Brewing without a recipe

What poets and artists refer to as inspiration, other people tend to call impulse. So it was on impulse — I mean, by inspiration — that I threw together my latest homebrew the other week. I had a gallon of too-sweet cider that I thought I might ferment with a packet of beer yeast, so I began heating it on the stove (to kill competing yeasts and bacteria). Then I thought, if I’m going to use a whole packet of yeast, maybe I should throw in some ancient, rock-hard dried malt extract as well, and make it a two-gallon, hybrid kind of brew. I started adding various spices, the kind you mull cider with: a stick of cinnamon, some cloves, anise seed, etc. Then I looked at the clock, realized I’d just have enough time to mash and sparge before I had to leave at 10:00, so I thought what the heck — might as well use up all the odds and ends of malted barley I have lying around, some of it four years old. I quickly assembled my hand-cranked Corona mill and got to work. By this time I’d added two or three more gallons of water — in my rush, I’d sort of lost count.

The grains ended up being about 2/3 what I normally use for a five-gallon batch of beer, I thought, but with the extra sugars, it should be about enough for four gallons. I brought the water up to the usual temperature, dumped in the grain bag, swirled it around a bit, and put the lid on the pot. I’ve found, by the way, that that’s really all I ever have to do to maintain mash temperature: a large volume of liquid in a lidded steel brewpot doesn’t drop more than a couple of degrees in an hour at room temperature. There’s absolutely no reason to do the usual homebrewer thing and use a picnic cooler mash tun. Since I hadn’t added any wheat or unmalted grains, I didn’t need to go through any complicated step-infusion process. An hour at 150 degrees F should be enough to accomplish the essential magic of converting malt to maltose.

Sparging, for me, consists of lifting the grain bag out and placing it in an enormous colander (from a Swedish vegetable steamer/juicer) over another pot or bucket, and slowly dribbling hot water over it with a soup ladle. It’s kind of meditative, especially if you have some good blues to listen to. I’m sure there are more efficient ways to sparge, but I don’t have much room in this small house for lots of extra gear, and besides, who really cares about efficiency? Getting every last drop of fermentable sugar off the grain is for industrial brewers watching their bottom line. I think that kind of outlook can be damaging to the more generous, experimental and joyful spirit of homebrewing. Besides, I knew I’d be replenishing my honey supply that afternoon, so I could easily spare a couple pounds of that.

When I got back mid-afternoon, I turned the stove back on, brought the wort to a boil, and yes, added some local wildflower honey. That morning I had also remembered to sterilize and refrigerate a gallon of water to add at the very end, to aid in the rapid cooling of the wort. So I boiled the wort for about an hour and a half, until it came down to the three-gallon mark.

As usual, I skipped the hops. Given how quickly the flavor of hops can disintegrate in storage, there’s probably a reason why the majority of American homebrewers can’t afford to be as slack as I am. I did, however, use some quite fresh dried mugwort that I’d gathered just a couple weeks before — somewhere around a pint of it, I guess. That was the primary antimicrobial bittering agent. I scrounged up a few more odds and ends of herbs and spices, I’m not sure exactly what. I remember adding some calamus and licorice root and a handful of coriander seeds, as well as some Indian sarsaparilla, which always goes especially well with mugwort. There might’ve been other things.

I don’t normally brew this way. In fact, this was the first time in many years that I didn’t carefully weigh and measure everything and write it all down for future reference. But I have to say, it felt liberating not to. I wanted to see just how many beermaking rules I could get away with violating and still have a drinkable ale at the end of it. I’ve never owned a hydrometer, so I’m used to not knowing the alcohol content of what I brew. Some brewpubs are so geeky about this, they even list the specific gravities of each beer on their chalkboard menus — as if that’s going to be meaningful to anyone but brewers. But I really think taste and not alcohol content should be our focus. Also, in my regular culinary activities, making meals and baking bread, I like to get away from the written word as much as possible and concentrate on internalizing methods and processes rather than recipes. Why not extend that to beermaking?

Two weeks later, at bottling time, I did attempt to measure the bottling sugar (more dried malt extract). But unfortunately it clumped up and spilled out over my half-cup measure into the brew. I was shooting for 3/4 of a cup, but might’ve ended up with a bit more than that, I thought. I started to worry that the bottles would over-carbonate and foam over when opened.

That was a week ago. This afternoon, I opened the first bottle to see if the stuff was actually O.K. To my delight, it fizzed to just the proper degree. There’s a pretty full mouth-feel, but more importantly, it tastes all right! It’s not the best beer I’ve ever brewed, but it’s far from the worst. In fact, I have to say it’s pretty damn drinkable. I’m having another one right now. The second-quarter moon is shining, and I think it’s just warm enough for some night-time porch sitting…

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