Fermentation Fever

By Posted on Apr 24 2012 | By

  The Wine Guy Adds Brewer to His Resume  

Its ten o’clock on a late September evening as I slip down to my dark wine cellar to observe white wines in late-stage fermentation.

As I shine a beam of light across the neck of a carboy, I stand in awe. A gazillion bubbles race up the sides and into the top of the six gallon glass jug. The air lock bubbles away. The exuberance of primeval fermentation transfixes me.

Boiling the wort

Fermentation has been used by man for thousands of years to make bread, cheese, yogurt, pickles, beer and wine. Essentially the action converts a carbohydrate such as sugar into an acid or alcohol. Eons ago earliest man harnessed this natural process to produce foods and beverages near to his heart. I relate to my ancestors’ ardor for the magic-like transformative process.

For eight years I have been a home winemaker. I’ve produced over 4,000 bottles of wine in my humble wine cellar. It’s an endeavor framed by challenge and satisfaction. To take fruit from the field and produce a libation that satisfies both body and spirit is rewarding. And it’s fun.

For a like period of time I have also been a home bread maker and its obvious derivative, pizza maker. My children and their families are known to clamor, “Dad, make your pizza when we come over tonight.” Not a problem.

Enter beer. Over the last two years, I have been a member of a local hiking club called Boots ‘n Beer. Its motto is “A drinking club with a hiking problem.” The group roams the trails of nearby Shenandoah National Park monthly. At the end of each ramble, we adjourn to a local pub to hoist a pint or two and have dinner.

While wine is my passion, the pub visits ignited an interest in microbrewed beers: Amber ale, Stout, Pilsner, India pale ale, American wheat, Bock, Porter, Vienna lager…the list is endless. I recognized a parallel between wine and beer. Both possess an incredible scope of styles and flavors. And both are produced by fermentation.

One reason for my previous low interest in beer was the bland and watery taste of most popular brands. Leading beer makers today produce light lagers that appeal to the widest audience. Unfortunately for me, they are boring; a grievous sin when it comes to alcohol consumption. Give me body, depth, complexity and variety over easy drinking any day.

Why Light Beers
Let’s digress a moment to better understand why Americans consume such large amounts of uninteresting beer. Granted, it’s refreshing. And given its lower alcohol content, it can be consumed in larger quantities. But volume consumption is not my thing. Flavor appreciation is.

The state of current consumption tracks back to the repeal of prohibition in 1933. After thirteen years of the “Noble Experiment”, only a few major breweries were still operating; they had survived by producing malted products for the food industry. Thousands of small brewers had long gone out of business and their equipment fallen into disuse.

After Repeal, the major breweries sought to produce a product appealing to the largest audience possible, including women. When World War II began, a significant percentage of the male population were overseas defending freedom, leaving women to run the factories and calling the shots on what type of beer they preferred. The production of light and innocuous beer exploded. When the men returned, the pattern was established for easy drinking lagers; think Bud, Coors and Miller type beers.

Further abetting the decline of interesting beer was an oversight in repealing prohibition that did not permit home beermaking. Not until 1979 was the error corrected and homebrewers emerged as a force. In the ensuing three decades these talented—mostly men—created the microbrew market. Today, some 2,000 craft breweries are operating throughout the country and they are growing faster than the major producers; most are run by former home brewers. The movement is analogous to the dramatic increase in small wineries being run by previous home winemakers.

Once the beer making bug bit, I jumped in full force. I purchased the equipment I needed such as a brew pot, bottling pail, capper and beer bottles. Other items such as a hydrometer and carboy came from my winemaking supplies. Making beer is not difficult but close attention to cleanliness is paramount. Fresh brewed beer is highly susceptible to bacterial infection. Cleanliness is next to beeriness.  

To date I have brewed six different styles: Amber ale, American wheat, Oatmeal stout,Vienna lager,India pale ale, and Rye pale ale. Two more versions of ale are in the offing. In the months ahead, I will share my experiences in producing fresh, delicious and healthful homebrewed beer.

“Filled with mingled cream and amber I will drain that glass again. Such hilarious visions clamber through the chambers of my brain—quaintest thoughts—queerest fancies come to life and fade away; who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today.”   Edgar Allan Poe

Categories : HAGARTY TALES