I opened the box from Northern Brewer, a home beer-making supplier, and carefully took out the contents.
The box was almost 3 feet tall and heavy enough that I worried about there being a lot of small pieces. I didn’t want to lose anything.
The box held less than I imagined. It contained a couple of 5-gallon plastic buckets, a bottle brush and a collection of flat metal pieces that — with the right gadget — could be used to cap bottles of homemade beer. But I was excited.
How many bottles equaled five gallons?
Math was hard.
Some advanced preparation had gone into my plan to spend a month learning about beer. Back in June, right before all the beer festivals in the state were canceled due to COVID-19, I’d gone to a Kanawha Valley Homebrew Club meeting.
Making beer had been on my shortlist of things I might do at home during the pandemic, while I was safely social distancing.
And I like beer.
This is not some earth-shattering confession, but what might be surprising is that I didn’t used to like beer. Through my hazy college years, beer was really just a means to an end, a convenient way to get hammered and then try to make smart conversation with women.
This worked out exactly as well as it sounded — not too well.
After college, my beer drinking tapered off. I wanted to like beer, but just didn’t. When I drank, which became less and less, I was more likely to have a mixed drink.
Beer didn’t become something I cared much about until after West Virginia changed some of its laws, allowing the sale of craft and specialty beers with a higher alcohol by volume. This brought in more variety, new styles and I was able to find something I appreciated.
I tried a bunch of new beers, found a few that I liked, but the joke was kind of on me. One of the beers I “discovered” was Miller, which is a garden variety domestic beer.
This became my preferred after-lawn-mowing beer, replacing Mountain Dew, which was never a beer.
Over the past couple of years, my tastes have grown somewhat. I’m a fan of Big Timber’s Porter and tend to order similar, dark beers when I’m out, but I don’t usually experiment on my own much.
If someone offers me something new, I’ll try it, but I’m not overly adventurous.
Making my own beer seemed like a step in that direction.
The homebrew club’s meetup was a cookout on a rainy Saturday.
Sitting under a park picnic shelter, eating hamburgers and hotdogs, I listened to a small group talk beer making and sampled a range of beers, all of them generally better than what I normally load in my fridge (I tend to limit by beer purchases to under $10).
As I sampled esoteric beers with odd names, they explained it wasn’t that hard to make beer and that it was a relatively cheap hobby.
Sure, you could make very complex and complicated beers. That’s fun for some people, and like most hobbies, you could spend a ton of money for an elaborate brewing system that included osmotically pure water; decimal point-exact digitally controlled heating and cooling systems; and exotic ingredients.
And there’s storage. If you want, you can turn your basement, garage or living room into a pub with 10 taps, a dartboard and homegrown beer nuts.
Start small and get as big as you want.
“Go get a Mr. Beer Kit,” I was told.
“Mr. Beer” was a popular Father’s Day Gift and in late June, days after Father’s Day, the odds were pretty good I could find a kit that had been marked down after the holiday at one of the big box stores.
It might only cost me 20 or 30 bucks.
“The beer isn’t bad,” I was told. “It’s certainly better than it used to be.”
And if I wanted to get fancy, there were even websites devoted to brewers who’d taken the basic Mr. Beer Kits and elevated them past what was ever intended of them — sort of like figuring out how to play to “Stairway to Heaven” on a ukulele.
The point was, I could totally do this, they said.
But I hadn’t been able to locate a Mr. Beer Kit at the local Walmart, Target or Michael’s. I’d briefly considered going to Hobby Lobby, but expected this would fall among hobbies the owners didn’t approve of.
Then I checked my local Goodwill stores, the undisputed repository of misfit gifts, but nothing.
I put the idea aside and hoped that maybe things would get better with the pandemic, that things would open up, but there’s not much in the way of an Oktoberfest happening still. Foam at the Dome this year is through a boxed kit, so I decided to build my own beer festival from scratch.
Through October, I would step out of my comfort zones with beer, try some new things and get an idea of how some of these odd-sounding beers were different from each other.
I’d brew my own beer. Through Amazon, I found a recommended, 5-gallon beginner’s beer making kit.
I wanted to be able to share whatever I made.
There were some nerves that came with even opening the box and getting started. I have a mixed track record with actually making things.
A year ago, I’d spent some time with Jeff Arthur at Mountain State Distillery in Charleston. Brewing and distilling is not a fast process. It takes a few weeks from start to finish. Into the second week of the month, I helped start a mash to ferment, which we would later turn into alcohol, but then there’d been a cold snap.
The active yeast, which had been turning the sugar into alcohol, died off and the mash stalled.
We never got any further and my time ran out.
I looked at the contents of the box and the instructions. It seemed fairly straight-forward. Maybe I could do this, but then I noticed the lists. One list explained what the kit had come with. Another list told what you needed to have on hand.
At the very bottom of that list were the words “5-gallon kettle.”
I sat down.
I didn’t have a 5-gallon kettle. Why would I someone like me have a 5-gallon kettle?
Just as importantly, where was I supposed to get one?
Bill’s beer list and notes
Sibling Revelry Brewing “Mocha Oatmeal.” An oatmeal stout. A bit syrupy and sort of flat. I was kind of disappointed and hoped it would be like Big Timber’s Porter, but even better. Maybe I got a bum can.
Duclaw Brewing “PastryArchy Chocolate Dipped Pretzel.” An imperial stout. This was supposed to taste like a chocolate dipped pretzel. I tasted the salt, but not the sweetness of the chocolate. It was OK.
Duclaw Brewing “Unicorn Farts.” A sour beer with fruity cereal and edible glitter. It sort-of looks like what an underage Harry Potter might sneak back to his dorm and then get violently ill drinking too much of. This was my first sour beer. I’m not sure it’s a good example.
Bell’s “Lager of the Lakes.” This was a pretty mild beer-flavored beer. You might take this to a potluck if you wanted to show off in front of your relatives who only drink Bud Light, but don’t want to freak them out with something like “Unicorn Farts.”