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It’s a hobby that leverages complex culinary science to produce an infinite array of unique tastes: home beer brewing. A new-found availability of equipment and ingredients has opened the door for apartment dwellers and home owners alike to concoct beverages from scratch. We explore the science behind the brews, and why the process appeals to everyone from pastry chefs to chemistry geeks.
- Tiffany MacIsaac Home Beer Brewer; Pastry Chef, Birch and Barley (Washington, D.C.)
- Andrew Passell Home Beer Brewer; Roaster, Qualia Coffee (Washington, D.C.)
Home beer brewer Andrew Passell talks about the basics of making beer at home and why he thinks the complex process is worth it:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey're a ragtag group of chemistry geeks, weekend warriors and professional chefs, all united in the same goal, crafting their own unique and delicious home brewed ales and lagers. Welcome to home beer brewing 101. those who catch the bug may quickly find themselves staging elaborate chemistry experiments in their kitchens, basements, and closets. They're mixing raw ingredients, tinkering with brewing temperatures and techniques, braving all manner of potential catastrophes, in pursuit of the perfect bottle of beer. So what motivates a beer loving science novice to become his very own home brew master?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're joined in studio by Andrew Passell. He is a home brewer who hopes one day to brew beer professionally. He's currently a barista at Qualia Coffee in Washington, D.C., where he regularly organizes beer swaps for home brewers in the D.C. area. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ANDREW PASSELLThank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Tiffany MacIsaac. She is the Pastry Chef at Birch and Barley restaurant in Washington. She is also a home beer brewer. Tiffany, thank you for joining us.
MS. TIFFANY MACISAACIt's my pleasure.
NNAMDIAndrew, it's one thing to grow your own tomatoes or to grind your own coffee beans, but you're in the regular business of turning your kitchen into a chemistry set to brew beer, a process that involves a lot of complex science and a lot more patience. What pulled you into this hobby and how did you get started?
PASSELLWell, it wasn't actually long after I turned 21 that I first got into the world of craft beer. And it wasn't long after I got into craft beer that I started thinking, I'd like to make this as well. I can't actually remember the first time the thought occurred to me, I should give this a shot, but for whatever reason -- and I just jumped into it, and started making full five gallon batches of home brew.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that when you were looking for a place in which to live, finding a place to brew beer was high on your list of priorities.
NNAMDIWhat did that involve?
PASSELLWell, basically all I was really requiring was an unfinished or partially unfinished basement, because basements tend to stay at a level temperature and I have room to keep large, messy, unsightly equipment. But that's kind of hard to find in the District or in a lot of places within the Beltway.
NNAMDIAnd Andrew made it a priority. If you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can see a video of Andrew Passell explaining his setup at home, that's available at our website, kojoshow.org. Tiffany, you have a day job where you craft pastries and desserts for a high profile restaurant in a big city market, but you and your husband, who is also a chef, like to spend your time at home brewing beer. How did you get into it and what do you get out of it?
MACISAACWell, it's probably sacrilege to say, but I used to think I didn't like beer.
NNAMDIOh, yeah, that is sacrilege.
MACISAACUntil I met my husband, and before he was my husband, when we were first dating, he was very into craft beer and we'd go and he'd always get beer and I never would. And he's like, do you even like beer? I said, I don't think I do. But I'd only had, you know, Heineken and Budweiser and all the stuff people drink when they're in college.
NNAMDIAll the commercial stuff.
MACISAACAll the junk, you know. And so we -- I started kind of getting more into the craft beer and he started exposing me to things that I liked. And then one thing -- next thing you know, I come home and there's a whole kit there waiting to brew and he's like, we're going to brew beer tonight. And I said, oh, well, let's see how that goes. And it just became something we got hooked on.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Have you ever tried brewing beer at home? How would you describe the challenge and how did you make out? Call us now and share your experience, 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and offer your explanation there. Send us a tweet at kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Starting with you, Andrew, let's start from the beginning. If you want to brew at home, what are the basic pieces of equipment and basic lists of ingredient that you need -- ingredients that you need to get started?
PASSELLSurprisingly, you can brew beer with a fairly basic set up. All you need is something to ferment in, which can be a simple clean six gallon honey container from some coop or anyplace that sells bulk honey. A large pot, three gallons, five gallons would be great, but a three gallon stock pot is fairly easy to find. And some flexible vinyl lines to siphon beer from one place to another.
PASSELLIt's -- can get pretty basic. And you can still get good results. A kit of ingredients you can find at either of the home brew shops in the region as well as a lot of advice.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, if you Google home beer brewing kit, the first thing that pops up is a kit called Mr. Beer, a kit with pre-made wort that takes a lot of work out of the process. It's the kit that our producer, Michael Martinez, is doing as a result of which we now call him Mr. Beer. But how do you feel -- how do you feel about these starter kits, Tiffany Macisaac?
MACISAACI mean, I think they're a great way to expose people to doing things at home. You know, it's kind of like with baking. You know, when I was growing up, I loved when my mother would make brownies. And she always made them from the box and that was just the best thing we could ever have. Now, obviously now, I make everything from scratch. But, you know, it got us cooking. It got us cooking at home.
MACISAACWe were eating something we were -- you know, everybody was in the kitchen helping. And, I think, you know, if you start with a kit, a lot of people stick to the kits, they'll have a great, you know, product to show for it. But a lot of people are going to, you know, want to dive deeper into that. They're going to want to pick up books. They're going to want to start ordering all of their own ingredients and, you know, playing with their own recipes.
MACISAACSo it's a good entry. It's, like, the gateway. (laugh)
PASSELLThe Mr. Beer kits with the pre-made wort make a nice Christmas gift. But when I refer to kits, I usually mean like half step up from that, where you get separate hops and separate cans of malt. And the results you can get from that can honestly be pretty fantastic, whereas the Mr. Beer kits have a kind of reputation for producing a first batch that discourages.
NNAMDII want to see what Michael's first batch tastes like. But I know that, Andrew, you live in a home with a basement. But Tiffany, you and your husband live in an apartment and we know that sunlight is an enemy of beer. How do you create darkness at the apartment?
MACISAACWe have a closet.
NNAMDII thought so.
MACISAACJust for -- just for brewing. (laugh)
NNAMDII thought so. A closet just for brewing. But I had to ask. On now to Eric in Adams Morgan. Eric, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICThank you, Kojo. You know, for me, you know, you talk about chefs and scientists getting into this. I was a history major in college and that's one of the reasons that, you know, I really have gotten into beer. For me, it's about connecting with -- you know, the people who first moved to this country began making fermentable liquids out of, you know, whatever they could find around.
ERICAnd, you know, also my, you know, great grandparents were home brewers during prohibition when it was illegal. So, you know, for me, it's kind of a way to, you know, connect with my own history and my own heritage. But I definitely, you know, share the concerns about brewing in small spaces. I'm in a one bedroom apartment and I have, you know, fermenters sitting all around, like some of them are even wearing sweatshirts to keep the light out and keep them a little warmer since it's colder out. So, you know, definitely it can be done in small spaces. It just takes a little bit of -- little bit of creativity.
NNAMDIThank you so much for sharing that with us, Eric. I'm glad you mentioned small spaces and how you start out because this does not exactly sound like a fool proof process, you all. Do you remember the first time you got through it and produced a batch of beer that you could taste and say, hey that's not so bad? Tiffany?
MACISAACYeah, I mean, you know, like I said, we started with a kit and so we were able to get something pretty much right away. But, you know, I think we've tasted a lot of things that weren't so good. I mean, you know, the other day, one of our friends who's an avid home brewer, he came to visit us from New York and he brought a couple of brews and one of them he hadn't tried yet. And he was experimenting with the use of spices and he had dropped a few little pinches of Fenugreek in there.
MACISAACAnd we tasted it and it was terrible. And he said, oh, I guess, I put -- I guess I let that steep a little too long. And we all said, oh, yeah, that's not the best. But then the other bottle that we opened was pretty much perfect. So, you know, it's one of those things that's just trial and error. Practice, practice, practice and you'll come up with something great.
NNAMDIDid you actually tell your friend that was terrible or did you say, well, it's not that great.
MACISAACNo, we all laughed about it. He knew. He's a chef, too, so...
NNAMDIOh, yeah, so he knows when something tastes bad.
MACISAAC...you know, it was -- we can't lie to another chef.
NNAMDIBut, Andrew, there's a lot of potential, it seems, for a lot things to go wrong here. Not just in terms of making bad beer, but in terms of causing a catastrophic accident in your kitchen or your basement. What can you tell us about the error experiences you've had with this trial and error process?
PASSELLOh, wow, thankfully in beer brewing, in a kitchen or a basement, the accidents aren't so much catastrophic as they are extraordinarily messy. If a -- or if a pot full of a wort boils over, you're left with sticky, sugary mess everywhere that liquid goes. Or if a fermenter explodes in the basement, usually just by the top popping off, you end up with sort of like this flecky hop residue covering ceiling and walls.
PASSELLSo it's not going to hurt anything. It probably won't burn your house down, but the mess is going to be pretty epic.
NNAMDIAnd there are likely to be errors, but what are some of the more memorable combinations of ingredients that you have tried to brew with?
PASSELLI actually -- this is -- I love this story. I made a brew for my friend's wedding and because one of them is from South Carolina, the other was, has an ancestry from the Scandinavian region. I decided to call it a peach cloudberry ale. I was going to put some peaches and cloudberry in the fermenter, make it a bit interesting. I actually ran out of time. I did not get the opportunity to put that in there.
PASSELLWhen I brought it to the pre-wedding picnic in my keg, you know, serving the people, they all expected this peach and cloudberry ale and they're drinking it, I can really taste the peaches. And I ended up using a really unusual hop called Citra. It's one I really like. And it ended up being just a straight malt-water-yeast-hop beer, but it had this lovely pink color. It tasted like peaches and fruit.
PASSELLSo I had all these grand intentions of making a really interesting or -- well, it turned out great. It tasted like peaches. I had all these intentions of making this beer with wild ingredients and I didn't need to.
NNAMDIWe move on now to Ron in Alexandria, Va. Ron, your turn.
RONHey, Kojo, how you doing?
RONLove the show, love the topic. I've used a Mr. Beer kit before, well, twice before and had a pretty good experience both times, except with the carbonation. The first time it was way over-carbonated 'cause I added too much sugar and the second time was way under-carbonated. But both times the beer tasted pretty good.
RONBut my question is, I'd like to increase the alcohol content to kind of keep it up right around seven or eight and, you know, when I add sugar to do that, it makes the beer a lot sweeter than I would like it. So is there anything else I can add to increase the alcohol content without making it so sweet?
NNAMDIWhat does he mean by seven or eight, Andrew? Percent?
PASSELLSeven or eight percent. I suppose a standard beer in a six-pack is somewhere between five and a half and six percent...
NNAMDISo he wants more?
PASSELLWell, more is not necessarily better. More is just more alcohol. A lot of six-packs of craft beer are going up, like, six and a half percent these days, like Dewharded Ale. The answer to the caller's question is that he wants or he needs to go to a home brew shop and pick up an extra can of malt syrup. It's just a -- it's a can where a manufacturer or maltster has already done the malting process of converting the barley starches and the sugar for you and then evaporating out most of the water. If you add that into the boil, you'll get a lot more fermentables that the yeast can turn into alcohol without adding any kind of odd sugary tastes.
NNAMDIRon, does that work for you?
RONThat works for me, Kojo, thank you.
NNAMDIThank you. Andrew, it's also my understanding that the scientific process is what differentiates lagers from ales. Can you explain what makes them different?
PASSELLIt's actually just generally speaking the yeast strain. Lager yeasts tend to ferment out a lot more of the broken down sugars than are available in the wort and ale yeasts tend not to do that as much. They leave longer chain sugars that lead to more rich, robust tastes. But there's a lot of gray area.
NNAMDITiffany, a lot of people cook without much of a sense for what's going on with the ingredients, without understanding the chemistry of how the ingredients affect one another. At what point in your learning process as a cook did you develop a sense for the science of what you were doing and how did that affect your approach to cooking?
MACISAACWell, I mean, you know, it's -- when I first started out, I would just follow recipes and directions and I didn't really understand the mechanics of how things worked. It probably wasn't until about five years into my cooking experience that I could really start developing my own recipes from zero, you know. So luckily, when we started brewing beer, it made it, I think, a little bit easier for us.
MACISAACBecause we understood, you know -- like, I understand how yeast works. I understand how infusion works and how long to steep things and things like that. So I definitely think it helped with the brewing process, but it just takes time, you know. It's all trial and error.
NNAMDIIs your husband interested in the same kind of brews as you are? How does that work?
MACISAACHe loves all beer equally. I'm more particular than him. I've never seen him pretty much try beer that he didn't find something that he loved about, so he has...
NNAMDIYou have a slightly more discriminating taste than he does?
MACISAACYes, yes, he loves all beers.
NNAMDIOn to Jeff, in Sterling, Va. Jeff, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEFFWell, thank you very much. I just wanted to make a comment about the science aspect of things that can be a little intimidating when you're starting to home brew and starting to read. And I would recommend that anyone who's interested, find a club. If you're new to it and you want to get some experience, there's lots of clubs in the area and us home-brewers will always welcome in new folks and teach them the ropes. And sitting in and doing it with somebody really, really helps get that process down and get you started in a good direction.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for sharing that with us. We mentioned, Andrew, that you organize -- at Qualia, you organize and host regular get-togethers of home brewers in the Washington area. You call them beer swaps. Who shows up to your swaps and how do -- how does that work?
PASSELLWe get variety of people that come. It's really anybody that I meet across a counter that I realize or come to know that's interested in beer, either just appreciating it or home brewers themselves or might be curious about home brewing. I started them because I realized I was meeting a lot of these people that had an interest in it, that were interested in my knowledge about the subject and that none of them knew each other.
NNAMDIThere are a lot of online and offline networks popping up all over the place that are dedicated to home beer brewing, message boards where people talk about the science of brewing, clubs with funky acronyms like BURP, short for Brewers United for Real Portables. What do you make of the communities that are forming around this hobby?
PASSELLI love communities like this because they give a lot of support, a lot of encouragement. Even if it's just like -- you know, there's a meeting next month, I should really be brewing today to get this thing ready. Just to, you know, kick you along the path and also to answer a lot of questions that might be particular to this area.
PASSELLFor example, I think one of the big PSAs I can do for home brewers in the D.C. area is that D.C. water is unique in that it uses a lot of chloramines alternately with chlorines to treat it. Chlorine will boil out of your water when you're brewing, chloramine will not. And if you ferment chlorine or beer brewed with chloramine in the water, it makes your beer taste like a Band-Aid. It's disgusting. So you can avoid that by using either giant bottles of water or you can buy some potassium metabisulfite to precipitate that out.
NNAMDITiffany MacIsaac, I should mention that your husband's name is Kyle Bailey. He is the chef at Birch and Barley restaurant. Here's this email we got from George in Gaithersburg. "At what point does beer cease to be beer? I'm a fan of doing things that are creative, but when you're adding fruit and all sorts of crazy ingredients, do you get into territory where what you're making isn't beer anymore?
NNAMDIDogfish Head makes beer that has all sorts of weird stuff, like raisins or South African wood mixed into it. It's all good, but is it still beer?" What do you -- what do our guests think? What do you think, Tiffany?
MACISAACI mean, I definitely think it's beer. You know, there's something out there for everyone. Everyone likes different things. It's kind of like wine, you know. You can drink the most expensive wine in the world and if you don't like it, it's not good wine. And it's the same thing with beer. There's just -- there's something for everyone. I don't like a lot of stuff infused into my beer generally.
MACISAACI don't like a really strong flavor, you know. I've had a lot of things where it's too strong and it's just not my personal preference, but I'll be sitting right next to someone having a Schiff beer and they'll drink the same thing and say, oh, man, this is great. I got to have another one. So, you know, you -- there's a little something for everyone out there.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned wine, and I'm glad our emailer mentioned Dogfish Head, because it would seem that there are a lot of -- a lot more variables under your control as a brewer, as opposed to being a winemaker, where you are at the mercy of the natural forces that shape agriculture. Sam Calagione, the man behind the Dogfish Brewery in Delaware, likes to say this. Brewers make beer, Mother Nature makes wine. How would you respond to that, Andrew?
PASSELLWell, they're definitely two different processes. Brewing is primarily an industrial process where you're taking commodity product, for the most part, and doing a lot of processing on it to turn it into beer. Whereas with wine, it's an agricultural product, and primarily you influence how the wine tastes by the activity of the growing season. I'm sure a vintner will hopefully agree with that. But we'll probably have a much different answer and probably argue, though, with Mr. Calagione about the ability for them to control the product that they make.
NNAMDIHere's Mr. Calagione's larger quote. "Every beer is a brewer's invention to some degree, a combination of ingredients that could never be found in nature. A barrel of crushed grapes left to its own devices can turn into a sort of Beaujolais nouveau. The winemaker's job is mostly to prod the process along. That isn't true of beer. For grain to turn into an ale or lager, it has to be malted, cooked, strained, cooked, strained, fermented in a barrel and sometimes again in a bottle. Mother nature makes wine," he says, "brewers make beer."
NNAMDII don't know about all of that, but what I do know is that when you cook, you can enjoy your work within that hour, Tiffany, or well, that evening or later that day. You have to wait a while before beer is ready to be consumed. Can an impatient person take up this hobby?
MACISAACI'm the most impatient person ever. I love instant gratification. Like, when I'm testing something new at work, my assistants have to shoo me away from the oven because I'll open it every two or three minutes. So when we first -- when we first started making beer, I would constantly be nagging at Kyle, can we try it today, can we try it today? Do you think it might be done? Now I've learned it's not done, you have to wait. But, you know, it's worth the wait. It's worth, you know, the six weeks, sometimes month, that you might want to wait.
MACISAACThere's some -- I think there's some brews you can even do in a couple of weeks. So -- but it's not gonna happen that night, sorry.
NNAMDIYou have just offered a cure for instant gratification that the therapy community would love, and that is learn to make beer and you will get rid of your addiction to instant gratification.
NNAMDIWe're just about out of time. But, you know, the last production beer brewery in Washington D.C. folded in the mid-1950s. Now four production breweries are scheduled to open in the D.C. area this year. Where do you think D.C. right now fits in on the map of beer cities?
MACISAACWell, I think that D.C. is probably the beer city in the United States. I was just talking about that actually right before we came in here. When the owner of Birch and Barley, Michael (word?) approached my husband and I about possibly doing Birch and Barley with him, we thought, oh, wow, a beer-driven restaurant, that sounds amazing, but I wonder if it'll fly. We lived in New York at the time.
MACISAACAnd as soon as we moved here, we were exposed to a community that was so into beer, we were just super excited.
NNAMDIWe're a beer town and Tiffany MacIsaac is the pastry chef at Birch and Barley restaurant. Her husband Kyle Bailey is the chef there. They're both home brewers. Andrew Passell is a home brewer who hopes one day, as we said, to brew beer professionally. He's currently a barista at Qualia Coffee in Washington where he regularly organizes beer swaps for home brewers in the D.C. area. Andrew, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDITiffany, thank you for joining us.
MACISAACThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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