The most random thing happened the other day, but it will take some set up to highlight how unusual it was. I have known my wife, Sam, for about 17 years at this point. We met in high school. We have grown up together. She is my best friend.
I started homebrewing beer during my first master’s degree in Lombard with a homebrew kit I bought at Two Brothers in Warrenville when they still had a homebrew shop there. I brewed with the help of friends in our building for a year or more. Sam and I drove to an apple orchard to make cider once. That project did not turn out well, as our batch got infected. We tried to clean it up and then let it ferment for a long time, and it tasted like rocket fuel (or what I think that tastes like).
I have been writing this column for more than five years. I have been to more than 100 breweries. Sam and I have been to dozens of breweries together and have gone on a handful of brewery tours. There is a line from “The Lord of the Rings” in which Gandalf the Grey says to Frodo, “My dear Frodo! Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years, they can still surprise you in a pinch.”
I don’t reference this quote because Sam is significantly shorter than me but because Sam always has, during our long relationship, found ways of continuously surprising me. When she told me she was pregnant with our daughter, Penny, that was a surprise of a lifetime. There have been many others.
Sam told me as we were enjoying some drinks on one of these warm evenings she wanted to know how beer was made. I sort of shot her a look and asked, “What do you mean?”
She said something to the effect that she had been around beer stuff all the time, but she didn’t know how it was made or what went into it. I could have fallen out of my chair. I texted Tommy Vasilakis and asked if he thought this could work during the social distancing times, and he said he thought it was a good idea, so we hatched a plan. So, for this first column, I thought I would ask Sam — my wife, the bride of my youth, my best friend in the world — what she knew about the brewing process on the front end and to answer any questions she might have before we go to the brewery to take our first class. I hope this will be a funny thing to share with readers but not gate-keeping or “mansplaining” in any way. I just thought it was funny she developed this interest pretty far into the game, and I thought it might be instructive to those of you who might have a similar interest and might be nervous about getting started.
Sam answered the following questions via text message during her lunch break.
How do you think beer like APA is made, right now? How does whatever you think beer is gets into the glass you are holding right now?
Sam: Water, yeast and brown beer pellets of some sort. Beer soaks and ferments. And then if I remember from the home brew process — it is separated from the pellets and sits some more.
Answer: Beer is a really a type of fermented tea. You mill malted barley so the hot water extracts the most sugars. You extract fermentable sugar (yeast eats sugar to make ethanol, which is what gives beer its alcohol) from malted barley grains with hot water. Once you have this hot sugar water, you boil it for usually close to an hour. During that hour you add hops (a weird flowering plant that tastes like nothing else on earth) at different points in that hour for different reasons. Once you get this sugary, herby tea done, you cool it down quickly and put it in the bucket it’s going to be in for a while and throw in some yeast. You then seal that container, and let it sit for a couple of weeks. You transfer this beer into a different bucket and put the beer into the vessels you are going to serve it in from kegs to bottles and cans.
How long do you think it takes to brew a beer such as APA start to finish?
Sam: Five hours.
Answer: She wasn’t too far off. If you were doing this at home, the boil is typically 60 minutes. I am not really sure how long it takes at the production level. This is something I am going to learn. There are also plenty of parts of the production-level brewing process I do not totally understand, so I will learn a bunch, too.
How long does a beer such as APA take to ferment?
Sam: A few weeks.
Answer: She was spot on here. This one is sort of unfair though. Different beers take a lot different times to ferment. Ales can take 14 to 21 days typically to ferment. Lagers take two to three months. Saisons and sour beers can take much longer than that.
How long does a beer such as APA stay good in bottles or cans?
Sam: Hmmm … [thinking face emoji] … maybe two months.
Answer: Not bad, but this one is sort of unfair, too. This varies widely as well. Hop forward styles should be consumed within 90 to 120 days of packaged on date. Everything else should be within 6 months with little drop off. Saisons and wild ales can last years in the package. Imperial Stouts are placed in barrels by the brewery for a year to two years sometimes before anyone is able to drink them.
Here is my hope for this column: I hope you had a chuckle. If you have thought about learning how beer is made or to start homebrewing, do it. Beer is for everyone. I did a double take when Sam said she would be interested in learning and thought if she could figure it out, she might be interested in helping out at a brewery or something.
I was surprised not because she is a woman and beer is a male-dominated space but because we have been married a long time and this came as a surprise new interest. I thought it was an opportunity to show everyone if Sam is interested, anyone can be.
I think beer is a fascinating thing I have dedicated a ton of time to to learn about and participate in. There is a certain way you could read this piece that it would seem like gate-keeping or mansplaining this idea to my wife. I hope that is not the case here. I wanted to show her interest as an opportunity to show everyone else the craft beer space is and should be a space for everyone.
Sam picked the Beer of the Week this week because she loves this new beer from Brickstone Brewery.
Jam’d Mango from Brickstone Brewery
ABV: 6 percent
Style: Fruit beer
Brewery’s notes: “A jammy, fruited beer exploding with fruity mango flavor.”
Where to Buy: At the brewpub in plastic pints served socially distanced on the patio or outside at picnic tables, in growlers to go, in four packs of 12-ounce cans and in their Brick Pack variety pack nearby at Jewel or Liquor World in Kankakee.