In which Anne and I make beer

I got into bed around 2300 last night. Anne followed a few minutes later, and was asleep a few minutes after that. I stayed awake reading until about 130, which is something I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks. I can’t fall asleep before 130, no matter how hard I try, so rather than fight it, I just read until then, turn off the light, and drift off to the Dreamlands for 8 or 9 hours. Last night, I finished Mike Doughty’s Book of Drugs, which gets 5 of 5 stars from me.

But that’s not what this post is about. 

This post is about beer. Specifically, the making of beer with my wife this weekend.

Last summer, my son Ryan spent a couple months with Anne and me between graduating college and starting his job. One day, he said to me, “We need a father/son hobby that we can do together while I’m here.”

“Yeah, that would be awesome,” I said, “what did you have in mind?”

“Let’s make beer together!”

And we did. And it was awesome.

Almost one year later, I’ve made 23 batches of homebrew. I’d say 17 of them have been good, 3 of them have been great, and 3 of them were… learning experiences. 

I’ve learned a lot about brewing in a year. I’ve learned about the history of beer, the science behind brewing, and why certain styles of beer are the way they are. I’ve shared my passion with anyone who cares to listen, and I’ve found something that will be a life-long hobby. 

Oh, also? About every five weeks, I have some new beer to drink and share with my friends and neighbors, that I made myself.

When I started brewing, I used extracts and very simple kits to make some tasty beers. I was happy with that for several batches, but eventually, I wanted to try my hand at brewing with grains instead of grain extract, so I could make my own version of Stone’s Pale Ale. I studied my homebrewing books, read hundreds of posts on forums, and eventually felt like I could give it a try. It wasn’t difficult at all, was actually a lot of fun, and ended up giving me one of those 3 great batches I mentioned.

Since then, I’ve done a mixture of extract and all grain brews, always following someone else’s recipe, or using a recipe kit I bought from Austin Homebrew Supply. I’ve spent a lot of time playing with software like Brewtarget 1.2.4 and Beersmith, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to design and brew my own recipe. That all changed when I was talking with Anne about beer, and she mentioned that she was very fond of IPAs that had a citrusy, piney hop character. I thought to myself, “You know what? I bet I could make my wife a beer that she’d like. I think I need to do that.”

But could I really do it? Could I really come up with a combination of grains and hops that would make good beer? What if it sucked? What if it was a waste of time and money?

As Charlie Papazian said, “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.” So what if it didn’t work? I’d keep good notes, make changes if necessary, and try again another time. I know it sounds silly, but it took me a few months to come to this conclusion, to have the courage to just go ahead and do it.

About two weeks ago, I sat down with some of my favorite books, opened Brewtarget, and got to work. It was easy and fun, and I came up with something that I thought was pretty decent I shared it with the Homebrewing Subreddit* and on my G+ thing for feedback from other homebrewers. I listened to everyone’s feedback and ideas, and tweaked and modified my original recipe until I was happy with it. On Wednesday last week, I went to my homebrew supply and bought 15.25 pounds of grains, a whole bunch of hops, and some yeast. 

“I made your IPA recipe,” I told Anne. “I’m calling it #VandalEyesPA.”

“When are you making it?”

“Saturday. Want to help?”

“Yeah, that’ll be fun.”

So Anne and I spent Saturday afternoon making beer together. I explained to her what each step did — doing so helped me stay focused on what I was doing, and seemed to deepen my understanding of the process — and we took tons of pictures of the whole thing. There was even some live-Twitter-blogging (isn’t all Twittering “Live Twittering”?) of the afternoon, using the hashtag #VandalEyesPA”**

It was a beautiful afternoon, warm but not hot, with just a tiny breeze to keep us comfortable. Our dogs played on the patio while we sat out there, our cats chased bugs and birds and each other around the yard. All the while, we stirred the boiling wort, made sure we weren’t boiling off too much, and documented the entire experience for each other and anyone in the world who wanted to follow along.

The entire process took about 6 hours from the time I heated water for the mash until we pitched the yeast, and they were 6 of the happiest hours of the year for me. Anne and I spend a lot of time together, (we are absolutely the best of friends in addition to being married) but we’ve both been so busy this year, we haven’t had a lot of time to actually do something together like this, just for the sheer joy of it.

When we were finally finished and I was putting the fermentation bucket into the guest bathroom (where it stays cooler than any other room in the house), I said to Anne, “I’m so glad that we did this together.”

“I had a good time,” she said.

“And now this is our beer, which makes me feel a lot happier than I thought it would.”

“When will it be ready?”

“It should be done fermenting in about 7 days, so I can rack it to clear when I get back from Toronto.”

I started to explain what that meant, but she cut me off. “I know what that means,” she said. I guess I talk about this stuff a lot; I'm nerdy that way.

“Anyway, the important thing is that it should be ready to drink about 6 weeks from today.”

“Eat all the sugars, little yeasties,” I said as I double-checked the blowoff tube and settled the fermentation bucket into a tub filled with cool water. I looked at Anne. “I talk to my yeast. You know, because I’m not crazy.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.” 

I dried my hands and we walked out, closing the bathroom door behind us.

“You want to watch Game of Thrones?” Anne asked me.

“Yes. Yes I do.”

A perfect end to a perfect day.

 

*I love Reddit for a lot of reasons, but the biggest reason I spend more time there than any other site is the small communities of awesome people in the smaller subreddits. If there’s a thing you love, there’s probably a subreddit for it, and the odds are very good that the signal to noise ratio doesn’t suck.

**Anne puts googly eyes on everything, and calls it “#VandalEyes.” 

 

38 thoughts on “In which Anne and I make beer”

  1. Dear Wil,
    I’m lucky to live in THE region in the world that has the most breweries per square kilometer as has been proven :) You can look up “Bamberg” if you like. We have (for example) a beer that tastes a bit like smoked ham. And they have great names like “Huppendörfer” oder “Zwergla” (Frankonian-German for “Small Dwarf”)
    Should you ever come to Europe, esp. Germany, make sure to drop by. I’d love to take you (and your family) for a beer tour. For only scientific reasons of course…. :)
    Until then: thank you for all the great stuff that you do. I love “Tabletop” and your blog.
    Cheers,
    Felix

  2. Wow Wil, what a week!
    First that AWESOME alliteration episode of TableTop with Amber making up those sunny smiling stories and gratuitous giggling (see what I did there? :-D ) and now this wonderful story about you having lots of fun.
    Now if only I were one who likes alkohol *sigh* All tastes just bitter to me. I always pretend it’s coke in my head ;-)
    Man I wish my life was this full of great people. I envy you ;_;
    But hey by living vicariously through you I get all these feelings as well (at least a little bit). And that makes me happy. Thanks Wil :-)

  3. Servus from a fellow Franconian! :) (in exile in the UK, though)
    Undoubtedly we make the best beer in the world, although I had some rather decent beers over here, too. A traditional English ale is probably closest to Franconian beer I’ve had.

  4. How to you read in bed without disturbing Anne with the light? Even an iPad screen gives off a lot of light in a dark room.
    I know very little about making beer and even if I had the space, I wouldn’t have the patience or discipline to make my own homebrew but I sure love drinking beer. :o)

  5. If you love good beer, homebrewing is definitely worth the effort. The initial costs aren’t THAT much($100), and the cost of actually making the beer is comparable or less expensive than buying good beer.(about $50 per 5 gallon batch, which is equivalent of 2 cases) In general, the homebrew community is welcoming, friendly, and always encourages new brewers. And there’s an answer to pretty much every problem out there on the internet, or at your local brew store or homebrew club.

  6. That’s awesome! Two years ago, my brother (who is an OUTSTANDING homebrewer, and now works as a rep for Sierra Nevada – and actually got Papazian to come and speak for a class!) came up with the excellent idea of brewing with my husband and I when we were visiting for Christmas. Our first beer was an oatmeal stout, and it turned out so damn amazing (and it was so completely fun to do!) that we were determined to do it every year that followed.
    Since we don’t get to see each other often, my brother suggested this past XMas that we make a barleywine, so that while we’re making the current year’s batch, we could drink the previous year’s one! We aimed for an English style barleywine, and the run was so concentrated we actually weren’t able to do a small beer with the remainder like we planned! However… part of it is aging in steel barrels, part in bourbon barrels, and part in virgin oak… then it will be blended… and IT WILL BE OURS.
    Brewing is the most best. You enjoy something you made with someone you care about, and it’s just… so much better. :) Homebrew for life!

  7. This (and the live tweeting) was fascinating. Thank you for sharing it with us.
    My birthday present from work last month was a homebrew kit, which I plan to get going as soon as I work out how to get it home from work.
    I had only thought about using the brew kits, like the one that came with the equipment, I hadn’t even considered working from raw ingredients. I think I may have to work my way up to that…
    Since a colleague is already making wine and about to start producing cider, we may have some fun office parties to come. :)

  8. I was so bummed when you didn’t come to Denver last month. I wanted to talk beer with you!
    So happy to see you and Anne brewing together. It is a wonderful thing! My husband’s homebrewing hobby has become OUR hobby. It has been so much fun, creating and drinking!
    If you even get the chance you should visit to Colorado Springs, CO. I have heard it called “The Napa Valley of Homebrewing.” It made me giggle wildly when I first heard it, but we do have a bunch of breweries here!
    Happy Homebrewing to you and Anna!

  9. Homebrewing is a fantastic hobby, assuming you like beer of course. You can make homebrewing as simple as you want or as complex. I started out with extracts in the kitchen and now have a two tiered, hybrid all grain system 4 years later. It is also one of those hobbies that you can share; not many folks will turn down a six pack or growler full of homebrew.

  10. Loved the post, Wil. Props to you, man – your posts about brewing with your son are what got me into the hobby (which is a ton of fun, by the way).
    Thanks!

  11. I recently tried going to an 8+ gallon fermenter for my 5-gallon batches, and I’m never going back. Haven’t needed a blow-off hose yet using the larger primary, even with highly oxygenated wort and very active yeast. The krausen never quite hits the top. Much easier, in my opinion! :-)

  12. I love brewing with my husband, though I totally take over. I’m finally getting a chance to brew my honey ginger steam (“Honey, I’m Ginger Lager”) beer again tomorrow (along with more C^3PA, of course!). I’ve been too busy (school/work/life) to brew for a while, so I’m so going to love having the time to do so tomorrow. Hurrah for holidays, eh? Oh, and I talk to my yeasts, too, especially those still in the White Labs tubes, so they don’t make too much of an explosion when I open the top.
    Speaking of, White Labs just opened their lab test brewery tasting room in San Diego. You should totally go when you have a free weekend. We’ll be getting down there as soon as we can.

  13. Here I was all excited that Wil was finally coming to Toronto… but it’s really Richmond Hill.
    Here’s hoping you get a chance to get into the actual city and sample a decent pub or two :)

  14. WTF, how is this the first I’ve heard that you’re coming to Toronto, Wil?? Now, to see if I can actually make it to any of your appearances. Hrmph.

  15. What a great way to spend the day. My wife and I have shared brewing batches in the past but with two small kids now it doesn’t work quite so smoothly.
    As long as we’re talking beer I want to return your favor of recommending the “Craft of Stone Brewing” book by recommending “The Brewer’s Apprentice” by Greg Koch and Matt Allyn. It has some really interesting interviews with some of the most creative and influential people in today’s brewing world.

  16. This was the post that got me to buy the starter kit with my girlfriend today. We have a very basic brown ale kit fermenting right now, I hope. Regardless of how this beer turns out I’m so excited to be sharing in a great new hobby with the gal that got me into drinking beer almost a year ago. She always wanted to home-brew so this is perfect. Thank you for taking the time to share these stories and making me feel like it was possible.

  17. Wil,
    Been a lurker here for quite a while now. Not sure if you’ve ever heard of it, but the Cat’s Meow was the Betty Crocker cookbook of beer back in the day. Originally, it was available in print form from CompuServe, which took forever and a day to download on a 1200Baud modem :p. So, back in the early 90’s, I helped get it online and in DB form, along with a long time Pal of mine, and the guy that got me hooked on brewing, Dave Ruggerio (beer brewer extraordinaire, owner of Barley Malt & Vine (BMV) in Newton, MA, Boston area Beer Judge, etc.).
    Sadly, I lost track of Dave when he bought a Meadery/Winery somewhere in Maine, and I haven’t brewed a single batch in hmm… 5 or 6 years now. I brewed pretty much dozens of batches a year, for about 15 years straight. I miss it, and am very definitely going to get back into it again soon though.
    Anyhow, the link to the Cat’s Meow recipe DB is:
    http://www.brewery.org/cm3/CatsMeow3.html
    You should check it out, it has some pure gold brews in it.

  18. I’ve been struggling to find an activity that my wife and I enjoy… I guess that may have to wait till our kids are grown and gone! You lucky empty nester!
    Also, here’s a question I’m apparently far to lazy to look up… is there a non-alcoholic alternative to beer making?

  19. My ex-husband and I made beer in the 90s; him more than me. I only did it twice to enter the Queen of Beer contest. He won some awards for his beer though, both in our brewclub and in various national competitions. There was the time that his cranberry ale blew the airlock off the carboy and sprayed sticky cranberry wort all over our half bathroom. Our club went on lots of field trips to various brewpubs in the Bay Area/Northern California. good times.

  20. I have gotten some great recipes from Cats Meow. Thanks for your efforts in getting it online. I like the historical recipes included on the site, some are kinda scary like the Cock Ale from Digbie’s book (it uses a rooster for flavoring).

  21. Wil, I really enjoy your brewing posts. I’m glad you and Anne got to make a batch together, here’s wishing you many more batches together in the future. If you haven’t tried any of Jamil Zainasheff’s recipes, I highly recommend that you do, especially his Chocolate Hazelnut Porter. I brewed it last winter and it will be my standard winter beer from now on, supplanting my Irish Stout recipe from this position.

  22. We had a Gravenstein Apple tree in the back yard of the rental property we got tossed* from, recently, and with the powerful juicer we own, I stored said juice in my fridge. One year later, the tops of the mason jars were domed up a little. Definitely not vinegar. I popped the top on one of the particularly darker jars to hear the gasses escape. I held it up to the light and saw campaign bubbles formulate. I had to move it over the sink pretty quickly and pour some off into a glass I had standing by. Amazing…I appeared to have made a low alcohol cider, (the recipe being mere forgetfulness). So now I have a slew of these jars in my secondary fridge awaiting bottling. Any suggestions for racking/filtration? (there is a fine pulp at the bottom of each jar I don’t care to include in the bottles I have ready.
    *we’re fine now we bought a house and have planted a sapling Gravenstein Apple and expect to continue making more yummieness.

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