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Peter LaFrance

Friday, August 14, 2009

That First Taste of… homebrewed Pale Ale

As I remember it, the weather was warm so it had to be either late spring or early autumn of 1976 or 1977 when the idea of brewing my own beer found me, as I sat on the floor of a now-defunct book store in Ossining, New York. The slim, thin paperback book was written by some British fellow and had been published in Canada. All of the measurements were in the metric system and the temperatures were in Centigrade. It told me how to brew my own beer. It told me not only could I brew my own beer but that it was even better than anything on the market.

At the time I had just finished a few years in New England, Vermont to be specific. There I had been introduced to “stubbies” of Labatt and Molson, the “stronger” beers from Canada. Now that I was back in Ossining I was sure I could find more of the same. I was wrong and had to survive on Schmidt’s’ Tiger Ale, Ballantine Pale India Ale and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

It was the Pabst Blue Ribbon that got me thinking that there might be something to the homebrewing idea. The bottles I would haul back and forth from the fridge to Fiories’ Beverage were sturdy, heavy duty, brown and crown capped. The book said that these were ideal for homebrewing. And then I told someone else about my idea and there was no stopping. You can brag about how many brews you downed the night before but you have to deliver if you brag that you can brew your own beer.

And so it was that the two of us (me and the person I had boasted to) stood in the musty old wine supply house on Spring Street in a rather dingy corner of what folks were calling SoHo (South of Houston Street). The one and only sales person was reciting a list of bits and pieces that we would need to get the brewing thing in operation. As I listened to the list it occurred to me that the book had mentioned that the experience should set me back only twenty or so American dollars. This was getting out of hand. Begging poverty we departed and wondered what the next step would be.

Not to be deterred we figured that if a wine supply shop was the place to go it might be a better idea to see if there was one closer to Ossining, headquarters for the operation. Those were the days of the rotary dial telephone, the telephone books of white and yellow. Both of us, recent veterans of higher education, chose the yellow pages and found a business called “Wine-Art” in Elmsford, NY.

It was a short drive to the small shop set just off the road. When asked for a homebrewing supply list the proprietor paused and asked what kind of beer we liked to drink. At the time Bass Ale was the most exotic brew I knew of so I threw that name out for consideration. He nodded and said that we were looking to brew pale ales and that it would not be too difficult. He went on to explain that malt syrup would be the basis for the brew. The hops were in a small envelope and looked like the final results of a rabbit’s digestive process. He then offered us two different foil envelopes marked “yeast” with red stars on them. These few things on the counter, he then asked how we were planning to brew the stuff up. I showed him the book and as I did I noted, at long last, the Wine-Arts logo on the back cover.

He flipped through it and told us that we were on the right track and that although we could probably find a kettle large enough to boil what he called “the wort”, we should probably use a glass “carboy” and five gallon “food-grade” plastic bucket for the “secondary” and “primary fermentation”… the book will set you in the right direction he said. The rubber tubing and funnel for pouring could be obtained from any kitchen but it would make sense for us to also spend a few dollars on a thermometer and hydrometer… about fifteen dollars.

We walked out of that place with the makings for the first homebrew, a five gallon glass water bottle, a white plastic bucket with tight fitted lid, a hydrometer and a thermometer about a foot long and an inch and a half around. It was a bit thing. The hydrometer, a thermometer shaped thing with a slender shape rather than the rotund temperature instrument, was a bit more mysterious. There was also a small tin can, about the size of two tinned fish cans, with a Mite-Mo label on it… something called dextrin. We were ready to brew our first beer.

I will not bore you with the details of the boiling, cooling, fermenting, and bottling of that beer other than to assure you that we waited the full two weeks the book said to wait before opening that first bottle..

I will, however, try and tell you what that first sip tasted like…

It smelled sweet from the start, a toasted grain bread aroma. Then the cool liquid cooled but didn’t chill my mouth followed in a nanosecond by a brown sugar candy flavor that was almost immediately speared by a sharp tang of almost metallic bitterness that quickly slid back as the sweet brown sugar returned and slid to the back of my mouth with the swallow of the beer. Then, as I opened my mouth there was a resonance of all those flavors in the back of my mouth and into my nasal passages where the green minty grapefruit aromas came and went as quickly as a thought. It was a sensation like none I had ever experienced before.

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