowly managed to fill and cap 48 bottles.

The corn sugar would help to carbonate the beer, but it was a little tricky. If the mix was off, the beer could end up flat; too much and the beer would be all fizz or build up just enough gas to cause the caps to shoot off like bullets.

“Bottle bombs,” they called them.

Filled, I loaded the bottles in boxes and put the beer back in my bedroom closet, the safest place I could think to put them.

Then, it was back to waiting. Again.

Bill’s beer notes

Stone Brewing Buenaveza Salt & Lime lager: It took a while, but I finally found a beer I couldn’t drink. This stuff tasted like a mouthful of wet sand. I took two sips and poured it down the drain. Cool bottle, but nope.

Oskar Blues “Death by Coconut”: An Irish style porter. This was a little chocolate-y and had the coconut flavor but wasn’t as thick as some porters or as sweet. I was looking for a Mounds bar, but got something that was more of a shadow of it. Not bad, though.

Westmalle Trappist: This was a Belgian dubbel beer (this means it was a bit stronger than usual) originally made by monks. Holy beer! These days, monks only make up about a third of the workforce at the brewery, so it’s not as holy as it used to be, but still kind of a treat.

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5195 or follow @lostHwys on Twitter. He’s also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap/ and read his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/onemonth.