At some point in your high school chemistry class, you probably asked yourself, “When am I ever going to need to know this stuff?” What they don’t tell you is that some basic chemistry and a few pieces of equipment can provide you with an endless supply of cheap, tasty beer. Seekonk resident Dan Kahn has been home-brewing his own beer for 30 years and he recently opened his brewery – or rather, basement – doors for an introduction to the hobby.
Dan greeted me with a printed handout showing an overview of the brewing process; coupled with a recipe, the novice home brewer would have a basic blueprint to begin. Although the brewing process follows specific steps, there is room along the way to play with ingredients and techniques that impart a personal touch on the end product. Experienced and passionate, Dan was equally humble and quick to describe himself as “not in the [beer brewing] majors… somewhere in the minors.” It’s a dubious claim that a great test would later overturn. But before the goods could be sampled, I had to learn how they were made.
The process begins with one key ingredient – malt. Grains, typically barley, are soaked in water to promote germination; just before sprouting begins, the grains are cooled and sugars form on their husk. These sugars (the malt) will “feed” yeast that is later added to the mix. Dan, like many home brewers, will simplify the malting process by buying malt extract from a supply store, but his future evolution in the craft includes “one day making my own malt from raw barley.”
Next is “mashing” the grains, or rinsing off the sugars. The malted grains are housed in a mesh bag and placed in a bucket containing an air-tight loop of hoses. Water is circulated through the loop until it is sufficiently saturated with sugar. This now-malted water, or “wort,” is then boiled on the stovetop for several hours, which further breaks down the sugars for easy digestion by the yeast. At various points of the boil, hops are added for a bitter flavor that balances the sweetness of the malt. Like malt extract, many varieties of hops can be purchased at a supply store and mixed and matched for any given recipe.
After boiling, the mixture is cooled so that yeast can be added and the fermentation process can begin. The introduction of yeast, a microorganism, starts a critical chemical reaction where the yeast “eats” the sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. A waterfilled airlock regulates this process by separating the air inside the container from the air outside, keeping the alcohol in and allowing the carbon dioxide to escape. As one of those points in the process where individualism can shine, Dan notes, “ideally you only want the yeast you introduce – and nothing else – to have access to the sugar. Commercial brewers like Miller and Coors will do this in a sterile environment, but others might have exposed the air and ‘used the funk,’ so to speak.”
When the fermentation is complete, the beer can be bottled. Home brews, unlike most commercial brews, age in the bottle. The aging softens and mellows the beer over time, while increasing its subtle notes. Shelf life can be one to two years depending on the alcohol content (more alcohol = longer life), though the prime drinking time generally follows a bell curve of three to nine months.
The entire process from start to bottle can take an average of six weeks, and as soon as a batch is bottled, Dan is on to the next recipe. Most recipes are five gallons per batch – equivalent to two cases of beer – and come out to half the cost of typical micro-brews. What’s a man to do with all this beer? Dan says with a laugh, “I give it away mostly, or drink it myself… and if it’s bad, I cook with it. Whenever possible, I’ll exchange with other brewers.”
“Bad” beer does not happen regularly, but mishaps can. Bottling too soon or adding too much sugar has caused a few batches to explode, littering the basement floor with broken glass. Dan’s wife warns of another hazard – the unique, strong smell of boiling wort that “can be an all-encompassing odor.” It comes with the territory.
The latest on tap for our taste test were two clones – a clone of Killian’s Red Ale and a clone of Liberty Ale. An authentic Liberty Ale was also on hand for comparison; while the clone was hoppier than the original, it was also smoother – a fine testament to the benefits of the aging process.
Dan shared some tips to get started as a home brewer. First, familiarize yourself with a home brew supply store (locally, he recommends Crosby & Baker in Westport). Second, find a local brew club and hang out with certified brewers (Dan is a member of the South Shore Brew Club. Others can be found at homebrewersassociation.org). Finding the right mentors is key. One thing is certain – wherever home brewing takes you, a cold frosty beverage awaits.