I don’t really like beer. I remember one of the first times I ever tried it, at an Easter gathering. I was about 12, and I heard that telltale hiss of a beer cap popping off. A moment later, I felt a damp glass bottle pressed into my hand. Above me, my dad was grinning in a suspiciously encouraging manner. “Go ahead and try some. Non- alcoholic beer!” He chuckled. It was an inauspicious start to my relationship with beer.
Two years of college parties with Keystone haven’t improved that relationship, so I decide it might be time to try a different side of the beer world — brewing. Enter the Saybrook Brewery, known more commonly as the “Saybrew,” where juniors and seniors have been making beer for over six years. We’re talking here about the real stuff — germ, hops, (alcohol), the whole nine yards. They’ve brewed some duds, like the one batch that, in the words of current club president Casey Blue James ’12, “tasted like teriyaki sauce.” But they’ve also produced some smashing successes. Saybrew Stout, a strong, dark beer that featured at the Saybrook wine-tasting event during graduation weekend last year, won plaudits from none other than Yale College Dean Mary Miller. “She was extremely complimentary of it — both its taste and potency,” says Rachel Wolf ’11, former president of the club.
Critical acclaim from the sharp tongue of Mary Miller? Not too shabby. These brewers must really be experts in the field, right?
Well, not quite. The three most recent presidents of Saybrew — James, Wolf, and Austin Anderson ’10 — all joined the club without any brewing experience. But, as Wolf puts it, “anyone with the right ingredients and a kitchen can brew beer.” It’s simply a matter of following a recipe.
Saybrew makes beer out of the Saybrook kitchen, where they store their brewing and bottling equipment — massive glass jugs, a fermentation lock, Ziplocs filled with bottle caps, and more. The batches usually start from “brew kits” with prepackaged ingredients — certain grains, bitter, dried flowers called hops, and flavorings — that they stir together in a pot of boiling water. After the mixture reaches a certain temperature, the brewers quickly ice down the liquid, put it into a big glass jar, add yeast, affix the fermentation lock, and set it aside to ferment for several weeks. At the end of this period, they add priming sugars to ensure proper carbonation. Then comes the fun part — bottling time — which involves a siphon (the coolest piece of equipment, according to Wolf, and the use of which is practically a rite of passage) and a capping contraption. Once all of this is done, you still need to wait about two weeks for final aging and the fermentation of the sugar, though the time varies for each type of beer.
There are plenty of ways that this process can go wrong. Some batches just taste bad, while others are completely undrinkable. Without intense layers of sanitization applied consistently throughout the entire process, bacteria can corrupt the beer. So far, this year’s only batch was ruined due to a faulty yeast reaction and a popped fermentation lock.
These days, the club generally brews ales, sweet, full-bodied beers made using warm fermentation. Under Anderson, however, it tried its hand at lagers, which require much lower temperatures for fermentation. “Austin turned his heater off and left his window open,” says James. “The only type of person to do that would be one who would move to Alaska.” Anderson did. Now in New York City, the alum confirms that he slept with his window open the entire year in order to keep the temperature next to his bed 60 degrees. “If it’s too warm, you risk the yeast dying,” he explains. Saybrew has also branched out from the prepackaged brew kits to try picking and choosing their own ingredients. “After you do a couple batches it gets familiar enough that you want to experiment a little,” says Anderson. “There’s definitely a lot to play around with.”
If Wolf says anyone can brew, that must include me, right? The Northern Brewer’s Basic Starter Kit ($79.99), which provides rudimentary equipment (siphon, lock, etc.) and an instructional DVD, seems a good place to start. Or maybe I play it safe with the $9.99 Big and Easy Bottle Brew Beer Kit — Homebrew in a Bottle! On the other hand, I like to think I’m more the creative type, so I may want to skip the prepackaged stuff. At Home Brew Mart, I can buy some toasted oak chips and sparkolloid powder (for fining), a little Belgian candi sugar, and sarsparilla extract for my Belgian pale malt. It’s like mix and match, right? Maybe with a little chocolate and caramel flavoring and a little less fermenting, I’ll brew up a batch that tastes kind of like Snickers. Looks like I’ll just have to give beer another chance.