[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Relax. Don't worry. Have a home brew

Keith Edgerton

—Keith Edgerton
Keith Edgerton


Benjamin Franklin once wrote that "beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." While personally I have no special insight into the dynamics of providential affection, I do know that brewing (and drinking) beer indeed makes me happy. To fuel my passion, I've been among the growing, and thoroughly enraptured, ranks of home brewers for the past eighteen years.

Fermenting nature's bounty has been around in some form since at least the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, 5,000 or so years ago. Nearly every world culture would come to develop some type of fermented beverage, but the cereal grain-based beer that we cherish today became especially prevalent in the northern latitudes where malt barley and wheat growing proliferated: the British Isles, the Low Countries, and Germany by the early middle ages. By the 1200s brewers began introducing flowers from hop vines into their beer; besides acting as a flavoring and bittering agent, they also served as something of a pre-refrigeration-age preservative. Beer styles are determined primarily by the type of yeast a brewer uses—mainly either lager, which ferments boiled and strained malt barley at cooler temperatures, or warmer-loving ale. Varieties and amounts of malting barley introduced into the batch determine potency and the sweetness of the brew; hops balance the sweetness of the barley and the "heat" of the alcohol produced during fermentation while providing flavor, bitterness, and bouquet.

From the colonial period to the Prohibition era of the early 20th century, Americans and immigrants continued earlier brewing traditions by brewing beer locally for local consumption. Old-timers here in Montana still recall fondly "Great Falls Select," "Missoula Highlander," or "Kessler" from Helena. Dozens of unique styles and flavors passed from family to family or from regional brewer to regional brewer prior to the 1920s as Americans had a wide variety of beers and ales from which to choose. Prohibition, however, closed the doors on the small, distinctive breweries and only a handful, such as Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis and the Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukee, had the production resources to be able to brew low alcohol ("near beer") varieties that were less than 0.5 percent alcohol mandated by the Volstead Act. Pasteurization also enabled the big Midwest breweries and later Adolph Coors, Rainier, and Olympia in the West, to mass market their beer in steel cans. Primarily they brewed a light, thin Czech pilsner lager beer (that could be inexpensively produced with the addition of cheap adjuncts such as rice and corn). As such, the World War II and post-War generation of young Americans came of age with that bland, mass-produced, pasteurized, and chemically-altered monoculture beer. Many in the professoriate will no doubt recall (though hopefully not with a gleam in our collective eye) those steel cans, opened by a "church key," replaced later by aluminum cans and their infamous pull tabs. In our innocence we were blithely unaware that there was an entire sensorial spectrum of beer that existed outside of the light, watery Czech pilsner that was a key ingredient to many a misspent and delinquent youth.

In 1979 Jimmy Carter signed legislation which legalized home brewing (it had been banned since Prohibition), and by the 1980s as craft and micro-brewers began to recapture the lost art of brewing big, full-bodied beers and ales of a bygone era in history, home brewing became increasingly popular. Home brew supply stores now dot the real and virtual landscapes. I had the good fortune of living in Seattle during the mid-1980s and I began exploring the then-exotic styles of stout, porter, and pale ale (among others) put out by the Red Hook brewing company, Grants, Pyramid, and several other Northwest microbreweries. After returning to Montana in the late 1980s and sampling some home brew in 1990 (and neither going blind nor dying from the experience), I decided to take the plunge. With an investment of about $100 in equipment and supplies and after covertly scouring the back alleys behind Missoula bars on Sunday mornings for enough bottles (screw tops don't work in home brewing), I was set to make my first batch. I kept a recipe book noting the particulars of each batch I've made. After eighteen years, I'm at 110 and counting (and watching my latest summer wheat happily bubble in my five gallon carboy jug in the corner of my living room). None has been an abject failure, though some clearly turn out better than others. Part of the charm of the process, too, is naming each unique batch. They range from the mundane and somewhat unimaginative, "Snow Ale" (made on a gray, snowy February afternoon), to the more enlightened ("Double Ought Bock") or occasionally to the merely profane. A Griz football playoff massacre of some southern weakling in the late-'90s, inspired "Griz Scrotum Ale" (I'm not quite sure of the provenance of the second word in the title though I remember that that brew definitely had cojones); last year's tax season produced "F.I.R.S. Porter"—short for "F--- the Internal Revenue Service Porter." Indeed.

Each batch is about four and a half gallons per, which makes roughly two and a half cases; from start to finished product takes about three to four weeks. Initially I cook the ingredients on my kitchen stove. Thereafter I add some more water, hops, and yeast and I leave the fermenting brew alone in my five-gallon glass carboy for two weeks or until fermentation is complete. I then spend several hours bottling the ambrosia; it requires maybe ten days (which presses the limits of patience and human endurance) to carbonate fully in the bottles. Then, heaven. I've figured that I can make a batch for about $40 in ingredients, (primarily barley malt, yeast, and hops), depending on the style. Craft brews run about $30 a case currently in the store; slightly less right out of the tap at a brew pub. With the passage of time, graduate school austerity has faded and so price isn't my main consideration with these. I get a renewed thrill through the joy of creating something magical from simple, natural ingredients by tapping into a time-honed scientific art form (or maybe more aptly, an artistically scientific form; I am, after all, a humanist by avocation) that my ancestors practiced. My hobby becomes even more self-satisfying when I observe my occasional neophyte friend's eyes light up after the first sip of a robust, hoppy India pale ale, or of a rich, creamy oatmeal stout on a cold winter's afternoon, knowing that she or he can never entirely go back to an insipid mass-produced American light beer with quite the same gusto.

As a new fall semester is upon most of us now, complete with new classes, research and grant reports to write, articles to clean up, and committee work and administrative assignments already filling up our calendars, I close with a quote from another sage of brewing, (though perhaps not as famous as Franklin), Charlie Papazian, the author of the home brewer's bible, The Joy of Home Brewing. His motto is now the near-universal mantra of all us involved in zymurgy (the art and science of brewing): "Relax. Don't Worry. Have a Home Brew." Cheers!

[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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