9 February 2012
Tonight, I siphoned my very first batch of beer from the primary fermenter into the carboy.
Twenty-three litres of the rich-looking brown liquid raced through the siphon tube between the bucket on the kitchen island and the narrow-necked glass vessel on the floor; in the carboy, the liquid spiraled, impelled by the force with which it came out of the tube beneath its surface as the level rose, while in the white plastic bucket, little bits of hops deposited themselves on the sides as the level steadily fell.
It took several minutes, and was the most dramatic point of my brewing activities tonight. A close second would have been the specific gravity test, in which I took a sample of the still-uncarbonated beer and dropped a hydrometer in it. One point zero-one-eight, it read, indicating that the yeast and the malt sugars had, over the past five days, done their slow and patient dance.
Which itself holds some mystery. Even if one understands chemically and biologically what is going on, there's still an enchanting quality to it. In some ways it is simple and direct: bacteria feed on sugars in the water that have been put there by malted and boiled grains, turning those sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol as their by-products. Nothing magical. It all makes sense.
The wonder is in the watching of the thing. I mixed everything on Saturday night, pouring in my hot water and my concentrated wort that came with the kit, topping it all up to the right volume and doing an initial specific gravity test. I checked the temperature, which was right where it should have been. Then I pitched in the yeast, covered the bucket with a towel, shoved it in a corner of the kitchen, and waited.
For two days, little, if anything, really happened. I peeked under the towel a few times, and saw that there was indeed a sort of foam on the surface, but not much was really going on. I could see the odd bubble break, but that was all. Then on day three, I didn't even have to pull back the towel as I leaned my head close to the bucket. I could hear the foaming. A quiet but constant sort of static. On day four, it was outright loud. This morning, it had gone quiet, and tonight the hydrometer told me it was time to rack it into the carboy.
And there it will sit for the next month, to settle, to clear, to become what it ought to be.
I've always been a little fascinated by the very existence of such a thing as beer, for the simple reason that it doesn't happen by accident. It may be the cumulative result of a series of accidental discoveries combined with some very deliberate experiments, but you don't find puddles of it in forests where ne'er a human foot has trod. To make it well requires careful and deliberate action, and even then we cannot do it ourselves. We put all the parts in place, but it is the yeast, not the brewer, that does the beautiful work.
Beer shares this genesis with bread and wine.
These past weeks have been marked by careful and deliberate action. By the honesty of others I have learned much about parts and places. I understand things, and myself, far more clearly than I think I ever have. I see where I fall down now, and I see where I've tripped others up. The process I need to undertake is becoming less cloudy; the steps are something I can do. But it all needs to ferment to become what it ought to be, and that part is slow, mysterious, and out of my hands.
The difficulty is in the waiting. But the wonder is in the watching.