"Slim", who was basketball tall, and "Big Daddy", (so named for his anatomy, the story went) were talking to a couple of the other guys about "good homebrew", which I took to mean moonshine whisky. The conversation about who was making "good homebrew" went on until I just had to ask the question that I KNEW would once again make me look like a "dumb yankee". "Hey Slim," I said, "what IS homebrew?"
"Ha, ha, hee-hee. Son! Homebrew is like mother's milk! You ain't never had no homebrew?"
"Nope", says I, "not that I know of."
"Well," he said, "homebrew is like home made beer, only different. It's darker, and stronger. If it's made right, it tastes mighty good on a hot day. "if'n you drink much of it you'll get drunk as a bicycle too. If you want to know about homebrew, talk to Will over at the parts store. He makes the best homebrew around."
So, next time I was at the parts store, I said to Will, "Slim and the boys tell me you make homebrew."
"Hell yes," he says, "I'm from Winston County!" (As if that was supposed to mean something. I guessed that it might have been a county ordinance that everyone had to know how to make homebrew in Winston County.) "My family," he went on, "has been making homebrew and corn liquor since the 1800's. It ain't hard to make homebrew."
My interest grew. Here might be a valuable new skill to be learned.
"All you gotta' do, is get you a 5 gallon crock," (I had no idea what a crock was) a can of malt syrup, 5 lbs of sugar, a few yeast cakes and mix it all together with 5 gallons of water. Put it in the barn for about 3 days, and then you just put it in fruit jars and let it set for a week or two. Be careful that it don't go into the fruit jars too soon, or they'll explode."
How reassuring. In general, it sounded easy, so I did it. First off, I got a 5 gallon glass bottle from a water cooler. Went to the local grocery store, bought the sugar and yeast (Fleishmans baking yeast) and tracked down the malt syrup. "Blue Ribbon, Light Hops" it said on the can. Cool, this gonna' be easy. Home I went, and began mixing this concoction together. When everything was in the jug, I covered the top with a dishrag and stuck it in the barn, as instructed.
Next day, I stopped at the grocery and bought 2 cases of fruit jars
to put my "hootch" in, and went to see what was happening in the barn.
It was bubbling away.
On the second day, still bubbling up a storm.
Will had told me it ought to be ready on the 3rd day, so when I went home I meant to have a taste test. I took a jar to the barn and poured some in the jar. It looked something like chocolate milk. I sniffed it. It smelled something like beer, a little. I took a sip. Hmmm... different. Not bad. I walked around sipping on this jar for a bit until I had polished off about a quart. I was almost, but not quite converted. It wasn't "terrible", but was a poor substitute for a Beck's.
Fast forward 2 weeks....
After a few days in the fruit jars, homebrew becomes a dark golden-brown color, and has a layer of sediment on the bottom of the jar. I quickly learned to carefully pour it into another jug immediately after opening. I also noticed a sour aftertaste that I didn't care for. I took most of it to work and gave it away. The boys seemed to like it, and this would have been the end of my homebrew making career if not for one event.
In our parts department was a bright and gifted college student, who's father was a chemist at a local factory. The father had interests in many things, among them making wine. Upon hearing that I was interested in homebrew, he had sent me a copy of a paperback book, entitled "Making Wine, Beer and Spirits and Curing Hangovers." Within a few minutes of glancing at this book, I saw that everything I knew about homebrew was wrong, and since I had learned from Will, what he knew might be improved on. And that meant that the "Winston County family recipe could be made better..?"
So, then I was forced to proceed to do this right and see what the result would be.
Here's what I learned. There's a bunch of ways to do this wrong, and only a few variations of the right way that makes a drinkable product. The malt syrup part was ok, except it needed to be heated and mixed with the water, then cooled at the right rate.
The Crock-Jug theory was out. What I needed was a brewing vat with a fermentation lock to keep bacteria out.
Yeast. There's about a zillion different strains of yeast, and they all have a few things in common. They all eat sugar and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide in equal parts. Some ferment on top of the vat and some on the bottom, and there are special purpose yeasts for brewing and wine making. What I needed was bottom fermenting yeast, of a strain similar to the yeast used in Carlsberg for brewing lager. Yeast is an organisim that can be kept alive for years with careful management. I grew some yeast in the refrigerator from a sample obtained from a keg of a well known "draft beer".
Temperature. Good lager brew is fermented at low temperature, around 51 degrees. So, the barn was out. What I needed was a refrigerator for brewing.
Sugar. I found out that when yeast eats cane sugar, it forms an enzyme called invertase, which has a sour taste. So, what I needed was corn sugar, which doesn't have this problem.
Bottling. I found that bottling by guesswork is why the jars were exploding. What I needed was a brewers hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of the brew, and then in leaving just the right amount of sugar in the mix, it would finish fermenting in the bottle, but without the risk of explosion or foaming over when opening. I learned also that light was bad for beer, so I needed brown jars. The easiest way to get brown containers was to reuse long neck beer bottles. So, I needed a hydrometer, a bottle capper and brushes and a supply of caps.
What I did was find a brewers supply house and mail ordered all this stuff from Minnesota by UPS.
A few days later I was back at it, but paying careful attention to details and instructions. I now knew how this was supposed to work. I carefully heated the wort, and mixed it with the corn sugar and 5 gallons of spring water. When it reached just the right temperature, I put in the yeast, and fixed the fermentation lock on top. This was filled with a sterilizing solution to keep out bacteria, At 51 degrees the yeast took almost 2 weeks to get to the proper specific gravity. I bottled most of it, and poured a few quart jugs for the boys at work. After 2 days, I opened the jars, pouring off the top and leaving the sediment in the bottom, decanting the brew in new fruit jars. I bottled and capped the rest.
What I had as a finished product was very similar to what the British drink, a pale ale with a bit of a stout taste, a bit on the creamy side and a bit darker, maybe about like Bock beer or a commercial dark variety, but made with a pale lager yeast. Very drinkable and tasty when cold, it looked the same as "Winston County homebrew", but tasted nothing like it. My production costs went from 8 cents a quart to over 32 cents a quart, but still dirt cheap, considering. After samples, I got 2 cases of homebrew from 5 gallons.
After a couple of days I took 2 quarts of my new homebrew to Will at the parts house. He was in his office when I got there, and when I walked in I had the homebrew in a paper bag. They were still cold. When I told him I had brought him some of my homebrew for him to try he said "Hey, thanks. Let's put it in the refrigerator and I'll try it later." I got my parts and left.
Later that afternoon, the service manager comes over and tells me that Will is on the phone for me. I went over and picked up the phone and said " Hi Will, what's up?" I'll never forgot what he said.
"Son, where did you learn to make homebrew like that? I have been making homebrew since I was a kid, and I learned how from my daddy, and he learned from his daddy, but that is the best damn homebrew I have ever tasted, period."
I could have told him I learned how from reading a book, by studying the chemistry of brewing, learning about yeast cultures and the differences between sucrose, glucose, fructose and the enzymes created during the process. I could have told him about measuring the weight of the brew and dividing by the weight of water to determine how much sugar was left in the brew before bottling. (specific gravity)
Instead, I just couldn't resist. I said "Why son, that there's a YANKEE homebrew recipe!"