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Beer from Scratch

Garth Brown |

Until today I hadn’t brewed beer for about ten years. But last fall’s cider was terrible, and the new batch is still months and months away, so I took the plunge. Of course, given the restrictions I’m operating under, I had to begin by figuring out how to malt barley.

In theory it’s not too hard. The goal is to sprout each grain until the acrospire - the little shoot that wants to become a plant - is three quarters the length of the kernel, and then to stop it. Following instructions I found online, I did two eight hour soaks with a ten hour break between them, then spread the grain out on sheet trays and covered them with plastic to prevent moisture loss. Twice a day I moved everything around and sprayed it with water, and each evening I’d cut open a few grains to gauge how far along the germination process was. After three and a half days it looked about right, so I stuck it in the dehydrator overnight. The next day I put it in the oven at a very low temperature, and after a few hours I theoretically had malt.

I rigged up a grinder that seemed to work okay, and cobbled together the other things I needed to undertake the brewing process. It took me all day, but as I write this I am about to add the yeast to the wort (the sugary liquid that will become the beer) and begin the fermentation, and so far as I can tell there haven’t been any catastrophes.

As I went through this convoluted process I remembered when, in college, I came upon brewing instructions in a 17th century agricultural handbook, which gave me hope; if people could routinely brew drinkable beer from barley to bottle without any accurate means of measuring or effective means of sanitizing vessels, I have a reasonable shot at getting a decent result with a good thermometer and hot water.

It is interesting to try something that even most dedicated homebrewers don’t bother with, and I enjoy seeing if I can get a good outcome with no real idea what I’m doing. But such activities would have an entirely different tenor if I was relying on them. If I lived in rural England in the 1600s, I’m sure I would make it my business to figure out how to make a decent brew, no matter how much time it took. But I don’t.

Which is to say, it’s another reminder of how ridiculous this whole thing I’m doing is. I think, even on the level of a very localized economy, specialization of some things just makes a lot of sense. The rare times I really, really want a beer, I would much rather patronize a local brewery than go through this whole song and dance. Like making charcuterie, brewing beer well requires particular equipment and knowledge. It’s a wonderful hobby for those who are passionate about it, but it’s kind of a headache for those of us who are not.


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