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April 2011

Home Brewin’

Before my introduction to craft beer, I had only had one encounter with home brew: when I was fifteen, Dad brewed some beer from a kit. When we opened it, it frothed for a good half an hour and looked and smelt like pond water. I wasn’t brave enough to try it. Little did I know that while Dad was brewing his distasteful pond water, there were people out there brewing actual beer in their homes and garages. Very few of these people fit the my previous (mis)conceptions about them. Quite the opposite in fact!

First of all, home brewing it not just done by blue collar workers looking for cheap grog.  There’s a lot of, well, geeks brewing out there, people who work in IT, insurance and the sciences. Unlike the usual image of a bloke in his shed (or even a nerd at his computer), home brewing can be quite social, with brewers inviting each other over for brew days or sharing a lot of information via Twitter messages and photos, or RealBeer.co.nz through recipe swapping, discussions and outright arguments.

Home brew is also not just boring draughts or insipid ales.  Home brewers are making every style you can imagine and then some. In the last few weeks I’ve sampled home-brewed porter, pale ale, IPA, American stout, English stout, ESB and various other ales – and I’ve only been invited to taste a small number of home brewers’ wares. The home brewers I’ve met appear to love experimenting, although I have met a perfectionist on his sixth or seven batch of ESB and one slightly xenophobic Englishman who’ll only use English hops.

One thing that I haven’t been surprised in is the Kiwi ingenuity of the home brew equipment. Most of the time I tend to stay away from nationalist characteristics, but there’s a few I like and I’m proud to say I’m a number eight wire Kiwi.* Mash tuns made from chilly bins, hop scoops from tea strainers, and all manner of plastic containers made into fermenters, complete with taps, adorn the New Zealand home brewer’s enclave.  And the enclaves are something else in themselves, from lounges and laundries to garages and sheds.

So home brewers are not strange old men who are hiding from their wives (and life) in backyard sheds brewing boring old beer. They could be anyone, brewing anything, anywhere. Am I about to join their ranks? No. Because while I would like to stress the diversity of the home brewing community there is one common trait among them: obsession. The stories of a young father getting up in the middle of the night to check his home brew, but forgetting to check on the baby; a husband who realised he’d put Fuggles hops in his stout and bewildering his wife by sprinting downstairs with a coat hanger; or the many discussions of financing switching to kegs, buying British handpumps or replacing broken thermometers and hydrometers all tell of an consuming passion, an overwhelming compulsion to brew better beers. I don’t really need another obsession – for me, learning about and drinking beer is consuming enough of my life.

Today post was bought to you by Emerson’s London Porter. 

* Especially as the 4mm knitting needle evolved from number eight wire.

Cherry Poppin’

Most of the time, I curse my newness to craft beer, usually when I’m groping for the right word for that flavour or trying to remember which hops had that particular aroma. Other times though, being new to the scene is exciting – especially when trying new styles of beer. On Friday night I was fortunately enough to attend a tasting of many beers. I had many ‘firsts’ that night and many a proverbial cherry was popped. If you’re an old hand, I don’t really expect to make any momentous revelations to you; but maybe you can remember your ‘firsts’ with a smile.

The first cherry was drinking decent beer out of a can. This doesn’t sound like much, but it does take a bit of a mind shift to have faith in the product coming out of the can. I think the blurb on the can was right – it did taste reasonably fresh, despite having travelled from the States and I can see the logic behind its environmental-friendliness, although I’m not enough of a scientist to know for sure.

Some burst cherries I didn’t really take to, whether through a need to adjust to their idiosyncrasies, the sample not being the best example or simply because I don’t like that style. An example was the barley wine from the Alaskan Brewing Co. With abig and lasting hit of alcohol, it was a little too reminiscent of wine for this beer drinker.

Most of the other new experiences like the Humidor Series IPA by Cigar City Brewing,  which had been aged in cedar, or my first Lambiek, Oude Lambiek from De Cam Geuzestekerji, were new appreciations of variations in beers and how small details in the brewing process can change a beer’s characteristics.

Then I had I had my face melted off by Russian River Supplication. Now you may think having your face melted off is not a pleasant experience, but it was one I truly enjoyed! The Supplication is a sour ale, but with a nice balance of sweetness. I like sour and, while I wouldn’t drink a whole pint of it, I was quite happy to sip away, experiencing the crazy dance it lead my taste buds on.

They say you always remember your first, but I don’t remember my first craft beer or the pivotal moment when I realised how much better craft beer was than the mainstream. I know in a way it’s irrelevant; humans’ obsession with beginnings and firsts is a little pointless, given time is a continuum and events are generally just one piece of a larger story. But it’ll be nice one day to look back and remember the first time a sour beer put a slightly melted smile on my face.

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