The Wide Angle: Brewing up more of a hobby — and dashing for ice

Published 5:00 pm Tuesday, April 30, 2024

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This past weekend, I took another expensive step into this whole homebrewing thing, with another possible step coming this spring.

As many of you know (if we count the word “many” to mean the 35 readers of this column) I started brewing honey mead at home as my COVID Activity. As you same 35 readers have guessed COVID Activities were those activities we adopted while being trapped at home.

As with many hobbies, it started small, but then as time went on more and more things were added to the equation as I looked at areas like bulk, aging, various varieties of mead, different recipes so on and so forth.

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I still am very active in my craft hobby and enjoy it very much. So much in fact that I’ve started looking at other areas of homebrewing including cider-making and now beer making.

A number of Christmases ago, the better half of me got me my first beer-making kit, an English pale ale. More time consuming than making mead, the kit just kind of sat there for a while until finally I made the decision to make it this weekend.

The reasons for not making it prior to that are numerous including time, forgetting about it, and most importantly — it’s kind of intimidating.

Mead is fairly straightforward. While there are details to keep track of, it’s largely just water, honey and yeast. Part of the fun of this hobby is keeping as close to historical methods as possible and so I’ve delved deep into suggested ways the norse (vikings — the winning kind, I mean. The ones who won battles and who didn’t lose four Super Bowls).

It’s tricky because there are no specific recipes from those times, only methods passed down by verbal accounts or pieces of writing here and there. What we do know is that many in ye olden times used wild yeast, which is everywhere, including honey itself. The makers of mead would infuse the beverage with sticks, leaves and other assorted methods that were coated with wild yeast. Nutrients to help the yeast thrive were also gathered naturally.

One particular idea I always enjoyed was the idea that norse brewers (and others I suspect) would create crowns of woven twigs or other pieces of wood that would be placed with each batch of mead. During continued use over generations, that wood would become a continued home for yeast, and would be added to each successive batch to continue the process.

I’ve tried that with a wooden paddle I use that I’m careful to clean and wash off with water only in the hopes of  fostering that same aspect. I can feel homebrewers cringe already because sanitizing, not just rinsing, is up there in the 10 Commandments of brewing.

Still, we had to get to this point somehow.

At any rate, I quickly discovered that beer making requires much more attention, to like, everything! It’s more precise and literally requires you to test the saying of a “watched pot never boils.” it does, and boy does it boil.

It didn’t personally do this to me on this day, but in researching I’ve discovered the price one pays for not paying attention. The contents can boil over super quick and when it does — hot, sticky liquid everywhere.

So I watched. I watched for boiling water, or wort in this case, like nobody has watched for boiling water in their life. It took … forever! As you all are no doubt aware, I have very little patience. I’ve never been a patient individual.

I get annoyed when it takes tap water to warm up for dishes. Turns out it takes a patient-testing long time to boil nearly three gallons of water.

Other than that it’s a fairly boring process, until it came time for one crucial step and this is where there was tomfoolery. The step is a need to cool the wort to 70 degrees fahrenheit as quickly as possible to stave off bacteria mucking things up.

To prepare for this, I started making ice about a week and a half ago. Now a common sense person might ask, “why not just buy a bag of ice rather than hoarding ice at home?” First, it’s not like it takes a lot of time to freeze water. Secondly, because of that first thing, I’m not going to spend over $2 for frozen water.

Except, of course, when I realized I was going to have to pay $2 for frozen water. Turns out boiled wort is hot and even though my ice bath was cold (amazing how all of this works out, isn’t it?) the ice bath was not cold enough.

Alarmingly, the ice melted super quick and the cooling stalled, forcing me into a race of sorts. I bounded from the house, looking for all the world like I just got out of bed and threw a coat on, and went to the nearest convenience store where I paid money for the plastic bag and the water frozen inside.

Racing home, I rehearsed what I was going to tell the cop who would inevitably pull me over for speeding.

“Hurry up with the ticket already, my wort needs to cool! No! My wort, not my wart.”

Luckily, I didn’t get pulled over, the wort cooled in sufficient time — I think — and my first-ever batch of beer is bubbling away nicely during its fermentation. In another month I should know for sure if I botched things up, because let’s be honest here, by this point, that’s kind of what you are expecting.