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Jessica's Journal: Basement Beer Brewing

I wasn’t really a beer drinker when I started spending more time in the United States. I’m more of a Gin and Tonic or Aperol Spritz kind of girl if I’m honest. But after a few months in the Midwest, even I couldn’t deny the allure of a crisp summertime beer. I realise I had really missed the busy vibe of a crowded pub (or taproom, as they call them over here) or the chill of a lovely beer garden. There was a strange appeal in all of this craft beer culture, and my interest was piqued.


After about a year into the pandemic, having exhausted all other options (and without any better uses for our suburban detached garage), Patrick proposed we craft our own. I don’t even know how to make an omelette, so beer seemed a stretch, but I agreed, mainly because at that point in the pandemic I realised that resistance was futile. 


This is the story of the fun and silly science experiment that brewers across America call “Brew Day.”


From my - very limited - understanding, beer is basically sugar water fermented with yeast. The brewing process boils malted grains (think wheat, corn, or barley), quickly cools that syrupy goop (called “wort”) down before “pitching” (as I learned, brewing comes with its own German-ish vocabulary), which is to say dropping in, yeast. Once the wort has been pitched, we would leave our beer-to-be in a temperature-controlled-environment (read: our basement) for about a month until it ferments into beer. Now, like anything, brewing can be made infinitely more complicated than this, but I’m not really a ‘read the directions’ sort of person, so we just jumped in.

Once we boiled a few litres of water (for precise 101 brewing instructions, check out northernbrewer.com), we poured in the malt extract. Serious and experienced brewers will make their own malt extract by ‘mashing’ malted grains - basically pre-boiling them - and lautering (rinsing) them to separate the sweet wort from the leftover grains. We skipped ahead (are you seeing a theme here?) and bought a carton of the syrup, which worked pretty well!

Once the extract and water was mixed, we start calling our brew “wort.” I wanted to call it “Barry the Beer” but Patrick was less keen. We boiled the wort for another 45 minutes or so. I helped by stirring - often.

After about half an hour of boiling, I poured in the hops. There is quite a debate around when to ‘hop’ your wort. Adding hops earlier means that the beer can be more boozy and taste more like an American-style IPA. Adding hops later on in the boil gives you the slightly bitter complex flavouring, without going too overboard (from my perspective at least!).

We boiled the hopped beer for another 15 minutes. Then, we - in a very exciting flurry - plunged our copper coil into the boiling wort and pumped cold hose water through the coil to quickly drop the temperature of the wort. This was all too exciting to capture in pictures. You’ll have to imagine it. The reason we do this so quickly is to prevent any nasty bacteria from getting into a warm wort (which is at its most vulnerable once it cools down). Once cooled, we poured the wort into carboys, jugs. We swished the not-quite-beer around to aerate it a bit and then - delicately, we pitched the yeast! Dry yeast comes in little packets - it almost looks like seeds. 

Once we dumped the seed lookalikes in, we sealed the carboy with a fermentation lock and rubber stopper. This funny little contraption is filled with water and allows gas from the fermentation process to bubble out without allowing any oxygen to get into the maturing beer.

Once the beer was fermenting, all we had to do was wait. We placed the carboys in our basement and checked in from time to time to watch the bubbling (channeling our inner scientists). After about two weeks, we moved the beer into bottles and added a tiny bit of priming sugar - which helps the beer carbonate. After another two weeks in bottles, the beer was ready to pour and voila - our very own home-brewed beer! It was surprisingly delicious!


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