Adventures in Home Brewing

(Originally posted in The Toronto Standard)

Chemistry was the only subject I failed in high school, thanks in large part to Mr. K, a relic of a man from Czechoslovakia. With Montgomery Burns good looks and all the personality of a dentist’s drill, he picked the first day of class to announce through a thickly accented, staccato-like set of mumbles that half of us wouldn’t pass. He had to have been damn near 70, stuffed into the same three-piece polyester brown suit, day after mind-suspending day.  On my otherwise unblemished high school transcript, that wooden bastard was largely responsible for the lone stain.

Beer happens when grains are sprouted, sugars are extracted, and yeast produces alcohol and carbonation.  Ingredients are boiled, maintained, and chilled in carefully controlled environments.  Even on a basic level, there’s some decent science at work.  Now that I’ve waded into the world of home brewing, all the resentment I built up towards a certain Iron Curtain defector is bubbling back to the surface… unlike the head on my first batch of beer, dammit.

My initial attempt at kitchen chemistry was little more than a month ago, using a Brooklyn BrewShop kit I picked up from Queen Street’s BYOB. For $55.00 I basically got a chemistry set comprising tubes, a thermometer, sanitizer, a large glass bottle, some other small necessities and of course the yeast, hops and malted grain.

Four hours after cracking open the box I was dropping a one-gallon carboy (the big, glass bottle that came with the kit) full of baby beer into a closet.  Fermentation was underway.

A week after that experiment, I turned to someone more experienced. Sean Holden is a friend of mine; a beer lovin’ guy with a big, manly laugh, more snowboards than teaspoons, and a beard that is at least 20 per cent suds.  Originally from Vankleek Hill (not-so-coincidentally, also the home of Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company), he has been brewing up new batches every couple of weeks for just over a year.  Obviously I could learn a lot by assisting him.

Mom is a chemist, so he “grew up cooking a lot, as a kid.” Brewing, to Holden, is like baking, so though he also started with a Brooklyn BrewShop kit, his own brewkitchen now includes larger stock pots, an auto-siphon, a kitchen-sink nozzle attachment, higher-capacity tubing and a “big-ass Pyrex measuring cup.”

I didn’t really assist at all. I didn’t stir the mash, I didn’t strain the wort, I didn’t pitch the yeast and I definitely didn’t stick around to help with the cleaning.  What I did do was snap some pictures, take fewer notes than planned, and drain a few bottles from his previous efforts.

He hasn’t invited me back.

My third and most recent attempt at brewing was undertaken in the context of researching do-it-yourself options without having to buy the hardware… or do the cleaning. Fermentations has been helping people brew their own beer for two decades.  What struck me most wasn’t all the wine (yeah, they do that too) occupying prime real estate or the shelves of ingredients available to home brewers.  What was most evident was the unabashed glee on customer’s faces. Whether rinsing bottles, pitching yeast, or just pondering their next recipe, there was a lot of enthusiasm!

Charles Fajgenbaum, who first threw open Fermentation’s doors in 1993, is the kind of guy I wish had taught me chemistry in high school. The lab he’s built on the Danforth isn’t the least bit intimidating, as he clearly takes pride in helping his pupils concoct their potions. It’s just fun.

During the course of my two-hour stay (which could have been done in 30 minutes, but I was in no hurry to leave, because…), I tried four beers the staff had already brewed up, including a gluten-free coffee porter that ranks as the single best celiac-friendly beer I’ve ever tasted. Frankly, if you want to try your hand at brewing something – unique or familiar – and would like some reassuring guidance, this is a great place to start.

The website almost dares customers to try to come up with something difficult, so I introduced the idea of a jalapo ale, to which Fajgenbaum countered with a very reasonable “Do you really want them all to be jalapo ale?” Constructive, right? Each batch yields more than five dozen 341mL bottles, and as enthusiastic as I can be about a fiery, pepper-based beer, I’m probably not going to drink it all myself and my darling wife has limits to her support. There will be jalapo beer, but we’ll selectively add the peppers to some in the bottling stage, and leave the others in accordance with the Bavarian Purity Act.

Adventures in Home Brewing

Sean Holden, left. Charles Fajgenbaum, right

So how did home brewing stack up to on-site brewing?

If you want the satisfaction of a full brewing experience and all the chemistry that plays out between mashing and bottle conditioning, home brewing is the better option.

Both home brewing and on-site brewing require you to provide your own bottles, but that’s really your only hard investment at Fermentations.  Home brewing requires at least $50.00 in other materials (although you may already have stock pots and strainers that will work).

A Brooklyn BrewShop kit from BYOB runs $55.00. Because I made a few mistakes along the way, I ended up with the equivalent of eight, 341 mL bottles of very flavourful, but flat beer. Not a great start.

To buy just the ingredients – which, if done properly, should fill ten bottles – expect to pay $25.00, or $2.50 per bottle.

To brew at Fermentations, prices range from $69.00 to $99.00 (depending on the style) and you leave with 66 bottles, which works out to somewhere between $1.00 and $1.50 per bottle.

The best dollar value however, goes to the chemist’s son, who is mixing up his own recipes four gallons at a time.  For between $40.00 and $45.00, Holden is getting the equivalent of 53 bottles, which works out to be between 75 and 80 cents per unit.


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