I really should know more about brewing beer.
I’ve been a beer writer for a half-decade, and only once have I brewed my own beer, and that was at Vine Park. I know the ins and outs of what brewers do on a commercial scale, but the closest I get to that at home is mixing Bud Light and Budweiser to make an elixir I call “Bud Medium.”
Housebound and self-destructively bored, I decide to give it another shot. Besides, a lockdown seems like a good opportunity to hone practical survival skills in the event of a total societal collapse.
I don’t own kettles or a kegerator or even a large slotted spoon, so I’m not ready to go full-bore. Thankfully, Belgian kit maker Brewferm is there to help me bridge the gap. For just under $100, you can buy an all-in-one starter kit and have it delivered to your bunker (Amazon also sells them). I get mine in hasty time (nice work, Belgium!), but it sits unused for months before COVID-19 forces me into intellectual wandering. On the first day of my self-quarantine, I dig into it.
Day 0: March 16, 2020
This is how you number days in a worldwide pandemic.
I am well-rationed for beer, but one can never be too prepared. Despite being a stripped down kit containing only essentials, it unpacks like a science kit for adults. Instantly, I am an insecure third grader. Inside the 5-gallon bucket are an airlock, a bottling tube, a thermometer, a hydrometer, some seals, a litany of cleaners, carbonation drops, and a brief instruction manual that invited me to “Brew beer like a buckrider.”
This is the part of my diary where I take a brief aside to tell you that “buckriders” are demons who, in Belgian folklore, ride goats through the sky. It’s been zero days, and already I yearn for that freedom.
The first brewer I ever interviewed told me that being a brewer is basically being a glorified janitor. Brewferm preserves that aspect of the process, as your first task as a buckrider is to sanitize all the equipment. My kit comes with a cleaner, but you have to mix it to a ridiculous ratio you’d need scientific tools to measure. I estimate generously and hope it’s good enough.
Day 1: March 17, 2020
What better day to start beer-making than St. Patrick’s Day?
The mix I opt for is the Sacred Saison, “a richly golden beer with flavors of herbs, spices, and fruit.” All of Brewferm’s beers are (surprise) Belgian, which makes sense, as none of those require secondary hopping, and you can easily mix the wort base into a molasses-like sludge and can it. It smells great, like candy apples. My dog goes nuts the second I pry off the lid. I place it in a warm bath to liquefy while preparing the sugar water I’ll need to mix in.
Brewferm prides itself on its simplicity: you only need to add water and sugar, they provide the rest. Sacred Saison calls for 2 liters of water and, I am not fucking joking, precisely 17.64 oz of sugar be added to the canned wort. It also suggests that, “for best results” you only use boiled water, but “best results” is already an afterthought.
I eyeball it, as I do for the rest of this process.
The brew goes pretty simply otherwise. Brewferm does not require you to boil water, only to heat up the can of sticky wort in a warm bath, dump it in your bucket, and add your saline solution. Once that’s all in there, you add the designated amount of water (11 liters for me), pitch in a small packet of yeast, and wait.
My wife makes corned beef and cabbage, our rations thinning already.
Day 2: March 18, 2020
Fermentation takes 7-10 days, but the bucket starts bubbling after just a few hours. I’ve placed mine in a bathtub in our guest bath, fearing an explosion. The little S-shaped airlock pipes out a steady stream of carbonation, indicating both progress and impending disaster simultaneously.
Day 5: March 21, 2020
It’s been a week straight in the house, and the carbon dioxide escaping the drum has created a constant, maddening thrumming. It bubbles incessantly, in nearly perfect 4/4 time. I want to pry the black lid off and peer inside, but Brewferm explicitly cautions you against doing so. It is not the buckrider way.
Day 9: March 25, 2020
Governor Walz issues a shelter in place order for Minneapolis, effective Friday. Liquor stores, still considered essential, will remain open, but for how long? This is a precipitating event, and I’m gladder than ever that I have five liters of reserves stewing in my tub.
I pour about six inches of young beer out into a glass. Against all odds, it smells fantastic. The saison yeast have created a spicy bouquet. I place the hydrometer in, but the gravity reads too high. This one will need a few more days in the bucket. I take one last farewell noseful, but it ends with a concerning note. Green apple, the calling card of acetaldehyde, the marker of an unfinished beer. It’s also caused by low quality yeast, which is my concern. I close the door of the bathroom, hoping everything will finish out with a few more days.
Day 12: March 27, 2020
It took 11 days and three separate hydrometer readings, but the gravity finally evens out. My bathtub beer is ready to be bottled.
Like any loon on week two of limited social contact, I try the beer before bottling. It tastes like someone put Honey Bunches of Oats in a blender. Definitely needs some carbonation. But I guess that’s why Brewferm packs a baggie of sugar droplets they’re calling “bottle shots.” You plop these little horse treats into your bottles and the residual yeast feasts away, adding bubbly goodness. My wife stops me from eating one.
What the Brewferm kit doesn’t come with is bottles. It comes with labels, as well as a pretty sophisticated kit for washing and drying your bottles for repeat use, but no bottles. I don’t think Northern Brewer is an essential business, and I’m not meeting up with anyone off a homebrew forum, so I make do with what I have.
What I have is two 24 oz. growlers, which the internet is adamant I don’t use for secondary ferm or bottling. I spend the next 40 minutes Googling “bottle bomb,” watching videos of fellow hapless newbies cleaning up foamy glass shards, their creation shot out of the unfit vessel and all over the basement walls.
Of course, the canonical vessel would be a 12 oz. glass bottle with a pry-off top. These are made to withstand the pressure that comes while the beer carbonates. In their absence, experts recommend flip-top bottles (like the ones Grolsch comes in) or anything with a rubber ring (like a canning jar).
I forage through my cabinets and find two flip-top flasks, three canning jars, and a water bottle that I think will work, because it has a rubber ring, too. They’re of variable size, so I have to cut the bottle shots with a razor blade, doing careful drug math like Avon Barksdale from The Wire (“Get that pandemic,” I think to myself, practically sailing on the winds of irony).
All that accounts for less than a third of the beer volume in the bucket. Feeling buckriderish, I decide to chance the two growlers, anyway. In all likelihood, they could last longer than human life on Earth. I move the rag-tag collection of bottles to the basement bathroom, just in case.
Day 14: March 29, 2020
Today, Donald Trump, America’s preeminent dumbass, goes on TV to announce that federal social distancing guidelines have been extended to April 30. He’d previously boasted about packing churches for Easter, but I guess he saw his shadow, and now we have 30 more days of pandemic.
There is now a 64 oz. concussive device percolating in my basement shower, and I pray the growlers hold. Looks like I’ll need every ounce of what I’m brewing.
Day 22: April 6, 2020
There is a single beer left in my fridge, and it’s a 3.7% ABV Bell’s Light Hearted. Every day deeper into this fermentation is a blessing. I am sowing the soil for a generation of Drunk Mes to come over the next week. This could be a much better use of yeast than your goddamn sourdough obsession.
The beer is technically done today, but when I go to sample my bounty, I notice a line in the instructions I hadn’t seen before. Brewferm recommends patience. Move the bottles to a cooler area, and let them condition for three to six weeks. That’s an eternity in QuaranTime. Agony.
I pop open one of my growlers, and it only gives the slightest hiss. It smells like done beer—with a spirit-restoring puff of coriander spice—but boy does it taste green. Banished to the basement for another spell.
Day 26: April 12, 2020
I can’t get Lysol wipes anywhere, but now I have a spray bottle full of food-grade sanitizer. I use it to disinfect the care package my family sends for Easter.
Day 36: April 20, 2020
Brewferm says wait three weeks, but this whole exercise has been a loose interpretation. I have arrived at the precipice of my willpower. Get me off this goat.
Each bottle in my basement is a different shade of marmalade, a glass kaleidoscope of what I can only assume is failure. I start with a 4 oz pour from a growler. The cap unscrews with no hiss. Still, it smells great, that green apple warning subsumed beneath a grainy cloud. The head is resplendent, perhaps my only point of greatness during the whole journey.
Then there’s the body. The sad, sad body. Hyper-sweet, one-dimensional, and flatter than a souvenir penny, this is a beer that needs more patience to come around. And boy, we’re fresh outta that.
I pop the small swing-top flask. It gives a satisfying pop, topped with a chilly fog. This is a good sign. It pours much cleaner, with much more carbonation. It’s still overly sweet, but it’s definitely progress.
I resolve to drink it all, slowly, over the course of the next who-knows-how-many weeks. Maybe over time it will turn into something respectable. But a month-plus into my second-ever homebrew batch, one thing is more evident than ever: There’s no shortcut to good beer.