Hops how-to: Beer lover becomes a home brewer

Posted Jan. 11, 2011, at 3:09 p.m.

After tearing away the wrapping paper from the bulkiest present under the family Christmas tree, I found a box. Inside the box I found a bucket. Inside the bucket I found a plastic hose, a siphon, a thermometer, a hydrometer (whatever that is), something that looked like a wine bottle opener missing a screw, and some things that I have trouble describing.

Had I not ruined the surprise by picking out my own gift a week earlier, I would have been horrified that a loved one seemed to want me to start making explosives. As it was, I wasn’t shocked at the contents of my brand-new beer brewing kit, just curious and apprehensive.

This apprehension stems from the fact that my knowledge of beer is limited to: “I like it. Yum.” With such sparse knowledge about this mysterious liquid that gives me so much enjoyment, I’ve realized it’s time to experiment.

As a beer snob, I’ve figured out what I like in a beer. I like darker, more flavorful beers that are distinct and leave you smacking your lips. Among my favorites are Guinness, Sam Adams’ Boston Lager and Irish Red, and Sea Dog’s porter.

Aside from my own uneducated preferences, I know very little about the science behind making great beer — or what makes great beer great. I know there are things called hops, yeast, malts and various grains that make beers unique and delicious. How do they work? How do they influence the flavor, color or consistency of the brew? Will they kill me if I don’t combine them in the correct way? That last question seems especially important.

These are all things I plan to learn through brewing my own beers. What better way to educate oneself than to dive in and make a horrible mistake or three?

To kick off my experiment, I visited The Central Street Farmhouse in downtown Bangor a couple of weeks before Christmas to pick up the tools that would carry me on my brewing journey. I’d heard through word of mouth that this place was a hobbyist’s haven. Word of mouth was right. The store is packed with wine, beer, mead and even cheese making supplies.

Within 10 minutes of walking inside, I was standing in front of the register with a box containing all the hardware needed to make a seemingly unlimited supply of beer — 5 gallons at a time — a paper bag filled with the ingredients for a brew the Farmhouse calls Broadway Brown Ale, and a copy of “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing” by Charlie Papazian, which The Associated Press calls “The homebrewer’s bible.”

Now that the holidays have passed, the time to get started on my first brew has presented itself. I’m excited, hopeful and scared. I mean, what if I brew 5 gallons of nonpotable sludge?

But then, what if this is the start of something great? What if this beer ends up being the most delicious I’ve ever tasted? What if my friends relish my creation? What if brewing — with all its failures and successes, aromas and tastes (delicious or horrid) — teaches me something about myself?

In his book, Papazian uses his mantra to assure readers they have no reason to fret: “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” The worst-case scenario is that I finish the process, end up with something disgusting, and waste $35 worth of perfectly good beer ingredients in a batch that just didn’t work this time. If it goes well, I get 5 gallons of delicious, unique beer that I can share with my friends, family and colleagues. Definitely a risk worth taking.

The experiment began on a lazy Saturday morning over a large pot of boiling water filled with a mixture of malts, extracts, yeast, hops and water that I still don’t fully comprehend. I’ll walk you through the process as I feel my way through. The more brews I try, the more I’ll learn and the more I’ll be able to share.

As I learn, I hope to spread my wings by traveling to some of Maine’s breweries. I’ll attend classes. I’ll talk to entrepreneurs and experts. By the end of it, I hope to have a deeper appreciation and understanding of beer and its nuances. I’ll share what I learn about the chemistry, the ingredients, the history, the styles and the people behind beer. The more I learn about beer, the more I hope to love beer.

Until then, I remain oblivious and curious.

Next time, I’ll write about my first blind leap into brewing with Central Street Farmhouse’s Broadway Brown Ale, which I chose because it’s rumored to be slightly more “foolproof” than some of the other beer options that fit my tastes. Bring it on. Brew on.

Nick McCrea is a copy editor for the Bangor Daily News. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maine and a master’s degree in magazine, newspaper and online journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. This occasional column will chronicle his first endeavor at beer brewing.

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