A story of homebrew
By Sarah Wentzel-Fisher, Photos by Sergio Salvador
This winter I bought a gallon jug of Big B’s Apple Juice when my family visited. Two thirds of the juice was consumed in a timely fashion, but the last bit remained stashed in the back of my fridge for ten days, and being the adventurous gal that I am, I decided to see if the stuff was still palatable. I poured a bit into a glass, and since there was no sign of mold, I took a sip. To my astonishment and pleasure, the juice fizzed and had a mild alcoholic kick. Rather than toss the stuff, I poured myself a larger glass. What had happened to my juice was the wonderful process of wild fermentation. This happy accident piqued my interest in fermented beverages and set me on a course towards homebrew.
In May, my friend Ken, a painter, had an opening at a small gallery in Barelas called The Normal. While Ken’s incredible oil and acrylic based interpretations and impressions of the bosque played to my visual sensibilities, the real pièce de résistance of the evening was not a painting, but a beverage. A beer to be more specific—a crisp ale with hints of blueberry, ginger, and the perfect balance of malt and hops. For the last two years, Ken has been concocting a variety of inventive fermented beverages at home, but this one was his best effort to date.
Inspired, I wanted to try brewing for myself. My farmer friend and I got together and brewed up a batch of mead from honey he had collected from his hive. We spent an evening in my kitchen cooking up an enormous pot of honey and rosemary. The next day, after the potion had cooled, we stirred in yeast and we transferred it to a five-gallon glass jug stoppered with a cork with a one-way valve to release gas from the jug. After about six weeks, we got together again to bottle the brew. We added an additional ½ cup of honey, then siphoned the liquid into recycled beer bottles and capped them. One week later we had tasty, refreshing, light alcohol mead.
After this first experience in brewing, decided I wanted to learn more about the process and get more hands-on experience. A group of friends, including Ken and I, got together for an evening to try to replicate the beer from the opening. For me it was my second foray into home brew—for Ken, it was batch #41.
Ken says he started brewing because he needed a hobby. His jobs at the time only permitted intermittent time off, so brewing fit the schedule. He could work up a batch on his occasional day off. Home brewing requires a particular brand of patience—the kind where you work hard on a project for a few hours, set it down and ignore it for several weeks, then pick it back up again. You also have to be content to not know the results until the end.
Whether you are making beer, mead or cider, the process begins in essentially the same way, by making wort—a tea that contains carbohydrates (grains, sugar, honey, fruit juice) and yeast. On the evening we gathered, we decided to start two batches of beer. One was a new experiment; the other was the recipe from the art opening. Ken likes to experiment with unusual ingredients and flavors. While we worked on our wort, he opened several bottles from previous batches. We sampled a goat head beer with a strange manly flavor and a lambic-like fruit beer. Ken likes to get creative with his wort, throw in what’s around the kitchen, so he keeps detailed notes on his brewing. If a batch is good, he can replicate it, but experimentation may not be for everyone.
Before we could transfer the wort to Ken’s carboy, we had to empty the current contents—Batch 39 was another experimental recipe including hibiscus and cranberries. We washed recycled, non-twist-top bottles in a bleach bath then rinsed them and set them upside down to dry. Having clean equipment is essential to successful brewing. You want the yeast you add to your brew to be hard at work making your beer or mead, not competing with other bacteria or mold for sugar. Bottling is an incredibly satisfying part of the process because the end result can be tasted. Most of the fermentation to create the alcohol occurs during the six weeks the brew spends in the carboy. The final two weeks in the bottle will carbonate the beverage, but it’s a good point in the process to sample.
Ken siphoned a few sips of the brew into glasses for everyone to sample then added some sugar for the carbonation process. As the yeast eats the sugars in the wort, it releases carbon dioxide, giving the beverage bubbles. By the point the wort has turned to beer most of the gas has been released through the airlock stopper on the carboy, so additional sugars are added at the bottling stage to start the yeast creating more bubbles. This part of the process is called bottle conditioning. Very little sugar is needed to create the fizz—too much sugar will make the bottles explode.
Batch 39 was very sweet and tart—a fruit beer according the Beer Judge Certification Program or BJCP (www.bjcp.org), a set of guidelines used to grade and classify beers in home brew competitions. In addition to classifying beers, BJCP also gives guidelines for meads and ciders. While the BJCP site does not include recipes, it gives good descriptions of different types of homebrew, which may help you decide what you will make for your first foray into fermentation.
For those less interested in experimentation and more interested in a guaranteed tasty brew, recipes as well as supplies and specialized utensils are easy to come by online or at your local brewers supply store. The most essential tools for brewing are a large pot (three gallons at least), a large clear glass jug that narrows at the top (sometimes called a carboy), an airlock stopper, a siphon hose, bottles, caps, and a capper.
Local sources for brewing supplies:
Santa Fe Homebrew Supply
6820 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe
(505) 473-2268 • www.santafehomebrew.com
Victor’s Grape Arbor
2436 San Mateo Place Northeast, Albuquerque
(505) 883-0000 • www.victorsgrapearbor.com
Take a Class or Join:
The Dukes of Ale in Albuquerque meet monthly, offer special educational events and trips, all geared to the craft beer aficionado and home brewer: www.dukesofale.com
Books on homebrew to check out:
- Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Harrod Buhner
- Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of
- Live-Culture Foods by Sandor Ellix Katz and Sally Fallon
- Secrets of the Still by Grace Firth
- The Alaskan Bootlegger’s Bible by Leon W. Kania
- Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher
- The Homebrewer’s Companion by Charlie Papazian