There’s a Science Experiment in the Closet

Sneaking a peek won’t hurt anything, will it?

“Don’t contaminate your samples!”

Last week, I had a flashback to Amber Howard’s high school chemistry class at Henry County High. I was mashing in my first attempt at brewing beer, and the instructions cautioned against contamination. Between trying to keep the mixture at just the right temperature, remembering to stir, washing and sanitizing everything, and trying not to make too big a mess — all while wondering how in the world this was supposed to be done with only a soup pot and a one-gallon glass jar — contamination was the least of my concerns. Still, I could just hear Mrs. Howard telling me “If your sample isn’t pure, you’ll answer a different question and have to start over to answer this one.” Back then, the answer had something to do with oxygen, as I recall. Now it had to do with producing a decent drink. In either case, I got the idea: contamination was bad.

This whole thing started when a friend mentioned that he brews his own beer. That piqued my interest. Then Lynn Rosetto Kasper of APM’s Splendid Table talked with an author in New York who has written about homebrewing small (one-gallon) batches. Suddenly, this was something I had to try. My latest hobby. My newest contribution, however questionable, in our quest to live sustainably and locally. An effort to save money on my infrequent pints. A guy thing.

Brooklyn Brew Shop sent everything we needed including pre-measured ingredients and a lab thermometer.

Like my darling’s canning, brewing was once a home activity that was taken for granted. Apparently, every family had their own way of making the stuff using whatever was available locally. There are hundreds of American recipes from families, inns, taverns, cafes, and the like. They survived Prohibition, and many are now making a comeback along with new experiments in craft brewing.

So Mary Anne found and ordered a small-batch brewing kit from Brooklyn Brew Shop. They have any number of flavors and styles that ship with all the equipment. You supply the soup pot, water, and stove. When you’re ready to go again, just order a new packet of grain and yeast. It’s like the Betty Crocker of beer making. “If you can cook oatmeal, you can brew beer,” the box says.

Well, not quite. For one thing, I’ve never spent an hour boiling oatmeal while carefully keeping the temperature between 144° and 152°F. And I’ve never spent another hour pouring water through the mash and then boiling again to reduce it before adding yeast to get the whole thing turned into alcohol. And I’ve certainly never taken a month to do the whole process. But I take their point.

While the mash was cooking, though, I started thinking. (What else was I going to do while watching the lab thermometer and stirring?) I wondered who were my last ancestors who actually brewed their own beer? Certainly none of my mom or dad’s generation that I know of. Nor most of the generation before them, although there were a few possible bootleggers in that bunch. Somewhere back down the line, though, back past the Temperance Leaguers, I have ancestors who made their own homebrew as a matter of course. I wonder what it was like? What ingredients did they use? How was it different before the family moved to the Colonies? How often did they make it? Do any of the diaspora of cousins have one of their recipes? Or was it something that was so common they took it for granted and never thought to have it written down?

Okay, so it’s not really a closet. But it’s a quiet, dark, cool, out-of-the-way place for the yeast to do their job.

In any event, I now have a gallon of wort happily bubbling in its glass bottle. I want to see how this goes and try a few more pre-packaged brews before I get creative. But I can’t wait to start working on original flavors. Maybe even revive some old family concoctions.

And I will definitely keep my samples contamination-free.

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