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Column: Adventures in Home Brewing

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy,” Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said, adding, “Now hold my brewski while I fly my kite into this thunderstorm!”

Whether or not Ben actually uttered those words, their sentiment rings true: We Americans truly enjoy our beer. Beer is the apple pie of fermented carbonated liquid carbohydrates. 

Like many baby boomers, I grew up thinking that beer is a straw-colored fizzy fluid that has approximately the same flavor profile as cardboard. Brands such as Grain Belt, Hamm’s, and Schlitz dominated our beer-scape. Each had its ardent adherents and each was indistinguishable from the other. 

Some of my schoolmates’ fathers served in Europe during World War II. Their dads spoke of imbibing beers that were dark and full-bodied and sometimes – horrors! – served at room temperature. We dismissed these reports as wartime exaggerations.

When we dairy farmed, we had a hired guy named Kevin. As Kevin and I milked our cows, he would often talk about his time in the Army.

Kevin told me that he had been stationed in Germany for some time. Recalling the rumors I’d heard as a youngster, I asked Kevin about German beer. He replied that after drinking German beers, many American brews made him think of old dishwater. Kevin then revealed a startling secret: During his time overseas, he had become infected by the homebrewing bug.

I was shocked to learn that an Army veteran would eschew such all-American beers as Budweiser. Kevin responded by inviting me to his house for a beer tasting session. I gladly accepted.

Soon after arriving at his place, I learned that Kevin is a beer nut – and not the kind that you munch on while sitting at a bar. He waxed eloquently about obscure varieties of hops and the attributes of two-row vs. six-row barley. At length, he offered me a beer. I was beginning to think he’d never ask.

Kevin had an astonishing variety of brews. Some were extraordinarily excellent while others were, shall we say, interesting.

“You’re gonna love this one,” smiled Kevin as he handed me a frosty bottle. “It’s my own special recipe.” 

I took a long pull from the bottle. 

“I added just a touch of jalapeño,” said Kevin. “Good, isn’t it?”

It felt as if I had just swallowed molten lava. I had no idea that something so cold could be so hot! Sweat springing from my brow, I croaked, “It’s certainly interesting.”

Inspired by Kevin’s example and motivated by a desire to enjoy beer that hadn’t been manufactured on an industrial scale, I opted to try homebrewing myself.

I purchased a beer-making kit at a local hobby shop. Kevin had shown me the wide selection of roasted malts that he had on hand, but I decided to buy malt extract – a honey-like concentrate – instead. Call me lazy.

I followed the brew kit’s instructions to the letter, instructions that included boiling a bunch of water. In fact, the brew kit’s sales materials stated that if you can boil water, you can make beer. We’ll see about that.

It didn’t take long for everything to get boiled and blended. Within hours, the yeast began to work its magic and the basement (where my wife insisted that I keep my mess) began to smell like a brewery. It was wonderful.

When the time was right, I bottled the beer. After letting it age for a few days, I opened one and took a sip. It was bold and full-bodied – a nearly perfect beer!

I quickly decided to whip up another batch. This is how I learned that the brewing gods can be quite finicky.         

When I opened the first bottle of my second batch, a brown geyser burst forth. I instinctively put my mouth over the bottle. A foamy, vinegar-like substance rocketed into my skull and tried to force its way out through my nose and ears. My eyes bulged considerably.

A malicious microbe had ruined the brew. And I had obviously overprimed the beer prior to bottling. With a heavy heart, I dumped the undrinkable swill down the drain.

I eventually gave up on homebrewing. Fortunately, this was about the time that brewpubs began to pop up all across the nation and a wondrous variety of craft beers were made available to the thirsty public.

Americans can now enjoy beers that range from “OMG, where have you been all my life!” to “Whoa, that’s… interesting.” There are beers that are sweeter than syrup and ales that are as hoppy as a bucketful of frogs.

And I can’t help but think that all of this would have made Benjamin very happy.

Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and in bookstores nationwide.

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