Making A Case For Homebrewing — In Somebody Else’s Kitchen
When Brew Lab opened last summer in downtown Overland Park, I felt sunshine rays of hope. In addition to being a homebrewing supply store, it’s a gleaming stainless steel kitchen where anyone can brew nearly any type of beer.
My husband and I perused the wide array of cocoa nibs, citrus peel, hops, grains and yeast in the brick-walled, concrete-floor space.
“It’s like cooking at the grocery store,” my husband gushed. “With all of the ingredients already there, think of all the different kinds of beer you could make.”
Just as alluring to me was the fact that beer could be brewed without the muss and fuss of making it in your own home.
Renowned food science author Michael Pollan concluded in his most recent book, "Cooked," that while there is camaraderie in brewing beer, the intense effort that goes into making your own at home might not be worth the end result.
I can relate.
As a craft beer fanatic and above-average cook, I signed on nearly a decade ago as a giddy partner with my husband to brew a batch of brown ale in our Overland Park kitchen. Together we selected hops, breathing in their spicy, floral aroma.
Brew day itself proved to be pleasant enough. It meant boiling malt, hops, spices and water into a cereal-sweet wort and then steadying a funnel for my husband to pour the warm liquid into a giant clear glass jug called a carboy. The side effects were Serious Mop Job No. 1 (inevitably some wort spills on the floor) along with a slightly stiff back from crouching. I know my husband hurt a little, too, from lugging the heavy carboy down the stairs into our basement.
However, I approached bottling day two weeks later with unfazed enthusiasm. We sanitized dozens of bottles, painstakingly cleaning them since random bacteria is the enemy of tasty beer. My husband swished 151-proof rum until his mouth burned so he was sanitized enough to siphon beer into the bottling hose. Then came Serious Mop Job No. 2 because the floor turned syrupy-sticky from more spilled beer. And I suffered body aches from huddling over bottles and capping them with a relic my husband’s grandfather was fabled to use during Prohibition.
Still, I felt super excited when the "ta-da" moment of tasting day arrived two weeks later, after the beer carbonated in the bottles. We ceremoniously uncapped a few cold ones and tipped them back. The beer tasted, well, different. A little sweet, a bit nutty, kind of funky. All of that work and waiting produced something I didn’t look forward to drinking. It sat largely untouched in our refrigerator for weeks.
As experienced homebrewers, the brains behind Brew Lab spotted this colossal downside to beer-making as a giant opportunity. So I decided to give homebrewing another go. After all, it would be in someone else’s kitchen.
I walked into Brew Lab one December evening with a positive but cautious attitude. Dressed in a long-sleeve baseball shirt and jeans, Kevin Combs, Brew Lab’s wiry chief operating officer, sprung up to me.
|By the Numbers|
3 - Number of hours it typically takes to brew
7 - Boulevard's black-sheep tank that inspired Tank 7
53 - Number of 12-ounce bottles I got out of my brew
188 - Dollars to brew a five-gallon brew for parts and labor, storage and bottling
2013 - The year Brew Lab opened
“What are we going to make tonight?” he asked as he pulled up recipes on a laptop. He mentioned that the previous customer had made “Pancake Porter” using cinnamon and maple syrup. I’m a fan of similar novelty beers, including Boulevard’s collaborations with Christopher Elbow (Chocolate Ale) and the Roasterie (Coffee Ale).
However, as tempting as a creative concoction sounded, I instead chose to make an interesting everyday beer. My favorite, Boulevard’s Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, was the inspiration. The Belgian-style saison has a floral, citrusy aroma and hoppiness that’s just right.
So Combs clicked on Boulevard’s website straight to Tank 7.
“Boulevard is great about sharing with home brewers,” Combs said, pointing to the descriptions of color, bitterness and alcohol levels as well as the different types of malt and hops needed.
He entered Tank 7’s ingredients and stats into his brewing software and came up with a recipe for a Tank 7 clone. I was making five gallons of beer, which translates into a bit more than two cases of 12-ounce bottles.
Then I started measuring the ingredients on digital scales while Combs got water and malt heating in a tall brew kettle for the wort. I dug the setup: this was like a commercial kitchen with excellent equipment, and Combs graciously played sous chef to boot.
“We do as much or as little as our customers want us to,” said Combs, who told me his story while we were prepping.
By day, he’s an industrial real estate broker and developer. In his spare time, he home-brewed with his wife. This led him to other home brewers including the business partners of Brew Lab: an accountant, an IT entrepreneur and a college professor. There are other homebrew suppliers in the Kansas City area but no place where customers can brew.
We placed Magnum, Bravo and Amarillo hops and corn flakes into a cheesecloth “tea bag.” Then, for an hour, the bag steeped in boiling water.
I took a dinner break, meeting my husband at Elsa’s, the Ethiopian restaurant a few doors down. That’s part of the beauty of brewing away from home — you can leave your kitchen instead of watching a pot boil.
When I returned, we cooled the wort, added yeast — the key ¬¬ingredient to beermaking because it eats the sugars and converts them into alcohol — and poured the liquid into a carboy with my name on it. Instead of lugging the heavy carboy downstairs for storage, Brew Lab has a pulley system that takes it to the cellar. There my yeast worked its two weeks of magic in my carboy alongside those of other customers.
I walked into Brew Lab to the sounds of Southern R & B. Would I be singing the beer-bottling blues as I did when I brewed in my own home?
On this day, brewing specialist Tyler Jones assisted. With his red ponytail and affable nature, he reminded me of television celeb chef Mario Batali. But Jones, who knows all about yeast since he has a bakery background, brews beer, so he’s the star in my book.
“You can sanitize the bottles,” he said cheerfully. I cringed, remembering my least favorite part at home.
Brew Lab features a shiny stainless steel triple sink. Dropping the bottles into one filled deep with water wasn’t even a tad burdensome.
In less than 10 minutes, we sanitized more than 50 bottles and placed them upside down on drying racks.
Jones siphoned beer into a beaker before measuring the alcohol level with a hydrometer. The reading: 7.5 percent — exactly 1 percent less than my beloved Tank 7. Oh well. I hoped my efforts would result in a similar taste.
Jones attached a “beer gun” to the siphoning hose. I squirted carbon dioxide gas into a bottle to keep foaming to a minimum. Then I pulled the trigger to fill each bottle with beer. I finished up each bottle with another puff of carbon dioxide. Jones then capped each one using a modern tool much slicker and more efficient than my household’s rusty Prohibition-era one.
Squirt. Fill. Puff. Cap. New bottle. Repeat. What a lovely rhythm. Jones and I switched duties a few times to finish 53 bottles.
From start to finish, it took around 45 minutes — and it proved to be lots of fun.
No mopping required.
Definitely no beer-bottling blues.
A week later, I invited a select group of friends to meet back up at Brew Lab. Hopheads only, likeminded individuals who appreciate Tank 7.
I sought genuine criticism.
“This is as exciting as attending a birth,” one of my friends whispered to me.
The Group of Refined Beer Palates toured the Brew Lab, including the basement with its dozens of yeast-bubbling carboys. We learned spent grains from brewing go to a local dairy farmer.
Upstairs at a square reclaimed-wood table and with a bit of ceremony, I poured some of the golden caramel-color liquid into chilled glasses. Great carbonation, thank goodness. I was worried because, ideally, you want beer to carbonate in the bottle two weeks.
Heavenly, bready aroma. Good sign.
I tipped my glass back.
Wow. It exceeded my expectations.
“Dare I say it, but I like this more,” said my friend Gail Borelli, who counts New Belgium’s Trippel and Tank 7 as her go-to beers. “It doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste.”
Other flavor notes included banana and clove. I marveled at the magic of fermentation because those ingredients weren’t used.
“I’ve got to say I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Clay Johnston, one of the owners of Brew Lab. “This didn’t age in the bottles as long as usual. It’s really nice.”
Will I do it again? Yes, but with more people at my side, because much of the joy in beer is in conversations and shared experiences.
And besides, beer makes a great gift.
Especially hand-crafted home-away-from-homebrewed beer.
8004 Foster St., Overland Park
Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Cheers to a Great Label!
If you’ve taken the time to brew and bottle your own beer, it’s critical to see it through by creating your own label.
Through words and pictures, a label tells the story of your beer. I co-own MAD Creative, a design and branding company in Kansas City, with Gentry Mullen, who designed the label.
At its most basic, a label should include the size in fluid ounces and the alcohol content so imbibers know what they’re getting themselves into.
The name of the beer should be like a book title.
This batch is Experiment 442. Why? Because I made it at a place called Brew Lab. The rest of the story is on the back label:
Want to have fun with arithmetic? Inspiration from Boulevard’s Tank 7 plus 435 Magazine’s beer issue add up to Experiment 442. The slightly floral nose and bready flavor make this saison the perfect little number to pal around with cheddar cheese and crisp apples. No calculator required.