As I'm a beer writer, there's an assumption that I'm an expert on the stuff. That's somewhat true; I know a whole lot about drinking beer. But I'd sooner be caught chainsaw-carving a bust of Laurence Fishburne than running a mash tun. Fine measurements and microbiology are for the attuned and fastidious — folks like me are liable to propagate botulism with a homebrew kit.
So, when Vine Park Brewing invited me to come and cook up a batch at their St. Paul microbrewery, I was wary of how I'd manage. Eventually, the promise of knowing what I'm talking about once in a while roped me in.
Vine Park was one of the first brew-on-premise breweries in the country when it opened 21 years ago. Today, it's one of just 10 brew-on-premise facilities left in the United States, and it's the only place in the Midwest where you can walk in the door and start making your own beer without any training at all. It's the perfect place for a lummox like me to try out my Mark Stutrud impression.
Owner Andy Grage waits at the counter with a menu of 60 (sixty!) recipes. There's everything from lagers to Belgian wits to imperial stouts for amateurs to flounder through. Your $165-$205 investment will earn you six cases of 22-ounce bottles and enough know-how to pass for a cicerone in less discerning company.
I pick the Stump Jumper, an amber pale ale that has a spiritual sibling in New Belgium Fat Tire. I pick it both because it's a good beer and because it seems difficult to fuck up. Pilsners are the most difficult to perfect, so I opt for something I can hide my amateurism behind.
Luckily, Grage and his team make brewing fairly idiot-proof. Temperature control — perhaps one of the most finicky and intimidating aspects of running a brew operation — is handled by a Vine Park sherpa, who also walks you through the recipe step by step. The brew begins with a kind of beer tea. Grage bobs a tea bag full of malts in a warming vessel while explaining exactly how the process will go down. He'll man the controls; I'll dump stuff in the kettle from time to time. We each measure out a pitcher of malt extract and stir it in. Then, he brings me pelleted hops and tells me to portion them out — one bowl of Northern Brewer, two bowls of Kent Golding. Simple as that.
The experience isn't dumbed down, it's just simplified. The barriers to brewing are in the details. I certainly want to know more about the beer that's in my glass, but I'm not willing to risk a five-gallon sanitation emergency in my basement to do it. Nor am I willing to read a textbook to prevent that from happening.
There are points in the process where you feel like you're just along for the ride. Brewing at Vine Park is a bit closer to cooking. Grage is the chef, and I the sous chef. At each point in the hop schedule, he tells me what the dose would add to the beer, and when we finish, he talks through fermentation in the least condescending terms possible — but I'm still just basically the dude in the elbow-length rubber gloves following orders.
After about an hour and a half of stirring, measuring, and boiling, the brew is over. Grage pumps the wort (that's sugary pre-beer, as I can now confidently say) through a heat exchanger and into a bucket for fermentation. I add the flaked yeast with a dumbass' grin. I recognize that I've barely done anything that could be rightly labeled brewing, but I still feel a sense of pride. For the first time, I feel a kindred bond with the beer I'm about to drink.
That is, the beer I'll be drinking in two weeks' time.
For all the inconveniences Vine Park is able to erase, they still can't do away with the fermentation process. It's not beer without alcohol, and it takes a while for the yeast to eat the sugars and crap out the intoxicating element of the brew. In the intervening days, I find myself wondering about my bucket, sitting in Vine Park's cooler, growing in complexity and flavor. I go back two weeks later to see how my baby pale ale fared in beer puberty.
Bottling is an arduous process. You work a lever and a spigot, filling each bottle individually and capping it with a remedial press. It's the closest thing to work I've experienced in the process, but it finally seems like I'm earning the beer. With each full box I pack up, I feel closer to that perceived expertise, and whether that's imagined or not, it feels good.
You can't drink at Vine Park, so I don't get to try my Stump Jumper until I get home. The crack of the cap off the bottle satisfies on an almost elemental level. The beer froths into my stein seductively, the aromas all erupting with purpose. I feel like a dingus for enjoying it so much. It goes down a bit fruitier than I'd expected. It's not at all unlike Fat Tire, which is a little disappointing because it isn't as daring and unique as the beers I'd fantasized about making, but the fact that I can attribute that flavor to the ale yeast is a passable victory.
It's good to know that hops added early in the boil lend bitterness to the batch, and those added late are for aroma. It's useful to be able to taste the roastiness and point to the amber malt extract versus the sweetness, which comes from the crystal malt steeped earlier in the process. These skills are about as useful as card tricks, but they still give the beer a light it was missing before.
It's easy to uncap a beer, guzzle it, and discard the bottle without thinking too much about it. In fact, this is a really great way to enjoy beer. But when you start thinking with your senses, when the steps and idiosyncrasies of the brewing process bloom into the subconscious experience of drinking, that's a whole other level of enjoyment.
I'm not at that level yet. The simple fact is I don't belong on a brewery floor. I'm a drinker, not a maker. But those two things are complementary. Even this cursory introduction has increased my appreciation exponentially. You don't necessarily need to be an artisan to enjoy taking down a pint in the back yard, but you'd be surprised how much it'd help.
Vine Park Brewing Co.
1254 W. Seventh St., St. Paul