Witch is Brew

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy"
Benjamin Franklin

Perhaps one of the least appreciated and overly consumed alcoholic beverages is beer. In its most basic form, beer is the product of fermenting grains, with the addition of other flavoring ingredients such as hops, fruits, and various herbs and/or spices. Beer, in one form or another, has been with us, some estimate, for over 10,000 years. It is not unreasonable to assume that the beginnings of brewing were a happy accident of harvested, sprouted, grains being soaked by a summer rain. As wild yeast found the liquid, fermentation occurred, yielding accidental beer. Curiosity (or perhaps food conservation) most likely led to tasting the liquid giving rise to civilization as we know it. Perhaps you think that is an exaggeration, but a convincing argument can be made that the desire to have a ready supply of grain for the brewing process led early humans to abandon their nomadic lifestyles of hunter/gatherers and begin early agrarian villages, cultivating and domesticating the grains needed to make beer. Clay tablets from Babylonia dating to 4300 BC contain recipes for beer. Around 2000 BC, it is estimated that 40% of all grain grown in Egypt was used for making beer (which was reputed to have been introduced by the god Osiris.) By the middle ages, brewing technique had been somewhat standardized, and was typically undertaken by religious orders and craft guilds.

The brewing process is a more complex chemical procedure than the relatively simple process of fermenting grape juices into wine. Both use yeast but where the grapes used for wine readily yield the sugars needed to nourish the yeast, beer is made from grains. In order for the yeast to have the sugars needed to grow and create fermentation, it is necessary to convert the starches of the grain to sugars. Fortunately, grains undertake this process when they sprout. The process of allowing the grains to germinate, known as "malting" gives the yeast the sugars needed for the fermentation process. The grain typically used for quality beer is barley, and malted barley can be dried, and roasted for differing flavors and colors. Unlike wine, brewing beer requires that a mixture of water and crushed malted grains are cooked which releases the malted grains' sugars. While the home brewer can used actual grains, there are a number of malt extract and spray-dried malt products on the market that simplify the temperature monitoring necessary for the conversion of grain starches to sugars. To this mixture, known as wort, various other ingredients are added, most notably hops, which adds flavor, bitterness and aroma to the end product. Hops is now a standard addition, but was first used in the middle ages for its preservation abilities. Because beer requires that the liquid to be boiled, drinking beer was preferable to consuming water, as the brewing process also purified otherwise unpotable drinking water. The same rule of thumb still applies when visiting Mexico. After a week or so of fermentation, the yeast and solids have settled to the bottom of the fermentation vessel, called a carboy, and the clear fermented beer can be siphoned off for bottling. At this stage, a home brewer adds a small amount of additional sugar, and much like Champagne, a secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle. Because the bottle is capped, the carbon dioxide from the fermentation is trapped, and the liquid inside becomes carbonated, resulting in both the beer fizz, as well as the sudsy head.

As the Industrial Revolution brought forth refrigeration, large commercial brewers were able to mass produce beers, and ship, without spoilage, beyond previous geographic limitations. Prohibition of the 1920's and 30's all but destroyed the brewing industry in the U.S., and many of the local breweries, unable to exist on sales from ginger ale and root beer, closed their doors. Only the largest and strongest remained giving rise to the mega commercial brewers of today.

The mass production of beer is probably the reason why beer is viewed as a rather pedestrian beverage, notwithstanding its glorious history. It is unfortunate that when we talk of beer, most people think in terms of large Draft horses (although the taste of some commercial beers does cause a reference to equines). Because of the standardization, there is a lack of appreciation of the complexities and variations that can be present in beer, and it has been relegated to a lower status then it deserves. Perish the thought that a beer would be ordered to compliment your poached salmon. But, notwithstanding the lack of respect given to the noble brew, the fact remains that there are infinite varieties of styles and tastes. Subtle flavors and aftertastes, not usually associated with the brews sold at nickel beer nights are still very much available in brew pubs and craft beers (small brewers, making less then 15,000 barrels per year). Better still, since 1978, home brewing has been legal and a vast array of resources is now available for the home brewer. Not only is home brewing a rewarding gastronomic enterprise, it is also an economical one.

Consider the following:

Typically, a six-pack of high quality, micro-brew (say, Great Lakes or Crooked River, for example) costs $7.00. A standard batch of Homebrew will yield about 5 Gallons, or one bottle short of 9 six packs. At microbrewery cost, that's $63. Yet, the kits, the easiest way for a novice to learn the brewer's art, are available to produce those five gallons for $22.00. Your net savings is $41.00 per batch, or a whopping $4.60 per six pack! Admittedly, there are additional costs, but they are one time expenditures. As an example, Rozi's Wine House, 14900 Detroit, 221-1119, carries a very nice startup kit, that contains all the equipment needed and ingredients for the first batch for $49.95. The cost of the reusable bottles adds another $45.00 or so. Because of pressures involved, never reuse "saved" commercial bottles; always buy reusable home brewing bottles. The total investment for your first batch of beer, including all the reusable equipment is around $100.00. Even with those costs, by the time you bottle your second batch, you've broken even, and now you're producing high quality brews at less then half the costs of purchasing commercial beers. Beyond the savings, you've got a quality product that you can tailor to your individual tastes, and serve with a certain amount of pride the next time a guest asks for a cold one.

There is a certain lag time between brewing and consuming (typically one week of fermentation, 2-3 weeks for conditioning after bottling). Cleanliness is an absolute must, and the home brewer needs to make sure that EVERYTHING is clean, germ and wild-yeast free. I offer the following recipe from my microbrewery in preparation for the upcoming season and your Holiday entertaining.

Moonlight Howl's Christmas Ale:

5 lbs. Edme D.M.S. plain malt extract
½ oz. Cascade hops (boiling)
½ oz. Tettanger hops (finishing)
1 package lager yeast
Zest of 3 oranges
2 three inch cinnamon sticks
6 whole Allspice
¼ cup corn sugar (bottling)

Bring 2 Gallons of water (avoid tap if possible) to a gentle boil. Immediately add malt extract, boiling hops, orange zest, cinnamon and allspice. Stir to dissolve, boil for 45 minutes. While boiling, fill your fermentation vessel with 3 gallons of cold water. Add the finishing hops for the last 3 minutes of the boiling time. Pour the hot wort through a strainer into the fermenting vessel (with the cold water). When the mixture has cooled to room temperature, add the yeast, insert the fermentation lock, and allow to ferment approx. 1 week or until co2 is no longer being produced. Add corn sugar and bottle. Allow to age 2 weeks.
Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 1, Issue 10, Posted 01.49 PM / 03rd November 2005.