Bottling day for my month learning about beer making was approaching. With it came a certain amount of anxiety about what was in that covered 5-gallon bucket inside my closet, hiding under the shade of my seldom-worn business clothes.
I’m pretty sure I still have a suit in there somewhere.
Making beer is slow, and once you start you get what you get. But I didn’t know what I’d have at the end of it all, except five gallons of something I’d be stuck with. Would it be something I wanted to drink, maybe even share with friends? Or would I end up pouring the whole thing down the drain?
Five gallons is a lot of beer, and it couldn’t stay in the bucket forever. Besides, the bucket wouldn’t fit in my fridge.
Brewing and fermenting a batch took two weeks, according to the instructions from Northern Brewer, where I’d bought my kit.
The Bottle Battle
Originally, my plan had been to brew the batch and then just drink a lot of beer and save my empties.
I also figured I’d get plenty of spare bottles from friends.
These recycled or repurposed bottles I’d sterilize and relabel. This is what many home brewers do. Maybe the fancy ones make their own bottles, but that was way beyond my skill level.
According to the instructions in the kit, five-gallons would fill 48 bottles, which was an ambitious order for me to fill without the help of a college fraternity — I just wasn’t drinking nearly enough and neither were my friends.
With just a couple of days to go, I only had an assortment of 18, 12-ounce bottles.
Not nearly enough and there wasn’t a lot I could do, personally. I had to function, and drinking on the clock had stopped being that much fun.
It was turning into a chore.
How about a Fresca instead?
When I’d signed on to spend the month exploring home brewing, getting to try a bunch of different, new-to-me beers sounded like a great bonus and way for me to explore a new topic to bore people with in casual conversation (the list grows ever longer).
Mostly, though, I just worried about the calories.
For the last two years, I’ve kept a food diary and counted calories to maintain my weight.
This is a very dull and tedious way to manage a healthy lifestyle, but it works.
Calorie counting is a zero-sum game. There are only so many calories you can eat in a day. Some days, you go over your limit. Other days, you fall short. You don’t beat yourself up. You just try balance between the two while not falling into the habit of eating too much or eating too little.
A bottle of beer (at least the kind I was now drinking) can run anywhere from around 170 calories up to 320 calories, depending on the size of the can, the style of the beer and maybe whatever weird ingredients they crammed in with the barley and the hops.
Drinking beer is not that different than drinking sugary sodas (minus the alcohol), which also tack on the pounds quietly and pair just as well with nachos, pretzels with cheese dip and pizza.
I don’t drink much soda, so adding the extra beers was cutting into my daily calorie count and the amount of food I normally eat. I love to eat.
The Battle Bottle — continued
Anyway, I just hadn’t accumulated enough bottles, so almost desperately, with about 36 hours to go before I was supposed to empty the fermenter bucket, I posted on the Kanawha Home Brew Club’s Facebook page asking for help.
Help showed up almost immediately. Ray Richardson, a veteran home brewer, offered to give me all the bottles I’d need for my first brew. All I had to do was come get them.
I couldn’t beat the price — free.
The rain was pouring when I made it to Ray’s place. The remnants of Hurricane Delta were passing through the Valley.
Ray said he was glad to help me out. He had quite a few bottles stored up. He’d actually offered them up a few weeks earlier, when I attended the club’s virtual monthly meeting on Zoom, but I’d doubted I needed them.
Ray said he’s been home brewing for 11 years.
“But I don’t do the whole grinding your own grains down, starting at breakfast and then finishing up after dinner kind of brewing,” he said. “Some of the others do that and that’s great, but I buy packages and then improve them.”
The brewer told me the recipe that had come with my starter kit would likely produce beer, but it might not be very good — at least, he assured me that it could be made better.
If I stuck around with the club, people would share what they knew — or I could find some ideas online. The home brewing community liked swapping recipes, techniques and tips.
Ray shared a couple.
“Hot water and OxiClean in a bucket will take the labels off bottles,” he told me. “Well, probably.”
A couple of craft brewers used plastic or metal foil labels. Getting those off was going to be a hassle.
“I boiled bottles,” I said. “That worked.”
It was also probably more dangerous and made the kitchen smell weird.
“Huh, never tried that,” Ray said.
Ray said the sterilize feature on a good dishwasher was a good way to prepare bottles for bottling and cheaper than buying sterilizing solution from a home brew supplier.
“Just don’t use the soap in the dishwasher,” he said.
Fewer chemicals is better.
He also suggested I might do better with a propane burner to heat up my pot rather than relying on my electric stove.
“It’s just faster,” he said.
And he told me where I might be able to get my own five-gallon pot.
“Try Family Dollar,” he said. “They had them for $18.”
Ray helped me load a couple of boxes of empty, label-free bottles into my trunk, along with a six-pack assortment of beers he’d brewed. Some of them were home brew knock-offs of popular brands, at least they started that way.
“These all came from a home brew supplier — with some modifications,” he said, smiling.
It was very generous. I told him I looked forward to trying them all. The calories didn’t seem to matter so much to me. This was a gift.
Bill’s Beer List and Notes
Penn Brewery Penn Dark: This was an OK lager. It reminded me of Budweiser, but a little heartier and not as sharp or heavy. I bought it because the label looked cool and had a woman in armor with a spear, riding a horse.
Anchor Brewing Company Brewers’ Pale Ale: This was a surprise. It had an oddly shaped bottle, but this was pretty good. It wasn’t fancy. No strange ingredients. It was an unpretentious and refreshing ale.
Victory Brewing Golden Monkey Ale: Holy moly. This was a potent (9.5 percent ABV) Belgian-style ale with some sort of spices loaded into it. It had a nice, mild flavor that disguised the sneaky punch. You should drink this slowly. Trust me.
SweetWater 420 Strain: This was a G13 IPA. Again, I bought this one because of the weird fish drawing on the label, which would probably make a cool T-shirt. It was an OK IPA (India Pale Ale).