Slouching on a futon in the middle of a Monday afternoon. Half-watching “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Pawing at a half-eaten bag of lime-flavored Tostitos on the table. On one side of the room, Dan Frank ’10 – wearing a torn ski team T-shirt and a jump cord as a belt – has his laptop out, finishing up some programming homework. Everything about the scene is decidedly college.
But on the other side of the room, Matt Lacasse ’10 is operating in a different world entirely. Hoisting a bucket filled with an imposing, brownish mixture of water and malt onto his stove, Lacasse seems like an overprotective father. Waiting impatiently. Waiting for the concoction to boil. Checking under the lid every few seconds to make sure he doesn’t miss the precise boiling point.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”935″ ]
“This is exactly like making tea, except you throw yeast in at the end,” he muses. “And it gets you drunk.”
For Lacasse – who asked his parents for a brewing kit the day he turned 21 and who volunteers at Bar, New Haven’s oldest brewery, every Tuesday afternoon — brewing is not just a hobby or a fleeting pursuit. It is a way of life.
“It comes with all of this tradition,” he said sitting in Starbucks a few days earlier, eyes flickering as though he were talking about a lover. “It’s as old as bread is. And there is so much freedom surrounding it. You can craft it to be whatever you want it to be.”
After the embryonic mixture reaches a boil, Lacasse pours packets filled with hops and grains into the bucket. He stirs the brew, which now has turned greenish and viscous, the fraying hops — which resemble green leaves — floating on the surface. He uses a wooden spoon to guide the excess gunk into the mix. The only clue that in about a month this unpleasant goop will be hearty, delicious beer — Hacker-Pschorr Weisse Dark German beer, at that — is the faint smell of a grungy bar emanating from the bucket.
While beer dates back to the sixth millennium B.C., home brewing does not share such a storied past. It only became legal in the United States in 1978 when former president Jimmy Carter signed it into law. Now, over a million Americans regularly brew beer in their homes. The equipment only costs about $100 to $150 and the ingredients about $50 for the end product of five gallons of beer.
At Yale, beer brewing has picked up steam among a growing and passionate base of loyal men (and a few women). While some, like Lacasse, run solo operations, brewing semi-frequently with friends on equipment they ordered online or got from fellow brewers, there are also more structured brewing organizations on campus. The Saybrook Brewing Club got its start two years ago and has since blossomed steadily into a group of about 10 consistent brewers funded by money from the residential college. More mysterious, the Boar — a secret junior-senior brewing society on campus — uses brewing as a social activity in a more formal, perhaps ritualized, way. Most brewers agree that just as preparing and cooking a meal trumps ordering take-out, brewing one’s own beer is vastly superior to picking up a six-pack at College Wine. The act of creation, the social component and the challenge of mastering a difficult process all add to the brewing mythos that has lured a fervent and diverse following.
The Lone Wolves
Adam Franklin-Lyons GRD ’09, who led a beer-brewing workshop at the Yale Farm last fall, chanced upon the hobby when he was working at a small bar as a cook in his early twenties. He spent about a third of his time on the job brewing beer and then kept it up after leaving the bar, though he now mostly brews cider. What motivated him? Simple: the cool factor.
“Making beer is just really fun,” he said. “Serving beers to friends is awesome. It’s undeniable — it’s cool.”
In addition, the process — which takes about four to six hours depending on the kind of beer, followed by a weeks- or months-long fermentation process — is rewarding.
“I think, the first time, the motivation for most people is just to see if they can do it,” Franklin-Lyons said. “And if it comes up at all drinkable, they’ll do it again.”
Smiling, perhaps recalling the first time he successfully brewed a “drinkable” batch, Franklin-Lyons continued, “There’s a quick prestige with it, that comes with being able to say ‘I’ve got five gallons of beer in my closet.’ It’s something tangible to be proud of.”
Peter Bull ’08 said he decided to try brewing when he was struggling to come up with a Christmas present for his father. That December, Bull gave his dad a gift that would make any father happy: five gallons of his favorite beer (Indian Pale Ale) brewed by his son. Bull borrowed the brewing equipment from a friend and managed to produce an “actually pretty good” product.
“It’s the same reason people like cooking,” Bull said. “You come up with this product that everyone can enjoy. There are few things people like more than free beer.”
Bull — who has produced a second brew since his father’s batch and plans to make another soon — said, as a “hobbyist,” his passion stems from his thirst for full understanding of the process. He has even read books about brewing and spends time exploring the history, mechanics and various other aspects of brewing.
Rather than sitting at a table in the Thain Café, Will Wilson ’09 insists on being interviewed outside since it’s a fairly nice evening — but he declines to sit down on a bench, saying he “likes to stand.” Wilson is one of those dudes who goes about things in his own unflinching way.
During a year off between high school and college, he read about brewing and decided it was worth a shot. So he filled a bathtub with water and threw malt on it; when he returned home days later, the bathtub smelled “rotten.”
“I realized brewing beer was more complicated than I thought it was,” he said.
A self-described “science guy,” Wilson spent time learning from friends online and repeating the process over and over again until he was able to perfect it. Now, he brews seasonally, with fresh ingredients if he can get his hands on them — a wheat beer in the spring, an oatmeal stout in the summer, and so on.
When he arrived at Yale, he quickly became known as “the kid in Farnam who brews.” After starting a Facebook group called the “Yale United Brewers Association,” he began getting Facebook messages from kids around campus either asking questions or requesting a brewing session with Wilson.
“It’s way too much work to do it on your own,” Wilson said. “It’s more fun if you do it with others.”
Wilson has developed something of a reputation for his experimentation when it comes to his brews. While he said he started by following recipes online assiduously, he has since taken chances and deviated slightly from the plan in some of his later brews.
And as Wilson gazes ahead in the dark evening, puffing frenetically on a cigarette, eyes bulging wider as he speaks, it is easy to picture him perched over a brew, concocting and experimenting.
Justin Steinfeld ’11 and Dan Stone ’11 may be on their way to becoming beer-brewing pros, but they still can’t get through the door at Rudy’s. Steinfeld and Stone, who joined the Psi U. frat earlier this year, have made a name for themselves in their fraternity community for what has been dubbed the “Psi U. Brew.”
In the fall, Stone — who lives across the hall from Steinfeld — saw an online advertisement for a $100 beer brewing kit. So he did what any other excitable college freshman would do: He made a few clicks of the mouse and bought it.
“It was a great impulse buy,” Stone said.
The two spent a day trying to brew a batch in the Psi U. house, making sure to follow the instructions on the particular brew they purchased. The process became a social event.
“It was basically him doing it and me getting drunk,” Stone said. “I was having a good night.”
After waiting for fermentation, the two hosted a tasting for the fraternity members, who managed to finish off the 30 beers easily.
“Everyone was really surprised,” Stone said. “We fully expected it to taste like crap.”
The dynamic duo plan to bring the equipment home for the summer — they live within driving distance from each other in Connecticut — and hope to keep brewing.
“Brewing is way better than just drinking store-bought beer,” Stone claimed. “It’s like the difference between going to Louis’ Lunch and … Burger King.”
(You law-abiding watchdogs out there can take a deep breath: Connecticut state law allows for brewing in a house such as Psi U, in which at least one resident is 21.)
The Social Brewers
Early one Saturday afternoon while most people around campus were catching up on sleep or trying to get some work done, five Saybrook College students were scouring their rooms for empty beer bottles. Having made a stout several weeks earlier that was finally ready for bottling, the members of the Saybrook Brewing Club needed about 60 bottles into which to transfer the beer from the carboy, or large transparent jug, in which it was resting.
“So has it just been getting more and more alcoholic?” one of them asks, as they wash bottles out in the sink of the Saybrook kitchen later in the afternoon.
“Naw,” another responds, “It’s probably just bad.”
Jamie McSpadden ’08 barges into the kitchen with several unopened beers he found around the residential college, tasking the others with drinking them so that they can be used for bottling. Unsurprisingly, no one complains about this order.
Saybrook pays for all of the equipment and ingredients for the brewing club, which has three consistent junior members and about seven senior members. The group gets together about once a month for brewings and often holds tastings when the beers are completed — one of which attracted the master of the college, who enjoyed the drinks so much that she came back for another taste.
The Saybrook club may be the most wholesome of the organized brewing groups. The Boar, a junior-senior secret society, brews “regularly,” according to three members who asked to remain anonymous. Though its members would not divulge exactly how often the society brews or what rituals they employ while brewing, they seem to consider their brewing representative of a greater, mystifying search for understanding.
“We have a higher purpose; we aren’t just howling at the moon,” one member of the Boar said. “Man has been on a quest for perfection for thousands of years. We make sure that search continues and there really is no better feeling than drinking something you brewed yourself.”
As Dave Decarlo ’08 rinses out the bottles and Peter Luehring-Jones ’09 cleans out some bowls with an intense cleaning solution in the Saybrook kitchen, the rest of their friends chat about Las Vegas housing (Rufus needs to find an apartment) and the previous night’s poker game (Peter had to leave early).
Soon they will siphon the liquid, which has endured two rounds of fermentation, from the carboy into a bucket to then deposit it into the bottles one by one. The rotation will flow seamlessly. Dylan Stern ’08 will fill a bottle before handing it off to Luehring-Jones who will cap it using an intimidating metal device, who will them pass it to Decarlo, who will mark each bottle with a “S” for stout.
But, before any of this, they want to taste what they’ve worked so hard to make. They pour a bit into a mug and pass it around. The priming sugar hasn’t been added yet — which will make it taste better — and they all know this. But, right now, it doesn’t matter.
“That’s good. … It’s hoppy.”
“It’ll be better when it’s cold and bubbly.”
“It’s better than what we brewed recently.”
There is a long pause before Stern, the last to take a swig, offers his opinion.
“I’m going to reserve judgment.”
… The Girl?!
“People tend to think it’s really cool, when they find out,” female brewer Shivon Zilis ’08 explained. “Especially since I’m a girl, it’s just not what they expect.”
When her boyfriend recently told a bartender that his girlfriend brews beer, for example, he responded, “She’s a keeper, that one.”
From Canada and a goalie on the women’s ice-hockey team at Yale, Zilis said she was sorely disappointed by the beer offerings available to her in America, describing the beer circulated at parties as “something equivalent to piss water.”
Looking to make something that would please her Canadian-grown palate, Zilis began brewing. And what started as a personal hobby soon turned into a semi-professional operation. She brewed for the Yale Political Union’s Tory Party for a year, supplying beer for various “festive occasions.” She will be beginning a new label for a different campus organization soon, she said.
After starting freshman year, she began brewing at a steady clip, estimating she has brewed a total of 400 to 500 bottles over her time in college. Like many of the brewers, the “act of creation” is what she finds so appealing; she once had dreams of opening a microbrewery, something potentially facilitated by her economics major.
Plus, sometimes she just needs a break from the cerebral monotony of Yale life.
“It’s easy to get lost in the theoretical world of essays,” she said of beer-brewing at Yale. “It’s nice to have something tangible.”
More than two hours after Lacasse has started brewing, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is near its end. The beer must sit for 20 minutes and cool before it is moved into the fridge.
As this step of the process comes to a close, Lacasse and Frank fall into a conversation about the future. The friends realize that the beer will be ready for drinking right as finals end — the perfect time for a celebration. Lacasse talks about his dreams of one day opening a brewery back in his home state of Maine. Frank notes with a chuckle that he has no plans for post-graduation at the moment.
Listening to the two — a brewing fanatic and his friend — talk over a cooling vat of beer, there seems to be a palpable, shared connection between the three: the two men and their beer. The product they created between them seems a symbolic bridge, a representation of a joint effort, a heroic achievement.
“Yalies excel at the things that require using their heads,” Franklin-Lyons said. “But what I’ve found is that it’s extremely important to every once in a while be able to do things with your hands. Every Yalie has something they can do with their hands.”
As Lacasse begins to clean off some dishes in the sink and Frank moves the carboy to the ground, their anticipation for the future — the far-off day when they will get to taste their creation — is evident in the unsteady movement of their hands.