Weird Science

Feb 15, 2011 at 12am

Home brewing has always seemed to be an incredibly useful yet exclusive talent cultivated by only the most elite of DIYers. I still have cloudy memories of my father exploding a dozen overfilled home brews in the family fridge and his subsequent banishment to perform only strictly culinary experiments. After sampling a unique plethora of home brews at a recent SF Brewers Guild competition, auspicious talk of cocoa nib stouts, floral Belgian ales, and blood orange infused hefeweizens culminated in my firm resolution that 2011 would be the Year of the Brew. Luckily, I knew exactly who I would rope in to helping me attain fledgling brewmaster status: the beer vixens of Local Brewing Company. 

If you spent a good amount of time in Dolores Park this summer, you might remember two generous beer ladies dragging heavy coolers of FREE home brew being given away to the sunbathing masses. Local Brewing Company’s mission is straightforward: to grow SF’s brewery scene, and to create a new hyper-local brew operation that includes unique beers that appeal to a wider local audience. With popular batches like Sutro Tower Stout, Mission IPA, and Glen Park Pale, Local Brewing Company has been brewing beer for thirsty SFers for over six years. It’s exactly this kind of enthusiasm I need to tap into to jump-start my own home brewing efforts.  

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Regan excitedly agrees to show me the ropes. As an ex-oceanographer, she is now successfully turning her love and study of vast liquid seas to the delicacies of beer brewing. Her partner in this blossoming enterprise is Sarah, a well-spoken and business-savvy lover of Belgian beers. I meet up with my enthusiastic instructors at their beer cave, a converted garage in Glen Park that also serves as the headquarters for Local Brewing Company. It is cool, dark, and still contains the faint aromatic traces of barley and hops – making it the perfect spot for brewing light- and temperature-sensitive beers.  

For my first home-brew initiation we have chosen to make a type of British pale ale called an Extra Special Bitter (ESB), but with a slight West Coast twist. While I usually prefer my beer dark and malty, I have been reassured that our choice doesn’t have an overpowering “hoppy” bite. Sarah explains that British pale ales were originally super hoppy in order to keep the beer drinkable during long overseas trading journeys. All you need is to mention a tidbit of nautical history and I’m swayed. This batch is for the sailors.  

The first and perhaps most important step to brewing beer is sanitizing. I am coached to channel my inner Martha: wash, scrub, rinse, and scrub again all the materials that will hold the delicious brew. Regan advises me that newbies can meet disaster later on if everything is not properly cleaned: Invasions of uninvited bacteria and mold may start to grow in your beer. Even worse, you potentially won’t know that a batch is skunked until you have patiently waited weeks and bragged to all your friends about the terrific beer you have waiting for them at the end of the month. That would be the ultimate humiliation – I diligently highlight the word “sanitize” in my notes. 

After everything is spic-and-span, we fill a well-loved five-gallon pot with three gallons of good ol’ San Francisco tap water and heat it to 160 degrees F. While some home brewers add specific minerals to the water to mimic conditions similar to where the beer is originally from; Regan and Sarah use local ingredients whenever possible. Today we are following a “partial-mash” method: basically constructing a giant tea bag of milled grains to impart extra flavor and character to the dry malt extract dumped into the vat. 

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We turn off the heat on the burner and soak our steeping bag filled with what appears to be wood shavings for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, Regan regales me with the ultra nerdy intricacies of brewing beer. This woman is a beer Britannica, and sometimes I struggle to keep up with the charts, gravity tests, and brew jargon that she throws around with expertise. Beer brewing can be complicated and precise, but I try to keep in mind that people started brewing beer over 5,000 years ago in rudimentary conditions. Sarah assures me that it’s “science in an envelope of art,” and part of the beauty of home brewing is that in the end you don’t quite know exactly what you’ll get.  

Finally the timer beeps, and like any proper Englishman we dip the steeping bag in and out of the hot beer tea a good 10 times to extract extra flavor and sugar from the grains. Left with a liquid called “wort,” Regan ladles me a little taste. I am surprised at the warm cup of complex sweetness that in no way resembles beer. It tastes similar to a dry barley wine (minus the alcohol), and highlights the intense amount of sugar that it takes for the fermentation process to be successful. Next, we heat the wort again and add the malt extract, stirring away until the powder is completely dissolved.  

For the next hour we take the wort to a vigorous boil while adding little packets of dried hops at specific times according to the recipe. Hops, a popular cousin to marijuana, carries the floral and bitter flavor that make ESBs and IPAs shine. Distracted by sticking my nose into one of the bags and inhaling the heady scent of uncut grass mixed with lemon and earth, I almost miss one of the time marks. Multitasking is not my forte, and I’m glad Regan is on top of the clock as I surely would have missed one of these steps on my own. 

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After an hour of hectic hops dumping, I’m feeling a little more relaxed with a Rogue beer in my hand. One of the last ingredients to add to our wort is yeast, but first it’s vital to place the pot in a makeshift ice bath so we don’t fry the living organisms. Yeast is crucial to cultivating the specific style characteristics of a beer. Take, for example, Chimay, a unique beer brewed by Trappist monks in a brilliant PR move meant to redeem the Catholic Church's reputation. This pricey and sought-after holy brew is made with yeasts that grow only in a particular pocket of Belgium. Yeast is so important that large beer companies keep microbiologists on staff to monitor the health and reproductive capabilities of the single-cell organisms.  

Finally, it is time to siphon the cooled wort from the pot and place it into the primary fermenter where it will stay bubbling away for a week. We snap the lid on tight and attach the rubber stopper and airlock, tucking the precious vessel in a dark corner of the beer cave. We’re in the homestretch, and Regan quickly demonstrates how to “rack the brew,” which simply involves moving the beer into a second fermenter so the liquid doesn’t pick up any strange tastes from dying yeasts. We also bottle a few “fake” beers so I’m prepared to repeat the entire process on my own next time. After a long afternoon of brewing, I finally wave good-bye to our primordial beer baby and promise Sarah and Regan that I will be back to taste the elixir when it’s ready. 

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For the next few weeks I dream of the moment I can bypass my corner store’s outrageous beer prices and arrogantly sip a home-crafted porter made in my own closet. Upon my return for a tasting in the beer cave, Regan warns me that our beer is a bit on the “young” side. But she also knows that I’m impatient to try my first brew experiment and obligingly pours full glasses from a keg. Our ESB has a rich caramel color with a fruity ester, creamy texture, and delicious aroma of malts and floral notes. I am surprised at its balanced nature; it’s as if Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale and Boddingtons had a love child on Haight Street. The hops are indeed not overpowering, and instead I note nuances of toffee and honey in the delectable beer. I christen our version of the Bridge ESB, “The Dead Englishman,” and savor each sip with extra reverence knowing that I had a hand in its making.  

A beer or two later and I’ve already sworn off my earlier resolutions of getting into shape this year. Instead, I’m going to start brewing large masses of beer in all my apartment closets and dark corners. I recall the old adage  “never trust a skinny baker” and wonder aloud if the same rule applies to beer brewers. “We give most of it away,” Regan laughs. As I grab a few ESB bottles and custom growlers filled with home brew, I’m already thinking about who among my friends is deserving to taste the fruits of my hard brewing labor.  

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Below is the secret recipe for Local Brewing Company’s Bridge ESB. I recommend checking out Brewcraft for supplies and the full recipe with instructions and specific times (ask for “Partial Mash Brewing Instructions”). It also has a starter kit preassembled with all the equipment you need for your first batch. Of course, if you prefer to just sample Local Brewing Company’s already brewed beer, check them out during SF Beer Week , going on now through February 20. 

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