Journal of a First-Time Home Brewer – Part 1: Overcoming Anxiety and Finding a Recipe

I never knew there was such a thing as “brewer’s anxiety,” until it smacked me in the face. While it was probably a foregone conclusion I would someday try brewing my own beer, it took a few unrelated coincidences to push me over the edge. 

This is the first of three installments describing my journey into brewing beer, starting with preparing to brew. The next installment will describe brewing day in detail, and finally how my beer turned out and how I built my own kegerator. 

Me? Brew Beer?

A nice person on Facebook announced he had a home brewing kit he wanted to give away, and I was lucky enough to get it. Score! I hadn’t really thought about brewing before that, but the price was right. I mentioned my good fortune to my son, who ordered me a Northern Brewer kit with all the ingredients needed to brew a nice IPA, along with written instructions.

Okay, so I had a home brewing kit containing two big plastic buckets (fermentors) and all the ingredients for making a batch of home brew. But I had no idea if the free kit I had was complete. Luckily there was a home brewing store in town, so I hauled everything down there. Turns out all I was lacking was a means to sanitize everything before brewing, so I picked up what I needed as well as enough bottle caps for my two dozen 24-ounce bottles. 

Viewing a few YouTube videos on home brewing, I quickly realized brewing beer was not as easy as I’d thought. I can follow step-by-step directions as well as anyone, but I could also see multiple ways I could screw this thing up. Out of sheer brewer’s anxiety, I shelved my home brewing project for a year.

Tweaking the Recipe

But the year was not wasted. In talking with a brewmaster friend of mine, I decided to scrap the idea of bottling my beer. There was just too much work in sanitizing and capping 48 individual bottles. Instead, I bought a used Cornelius keg on Amazon. I also picked up a cheap 5-gallon kettle for cooking the mixture.

The recipe directions called for shaking up (activating) the packet of brewer’s yeast a few days before brewing, but I discovered it was damaged. Somehow it had sprung a leak, and I wasn’t sure how much had leaked out. I called the manufacturer, Northern Brewer, who assured me they would send a new package of yeast that day. I also asked how I could bump up the alcohol content of the recipe a little, and they assured me that adding an additional bag of yeast to the mix would do the job. So they sent me two bags of yeast for free.

While my brewing inventory was coming together nicely, I couldn’t help but notice the hops vine in our backyard. It was here when we bought the house, but this year it was producing a bumper crop of fresh hops, literally bushel baskets of ripe Cascade hops, a variety greatly valued by brewers. Hmmm… I wondered. Could I add my own hops to the beer recipe?

A bit of research indicated I could indeed add my own hops. Hops contribute to the beer’s aroma and bitterness. Since I love bitter beers I decided to pick some fresh hops and add them to the boiling mix for about ten minutes. 

Brewing day was a lot of fun. First I sanitized everything that would come in contact with the beer. Next I read over the instructions several times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Since I knew tap water contained chlorine and other chemicals that could potentially ruin the beer, I purchased 5 gallons of spring water from the grocery store.

The recipe called for one hour of boiling the mixture, and adding certain ingredients (like the hops) at specific times. After an hour of boiling, my kitchen filled the house with tantalizing, beer-like aromas that took me back to my childhood. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where the smells of brewing wafting through the air were common.

As I write this, I have no idea how the batch I brewed will turn out. I could have made some stupid mistake and will end up with an undrinkable mess. I tweaked the recipe by adding fresh hops and an additional packet of yeast. The ingredients packet said the beer would turn out light yellow in color, but my mixture is quite dark. Since good beer can be either light or dark colored, I’m not too concerned.

It took me a year to overcome the anxiety to brew, but I finally wrote the day on my calendar and just dove in. While the beer won’t be ready to sample for about 60 days, it currently sits in a warm, dark corner of my basement fermenting. Meanwhile, I’m considering which beer kit to order next. There is a modest investment in equipment necessary to get started, but kits to make 5-gallon batches of beer can be had for less than a dollar a beer.

Stay tuned for installment #2: Brewing Day.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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