A homebrew experience in Korea
The first beer I drank was a 40 oz of Old English purchased by a friend’s older brother from a small deli in Jamaica, Queens. My two friends and I received the large bottles on a street corner near my house, wrapped in brown paper packaging reeking of mystery and rebellion. The anticipation while waiting for the delivery drove us mad, and we greedily darted off into the night with our secret goods.
Hiding in a culvert tucked away from parents and the prying eyes of suburban neighbors, we slugged cheap blended whiskey pilfered from my parents’ liquor cabinet and choked back the thick malt liquor chaser. The three of us got drunk. One of us puked. And at the end of the night we stumbled home chomping gum to mask the foul breath of stale beer, leaving behind the empty bottles of Old English.
This event slowly became a ritual as we wrestled with the grips of adolescence, and the beer moved from the easy and cheap jab of malt liquor to the slightly more ambient domestic giants of the United States, and finally, in our late teens, to the more refined palates of microbrews and import beers with exotic labels. But one thing became clear that first night. Even in our ignorance and youth and with our novice beer-tasting palates that so greedily accepted the sting of Old English malt liquor, one thing was very clear that first, humid summer evening: beer sucked.
The homebrew ingredients arrive in boxes. A large bag of grains and smaller, hermetically sealed bags of hops and yeast. The malt grains in their clear bag look like oatmeal and the hops and yeast look like astronaut food sealed in shiny silver packages with small white labels. This is my first home brew experience, but I am in good hands. The three other brew masters I am with have over twenty years of combined home brewing experience, and around 40 batches of beer between them, but this is the first time we will brew from scratch in Korea. The order from Beer School (www.beerschool.co.kr) arrived with surprising speed, the malt anxious to transform to mash and the small propane burner and 15-gallon pot followed suit. The conditions and ingredients we are working with are not ideal, but the process is also surprisingly simple. In addition to the malt, hops, and fire source – all we need is water and time. The lesson begins.
We heat about seven gallons of water to 177 degrees Fahrenheit (80.5 degrees Centigrade). The hot water is poured over the grain mix and set to steep for one hour (this method is selected for ease of process and because we have limited equipment and no real mash tun with a drainage bottom on site). The grain will add color to the beer and contains the sugar that the yeast will later need to create the primary objective: alcohol. This grain-steeping process, known as mashing, will create wort. The wort is also responsible for the color of the beer, the golden, amber or stout hue. The wort is, of course, derived from the malt grain – so it is really the grain mix that determines how dark and strong the beer. We sit, and wait, and talk, and drink bad beer while the malt steeps. As one brew master aptly notes: it takes a lot of bad beer to make good beer. A strong pretzel and bready smell fills the air. Layers of comfortable aroma surround us and the grain mix begins its alteration, and we boil more water for the sparge.
After about one hour of steeping, the mash is drained through the spout in the bucket and more hot water is poured over the saturated grains. This sparging process pushes any remaining sugars, flavor, and color from the malt. The wort drips into our large cooking pot and the initial hints of beer greet our nostrils. The dark, English-style IPA begins taking form. The juicy, sugary goodness drains from the bucket. I sample the raw ingredients, the simple malt extract. Sweetness like kids cereal immediately smacks my lips, followed by intense starch and bitter pungency. This beer needs some flavor.
Once the water runs clear from the spout the sparge is complete, and we set the wort to boil. Ten minutes after reaching a boil we add the first batch of hops. The hops will add the flavor, the classic bitterness of an IPA, to the mix. These hops, Kent Golding hops, look like rabbit pellets. Small dark nuggets with intense aroma that explode green along the surface of the brown liquid and instantly change the fragrance, adding a bite to the air. The hops and wort are left to boil for 60 minutes. With 15 minutes left we add the aroma hops, and with 10 minutes left we add the finishing hops, and then the flame is extinguished. The large steel pot, like a witch’s caldron, rests after the last dash of magic. We stand above and breathe in the thick and steamy layers of intertwined bitter and sweet.
The beer is poured into our carboy until it cools to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and then the yeast is added. The yeast will slowly filter through the mix, consuming the sugars and releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol. After two weeks, we will bottle and refrigerate, another straightforward process of sterilizing recycled beer bottles and squeezing on new caps with a capper. I am surprised at the simplicity of the entire process, and of the metamorphosis of our original jug of water. The molecules stretched and filtered to the desired mix. Anyone can brew beer, and everyone should. It is humbling to see where all those cans and bottles have come from – the opacity cleared.
The liquid now rests while the yeast does its magical dance through the brown solution. We eagerly wait for the results, like teenagers standing on a street corner waiting for a covert delivery, and soon the liquid will be ready for bottling. We will steal into the night with our bounty and pass around the bottles for friends to sample, and if everything worked, and if the chemistry connected – this first beer will be different.