This past weekend I invited dozens of my closest friends, and some total strangers, over to taste the amber I.P.A. that Matt and I brewed (hopefully) to perfection.  The other goals of the soiree were to create some buzz around, and generate some new ideas for, this very blog. Mission accomplished on all fronts!

I had tried my brew a few weeks before the party, when I confirmed that it did indeed taste like beer, but I had not had an entire bottle yet. Even if I had, I’m not sure if I have a sensitive enough palate to tell if the I.P.A. was really any good. As a result I bought an extra case of beer, just in case.

Some of my satisfied customers
Photo courtesy of Erin Wilson

As people filtered in I served the beer in a custom-made koozie with the url for this blog on it (I claimed it was grassroots marketing,which it was of course, but in addition, I couldn’t figure out how to make labels for the bottles). When the first guest said they really liked the beer, I thought they were being polite.  As more people tried it, however, I saw the look of shock on their faces as they told me how great my beer was. It was at that point that I really started to believe that they actually liked it! I felt like Sally Field at the Oscars! I could not believe that it was actually good!  This tasty outcome may make me reconsider brewing again, despite the slow pace of the process.

“Fantastic,” my friend Pete texted the next day.  Another friend, a connoisseur of I.P.A.’s, picked up several undertones (such as florals, caramel and blackberry) that not only was my palate not sophisticated enough to sense, but I’m not even sure which ingredient I can attribute the tastes to.  But I will take all the compliments I can get!

Me and my I.P.A., in its custom koozie, of course
Photo courtesy of Kara Feigenbaum

In addition to drinking — and to my surprise — raving, about my beer, guests were also talking about this blog.  Some people had never met me, and had never read my blog, so it was wonderful to tell them how I embarked on this adventure to find my next passion.  To hear their reactions, observations and encouragement was fantastic. A new audience with fresh perspectives and ideas was exactly what I needed!

In preparation for this party I created a suggestion box. Yes, a good old middle school style, arts and crafty suggestion box.  I encouraged guests to help me brainstorm what I should try next and I got some great ideas…some off-color suggestions…but lots of good, clean ideas that I will pursue and hopefully you will read about on these pages over the next weeks and months.

You can find a sampling of the suggestions below. Boy, oh boy, is this going to be fun!

In addition to the suggestions I received in my nifty suggestion box, I always accept suggestions electronically.  Please feel free to leave a comment or email me your bright idea at thegreatwideopenblog(at)gmail(dot)com!

Brewmaster Part II

When we last saw our heroine she had left her glass jug full of beer in a dark corner to ferment, and ferment it did.  I checked on my beer several times over the two weeks it was fermenting, each time half expecting for something dramatic to have happen.  It did not.  It foamed at the top, then the foam dissipated.  One day it would seem to be darker in color, the next it would look lighter.  I had no idea what it was supposed to look like at this stage in the process, so when my friend Matt showed up and said it was “looking good,” I was relieved.  With him, Matt brought two bottling contraptions that would help me get my beer ready for mass consumption.

We transferred the beer from the glass jug into a plastic bucket with a spicket using a long piece of tubing. Then we added one of the most important ingredients: priming sugar.  This is what carbonates the beer once the bottle top is sealed shut. We added it to the nearly five gallons of beer we had brewed and started bottling.

Bottling contraption

I have to say, bottling is my favorite part of brewing, maybe it’s because it is the most active part of the process.  One by one we sterilized the new empty bottles I purchased (some people use empty bottles after they have drunk their store-bought beer, but because it was my first, and perhaps only batch, I wanted the bottles to be neat and free of label residue from their former life) and filled them up with my brew.  I then used a red bottler to seal the bottle top on. Using the bottler took a little bit of effort, but not enough to tire from (even when bottling two cases of beer). I got a huge sense of satisfaction with every “THWAMP” the red contraption made.

After we filled 50 bottles, the moment of truth had come… I was finally going to taste my I.P.A.  I was infinitely nervous about this.  What if I had over hopped my wort and it was too bitter?  What if the yeast didn’t get enough sugar and it had no bubbles?  I had talked a big game and invited dozens of people over to try my beer, what if it was disgusting? I took a slow sip…mind you, I am not a huge I.P.A. drinker, so I wasn’t exactly sure what it was supposed to taste like, but you know what?  It tasted like beer, and that was enough for me!  Matt, who does drink I.P.A.’s, said that it was good, it was at that point I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  At the very, very least I won’t poison anyone.

I am super excited to share my brew with my friends, I will report back after the mass taste-test!

Why yes, that is a custom koozie!

Brewmaster Part I

I have drunk my fair share of beer over the years, but usually it’s light in color and equally light on taste. So when my friend Matt Javitch, a fellow blogger and all-around great guy, told me that he had started brewing beer, I thought maybe I would actually enjoy drinking a beer if I tried – and tried to make – a dark craft beer.

So to honor my Irish heritage, and coinciding with St. Patrick’s Day, I set off on a brewing adventure!  I like to bake, how different would this be? If I really enjoy the process, I imagined mass producing my brew with a catchy name, like “Miss Type A IPA,” to something equally witty.

Matt gave me a shopping list and I picked up our supplies at a The Homebrew Emporium in Cambridge. On the day I was there the store was busier than the Apple store on the day the ipad 3 became available. I finally found someone to decipher my shopping list for me and help measure out all the ingredients which were organized in buckets, refrigerators, and on shelves in a system that resembled a small town library that still subscribes to the Dewey Decimal System.

Soaking the barley-filled cheesecloth

The next day Matt arrived at my place with a monstrously large stainless-steel pot, a glass jug, a plastic jug and a curly copper contraption. We started by packing cracked barley into cheese cloth and soaking it in boiling water. We transferred that to a larger pot, added more water and kept it at a rolling boil.  This concoction is not beer at this point, instead it is known as “wort.” Appetizing, I know. The brew is referred to as wort until yeast is added, and that is the very last step in the brewing process.

The copper chiller at work

As the wort boiled we added a thick goop that resembled — in both consistence and taste — maple syrup. Then came three rounds of hops, the first was to bitter the beer, 40 minutes later we added another dash to add flavor and a third to add aroma. Hops in this form look like the pellet food I used to feed to my guinea pig, Violet, circa 1989.  They dissolve in the wort and leave behind this greenish sludgy substance that stick to the sides of the pot. Once the hops are in we had to bring the temperature of the wort down.  That’s where the copper contraption came in. We moved our brewing operations to the laundry room (which had a more accessible plumbing) so we could pump cold water though the copper chiller. The chiller is similar to the medical device used to induce therapeutic hypothermia (I saw that on an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”) circulating cold water through the wort so we could bring its temperature down to under 70 degrees.

We then strained the wort to remove all the sludge the hops left behind, poured into a glass jug, and added the yeast. I was thinking we were saving the best for last, but the addition of the yeast turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic. We just poured it in and put a stopper in the top and left it alone. Technically it was then beer, but it will take two weeks to ferment before we can bottle it.

Straining the hoppy sludge from the wort

If this sound to you like a lot of steps and a lot of time you would be correct. It seems to me that you have to really like the person you are brewing with because there is a lot of down time and chit-chat involved. With the wrong person that could be painful…even more painful than the pace of the brewing. I am more of a get up and go gal, so sitting around waiting for a pot to boil took a lot of patience, not to mention a lot of my Sunday afternoon.  At moments I was pretty antsy. I think as a society, and certainly me personally, we are used to a fast-pace, and certainly more interested in instant gratification than the alternative. Many of my previous adventures have been this way. I swung on the trapeze and then fell on my ass, but at least I knew I was a terrible trapeze artist in that moment.  Brewing beer is like the SATs, you do all this tedious work, and then you wait, and wait, and wait to see if it was a success or if you have to go through the torturous process again.

One important rule I learned was that when brewing beer you have to sterilize everything. This is because you are dealing with live bacteria. I never really thought of beer in this way before. If there is more bacteria than there should be in the wort than that bacteria will eat more of the sugar (in the syrup we added) and grow and grow. For some reason this reminded me of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and I became wary of trying my own beer. But I will…in a few short weeks! I am planning on bottling it and serving it at a re-launch party for this blog. I have purchased a new web address, one that is not quite as long and complicated as this one, and I am in the process of making it pretty for all of you.  Stay Tuned and get ready to drink up!

And it is beer! It will ferment for two weeks before we bottle it