For my 43rd birthday my wife prepaid for me to go down to a place in Freehold to “brew on premises”. This is a novel, wonderful idea and I hear these are starting to slowly pop up all across the United States. New Jersey has one, which is more than can be said for most states, so far. The place is called The Brewer’s Apprentice and they will shortly be located on Route 33, not far from the NASCAR beer-loving bar The Cabin. From what I understand they have both kinds of music there…Country AND Western. But we’re not here to bash on sh!t-kicker bars or quote The Blues Brothers. This is about craft beer in New Jersey. Well, not this entry so much…this is more about home brewing. But Beer Samurai, you said it was a “brew on premises”, not home brewing…and so I did, but patience Grasshopper. I’m getting to that.
The idea at The Brewer’s Apprentice is to go in, select a recipe and brew that recipe. They have a bank of copper steam kettles with a whole flow system attached. The staff will bring you to your brew kettle (which awaits with water already at the proper temperature) and guide you through all the steps from gathering your ingredients to timing when to add the ingredients and (most importantly) what NOT to do. It makes it all quite easy and the bonus is that they clean it all up when you leave! Now I really wish I had known that you could alter the recipe and they’d just charge you or credit you any differences. I had chosen a recipe titled Muni Old Peculiar which I did according to the recipe. If I had known I could change it up a bit, I would have used different hops and perhaps changed one of the grains. Still, it came out pretty nice. It was tasty, but just a tad under-carbonated and a wee shy on the ABV for my liking. So I’d love to go back and do another batch. One of the great things about a place like this is that you can get a bunch of friends together and reserve all the brew kettles and make six batches of beer! And each batch makes six cases of 22 ounce bottles! That’s quite a bit of beer. So if you get six buddies to all do this, you can all go home with a case each of the six different beers. Perfect!
After brewing the beer, they moved into a first-stage fermenter which was a large plastic keg. We were free to go and went to the Triumph Brewpub in Princeton, which I highly recommend. The food is really good, but the place is a bit expensive and pretty hoity-toity. It is on an Ivy League campus after all. I still need to explore more of New Jersey’s brewpubs and will write about those experiences, but back to The Brewer’s Apprentice. I returned two weeks later to bottle the beer. By this point it had been moved into a stainless steel keg and was hooked up the bottling machine and was force-carbonated. The process is tedious. First you wash and dry all your bottles. Then, one at a time, you fill and cap them. It is monotonous, but you do get to taste your beer as you bottle, unless you request it to be bottle-conditioned. I’ll probably do this next time despite the fact that you’ll have wait a few more weeks to crack open one of those bad boys. While bottling you’re encouraged to swap with other people (who you may or may not know) that are bottling at the same time. It’s a very jovial, communal atmosphere. How could it not be? We’re bottling and drinking beer! One word of advice: if you want to label your bottles, do so when you get home. The bottles will sweat a little at first and your labels will not adhere properly.
The whole experience got me thinking about home brewing again. “Again”, you say? Yep, I tried my hand at it back in the eighties and made a passable stout, if a D is a passing grade. I still have the first bottle which, like Pandora’s box, should never be opened. It wasn’t all that great back then and I imagine it is downright vile by now. So I want to try again, now that I know so much more and understand a lot of the science behind it. I even have Android apps that will perform the important chemical calculations for me. I also have so much more experience in the different styles and flavor profiles and know what ingredients create what flavor in the finished product. I think I stand a chance at putting together a decent brew, but the proof is in the pudding.
I still have some of my old equipment and, despite languishing in the swamp that is my basement some of it is still serviceable. The non-metal components did not fare well and they need to be replaced or upgraded. My 6-gallon (or is it 5?) second-stage glass carboy needs a good washing, but it’s good to go. The 6-gallon plastic first-stage needs to be chucked, or I can transform it into a blow-off bucket. I now use the old brew kettle as a lobster pot. It’s stainless steel, but thin and does not hold heat very well. So I have my eye on an 8-gallon brew kettle that has a built in thermometer, strainer built into the bottom and an industrial-grade spigot. With the carboys being no more than 6-gallons, why do I need an 8-gallon brew kettle? That extra capacity allows for better control of boil-overs which could really ruin much of your kitchen. Hot wort is not easy to clean, especially after it cools. I also seem to have misplaced my triple-gauge hydrometer, but those are relatively inexpensive. The fermentation locks will also need to be replaced. The one I do have left looks immaculate, but after 15 years there has to be something funky growing on it that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Why chance it? Let’s see, what else? Got: bottle capper and bottle cleaner. Need: racking tube, bottle tree, wort chiller, grain mill and tubing.
The “need” list is now complete, but where does one get these things? I used to go to a place in Bogota, but started to go to a place in Morristown because it was a lot closer. The place in Bogota is where my best friend bought me the first start-up kit for brewing. Both places are now closed. However, Corrado’s in Clifton has opened a wine and beer-making store, right near their Corrado’s Family Affair grocery store and emporium. Bonus: there’s a Papaya King right next to it! One could write a blog about the different hot dog stands across the United States, but I’ll be sticking to beer. Corrado’s doesn’t have everything I’m looking for, but they have quite a bit and will be a great resource. But some of the stuff I’ll need to order on-line. Doing so is sight-unseen, however. Corrado’s also has a really good selection of ingredients from whole-grain malts, malt extracts, hops, yeast, flavorings, spices and chemicals. A wider variety can be found on-line (especially in the extract department), but again it is buyer beware.
So when will I start brewing at home? It won’t be at least until 2011…maybe 2012. First, I need to amass the equipment and will have to wait until my anniversary, Christmas and my next birthday to complete it all. Secondly, I’m having way too much fun exploring the beers that are out there. I have no time to drink anything that I brew myself. I still have half of the beer I made at the Brewer’s Apprentice left and this is after giving a lot away at work and bringing nearly a case of it down to a bar-be-cue. Starting to brew now would be a waste. Once I’m satisfied that I’ve tried just about everything I want to try then I’ll get that ball rolling. As for now, I’ve got so many more beers on my list to try. Even once I do start brewing I will never stop tasting beers. To do so would be to stagnate and to stop learning. Learn something new every day and try a new beer at least twice a week.
So, “to brew or not to brew”? The answer is brew, but when you are ready. And when you are ready I suggest purchasing Charlie Papazian’s The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing to get you started. Oh, and save me a bottle.
Next Week: A Tale of Two Beerfests