The irony of home brew


At first glance, I thought it was an April Fool's Day joke, the front-page headline in the Denver Post which announced that "Utah to ease liquor laws."

But upon further reading, I discovered that it was no joke. As of July 1, Utah's liquor laws will resemble those of most other states. You'll be able to walk into an establishment and order a drink, without having to join a "private club," and there will be no more "Zion curtains" to separate bartenders from their patrons.

And in a related but different new law, the state government has legalized the hobby of making beer at home in your spare time.

Years ago, federal law allowed Americans to make up to 200 gallons a year of wine for personal use, but it didn't allow for beer until 1976. Not that I paid much attention to that law, or any Colorado regulation, when I took up brewing my own in 1975. After all, the local grocery store sold "Blue Ribbon Hop-Flavored Malt Extract," and what else would you use that for?

The process was pretty simple. Get a big kettle, pour the malt-extract into it with some water, boil for a while, let it cool, and add yeast. Once it quit bubbling with ferment, add a little sugar, bottle it, and a few days later, drink it.

But beer made with baker's yeast from grocery-store malt extract doesn't taste that good. And so the home-brew process got more complicated. Besides, back in those days, there were few micro-breweries offering exotic beer styles -- Anchor Steam Beer from San Francisco was about the size of it. If you wanted a wheat beer, or a stout or a porter, or a creamy ale, generally you had to make it yourself because the local small-town liquor store didn't offer much variety beyond Bud and Coors.

First there were darker and richer malt extracts from England, along with hop pellets and then fresh Cascade hops. And why settle for malt extracts when you could go in with friends and get a 100-pound bag of malted barley?

(Malting means allowing the grain to start germinating, then heating it to stop the sprouting. That means there are enzymes in the kernel which can convert the starches into sugars that can be fermented later. It also means that beer should be "health food" because it's made from sprouts.)

Starting with barley malt means you've got to crack the seeds, which means rigging up an old hand-cranked flour mill for the job. And then there's the formulation of the varieties of malt for the beer you want, and
mashing your malt to produce wort, which is boiled with hops then quickly cooled for primary fermentation, followed by secondary fermentation and then bottling and aging.

If that sounds complicated, that's because it is. I got into it in a major way, with an 8-gallon stainless steel brew kettle and special litmus papers to check the pH balance of the brew water and hydrometers and thermometers and fermentation locks and a home-built wort-chiller and lots of other gear.

I made some pretty good beer. One year, I took some to the company picnic, a potluck. Most of my colleagues, however, complained that my beer was too dark and heavy and not nearly as good as the popular "lite" frothy stuff. So for the next year's picnic, I formulated some stuff that used a lot of rice as an adjunct, so it would taste a lot like Bud or Coors, but ran about 10 percent alcohol, rather than the usual 4 percent or so of commercial beer. They liked it, but I made sure to keep my distance when they tried to play horse-shoes after a couple of those

But the day came when I quit my day job at the local newspaper to try full-time free-lance writing. And just like that, I didn't have time for this no-longer-simple hobby. Further, I had put so much thought and effort into each five-gallon batch that I started to feel bad about consuming it. It was sort of like designing and building a house, just to tear it down.

So for any Utahns worried that legal home-brew will produce undesirable social effects on account of increased consumption -- in my experience anyway, home-brewing has the exact opposite effect.

Further, these days you don't need to take up home-brewing to enjoy fresh porters, stouts, ales, pilseners, and the like. The West -- including Utah -- now enjoys an abundance of brewpubs and micro-breweries, even in little mountain towns.