For the past six years I lived under the cotton candy clouds and big blue sky of Albuquerque, home of the television series Breaking Bad. The show is about a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, and it’s great drama. But the most memorable scenes for me were not the tense standoffs with bad guys or DEA agents. They were the adoringly shot montages of the main character making meth. Set to upbeat music and using quick shots, they painted joyful scenes of a craftsman plying his trade.
I identified with these. I was intimately familiar with following a recipe to produce a mind-altering substance. I had become a home brewer.
My yearlong path from beer novice to the annoying guy that tries to pick out the aromas of different hop varietals was filled with good times, a little danger, and a surprising amount of science. I read voraciously on the subject, and I talked about my hobby with anyone who would listen. Now, with seasonal pumpkin ales hitting the shelves and my equipment left behind, I’m a little sad that I’m not still in the thick of it. In lieu of brewing a batch, I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
My obsession with beer gained critical mass in December 2012. I was home for the holidays, trying not to think about my Ph.D. research, when I got lost down the YouTube rabbit hole. It had all started with a question about what malted barley was, and before I knew it I was aching to learn more about brewing and to try it out.
My first attempt was a failure. My brother-in-law had given me a beginners’ kit years before, and I followed the instructions. The result had no carbonation and smelled like apple juice. The likely cause: dead yeast. I lamented my failure to my friend Matthias. He was German, and it turned out that he had done some home brewing with his family back home. I shared my limited knowledge and we agreed to try a recipe over the weekend.
This time, a success! The beer—a German style called a hefeweizen—was drinkable. And beyond that, it actually tasted good.
In theory, brewing beer is straightforward. Soak some barley or wheat in hot water, add some hops, and boil for about an hour. Then pour in some yeast and sit back and wait. Each step in the process has centuries of distilled wisdom behind it, as well as solid science.
My initial question—what is malted barley?—was answered by a brewing book. Barley seeds have almost everything they need to become a full-grown plant. Just add water and sunlight and you’ll have a new stalk of barley. For food, the young plant uses up the endosperm, a nourishing part of the seed. Malting is the process of warming the seed and giving it moisture until it just starts to sprout, and then killing it. This softens the covering of the endosperm, making the seeds suitable for use in brewing. It also releases enzymes that break down the endosperm’s starches.
These enzymes take center stage on brew day. Water at temperatures from about 148 to 154 degrees Fahrenheit bathes the malt. This step, called the mash, activates the enzymes, which act like chemical scissors to break down the starchy endosperm to simpler sugars. After about an hour, hotter water deactivates the enzymes and the mash is finished.
The sweet juice that remains is drained into a suitable pot. The grains are rinsed with more hot water, extracting as much sugar as possible. Next comes the boil. It sanitizes the sugar water, making sure no nasty bacteria can spoil the beer later. It’s also where hops enter the mix.
Hops are the flower of the hop plant, and they contain bitter oils. Boiling the barley juice with hops releases these oils and adds bitterness and an aroma to the beer. The length of the boil determines how much bitterness the hops add, with longer boils releasing more of the bitter compounds. Without this bittering, beer would taste cloyingly sweet.
A typical boil lasts an hour. Then the young beer is transferred to a bucket and yeast is added. Yeast feeds on the sugars, leaving behind carbon dioxide gas and alcohol as byproducts. Most of the gas escapes at this point, and after a week or two the beer gets bottled. The yeast that make it into the bottle carbonate the beer, and the process is complete.
Variations on this basic process lead to the wide variety of beer styles. For example, pumpkin ales get their unique flavors from adding actual pumpkins, spices, or both during the boil. And home brewers are delighted to experiment with ingredients.
Many Saturdays came and went, with the result that we brewed around 20 batches, mostly unique styles. Reviews from friends were favorable, and we limited our mishaps to one serious accident that gave me second degree burns on my left hand.
Eventually, I had to focus on finishing my dissertation, and I didn’t have as much time for brewing. But talking about my passion with those that were interested never got old. Even with my equipment in Albuquerque, I still feel like a home brewer.