Adventures in Beer: Part I

So you want to start a brewery…
Anyone who expresses this ambition must invariably be prepared to answer the question: have you ever brewed beer?

Years ago, I attempted brewing beer using a beer bag — a cloth sack lined with a plastic bladder containing the ingredients. “Just add water, wait and enjoy,” the product info promised. The beer was undrinkable. I didn’t add much experience or effort to the beer and its poor quality reflected this. I’ve since learned more about brewing and understand reasons why my first attempt failed.

To prove that I could adequately replicate the brewing process, I recently brewed a second batch of beer. I was concerned with quality brewing practices and variables, prioritizing the important ones. Using a one gallon brewing kit, I attempted to brew an acceptable batch with malted grain and hops. Even with my new knowledge and diligence, I encountered an unexpected problem which gave me more insight into the brewing process as well as problem-solving in general. The value of my brewing experience was more than the beer.

The Beer Adventure

I met fellow travelers in my brewing quest. I learned of More Beer, a local homebrew store in Los Altos, CA. I visited and found a mash in progress outside the shop. Jameson, a salesperson and brewer, had hands-on experience. He answered questions about yeast and equipment, confirming and suggesting requirements for a successful brew. The store was a good place to see ingredients and gear. I captured some initial impressions on video.

The first tenet of good brewing is cleaning and sanitation. Consider that brewing is a process of controlled spoilage. Water is a petri dish for microorganisms. While boiling water will sterilize it, contamination happens easily. The process of fermentation and finishing takes weeks in conditions ideal for bacterial growth of all kinds. Any rogue yeast, bacteria, you name it, will consume the wort (the sugar-rich liquid extracted from the grain). If the byproducts of these micro-hitchhikers are unwanted, they adversely taint the beer.

Yeast is affected by temperature as it is living in the wort, consuming sugar to produce alcohol and byproducts. Without control, temperatures outside a desirable range will spur the yeast to make compounds with off-flavors. Treat your yeast well and it will be good to your beer. Wild temperature swings and extremes make for unpredictable flavors, most of which are associated with beer that doesn’t taste right.

The preparation for my brew day included a self-styled “brew box” for temperature control. My idea was to retain the heat of the fermentation process, cooling the brew as necessary with a fan that circulates air from outside the box. The box consists of rigid foam insulation glued to the outside of the brewing kit box, a removable panel and a thermal switch that connects to the brewing jug.

I purchased fresh yeast as the yeast in the kit was dated 2015. Another concern was water. By volume, water is the main ingredient in beer. It defines the character and expression of the other ingredients. Knowing that tap water is treated to inhibit living microorganisms, I bought 2 gallons of spring water for the brew.

The brew day started with preparation: collecting and sanitizing the tools and vessels to be used.

The Mash, the Smash and the Trainwreck

I captured some images and video, though I concentrated on brewing rather than documenting the process. The mash was as pleasant as making oatmeal with the provision that an ideal temperature range be maintained. I noticed the mash temperature rise quickly when enzymes in the malted grain were activated at a base temperature. The thermometer fluctuated wildly around my target temperature range as I adjusted the heat up and down. After an hour of cooking, I could not raise the mash to the recommended mash-out temperature of 170 degrees.

Equipment Failure _ *_ *_ Trainwreck: I discovered the glass thermometer included with the kit had a problem after I added the yeast to the boiled and cooled wort, finishing my brewing day. When I put the jug in the brew box, the digital thermometer attached to the side of the jug displayed a temperature that was much higher than the glass thermometer reading. This explained why I had a problem with the mash-out temperature. See Why a Good Thermometer Goes Bad (below) for an explanation of why the thermometer was incorrect.

In addition to other impacts of the faulty thermometer, the grain was overcooked, the sparge water was too hot and the yeast was added at a temperature that killed it. After brewing with a thermometer that missed the actual temperature by 30 or more degrees, I knew the batch of beer would be sketchy at best. However, I pressed on with the process. I decided to study the trainwreck and taste the mistakes.

After the first day, it was clear that no fermentation was happening. No fermentation meant no alcohol, an under-intoxicating mistake. Taking precautions to avoid contamination, I added two packets of yeast from the kit and shook the bottle. While I initially avoided the yeast because of its age, I now had nothing to lose. I began to see CO2 and eventually an eruption of foam from more vigorous fermentation.

The activity of the yeast flows and then ebbs until the beer is fermented with alcohol and conditioned by time. During fermentation, the brew box was in a garage in a temperate climate. I put the brew box in the sun when the liquid was cool. With direct sunlight on the outside of the box, the liquid inside warmed to the higher end of the target fermentation temperature zone.

The failure was a necessary lesson. How did I miss checking the thermometer? I assumed the tool was accurate. With a 30 degree difference, simply looking at the resting temperature before I put it in the mash would have raised red flags. Once I was in the process, my focus narrowed on the tasks as they were time- and technique-sensitive. I focused on the lower end of the thermometer as the liquid in the top half was pushed into the upper reservoir. A lesson to beware of calibration for tools that can fail. Preparation considers where the activities of each step may become a misstep, noting the relevant tests and measures.

During the two-week wait, I was curious how bad the beer would taste. I imagined bio-chemical processes that were at work in the wort. I was confident that the beer would not be affected by contamination, but the flavor would definitely be affected by the temperature mishap as well as the fermentation conditions.

At the end of two weeks, it was time to bottle. While the yeast produces CO2 during fermentation, it is allowed to escape. The need to bottle arises if there is no equipment available for artificial carbonation (i.e. pressurized CO2 gas). The yeast in the beer consumes sugar added at bottling and produces the fizz in the beer after about 2 weeks. The timing varies as does the amount of sugar (or honey) to use.

The beer was siphoned into a transfer container to avoid agitating the inactive yeast at the bottom of the fermentation jug. The transfer container is where additional sugar for carbonation is added. After gently shaking to mix, the flat beer was dispensed into bottles and capped.

What will the beer finally taste like? I’ll let you know. Stay tuned for Adventures in Beer: Part II where you’ll meet some brave men who dare to drink Trainwreck IPA.

I’m not asking you to support me in a quest for off-taste beer. The details of my not-so-successful brewing experience are presented for your review as a milestone to learning. There are many batches of beer to be made and improved upon. Thanks to all who have and continue to support Area 34 Brewing. Donate to our current crowdfunding campaign. Please contact us if you have any comments.

Why Good Thermometers Go Bad

At left is the faulty thermometer used in the brewing described above. If you look at the full resolution image, you can better see the separation of the red liquid. I speculate that the alcohol has a tendency to separate if the thermometer is stored in a vulnerable position. A small amount of the alcohol is able to travel down the length of the thermometer, back-filled with air. Using a lighter flame to carefully heat the bulb can force the ends to flow back together. I bought a metal brewer’s thermometer with a dial to replace the alcohol thermometer. Cheers to temperature control!

Why Crowdfund?

Two weeks ago, I launched a crowdfunding campaign to start a craft beer brewery in NY. Will my appeal yield collaborative support for the business? Can contributing to an idea share in a collective experience? The “crowd” in crowdfunding is comprised of many potential groups. My hopes are directed at family, friends and acquaintences. Campaign rewards are small tokens of recognition for contributors. What bold purpose would compel you to give? My consideration of crowdfunding begins with electronic marketing and design, however I’m discovering the spirit of expression which encourages the promotion of ideas.

Everyone Understands a Hammer
A business idea is an expression. An expression is a commitment to form. Personal identity is integral to its development. The shadow of your identity, what you don’t know, is an opportunity for growth as you learn by doing. Any product must be created before it can be grasped and used. Promoting an idea is an achievement. Prepare to knock on doors and build doorways. Crowdfunding exists on the principle that social and financial capital are related. However, a sales pitch can be annoying. Marketing an idea runs the risk of being impersonal. We encourage you to keep it personal and contact us with any questions or comments. We truly want to share this experience, and eventually some beers, with you.

Paint Your Cave
Public display and dissemination of ideas invites feedback. Along with your growing archive of activities, so too your understanding of your skills, attitudes, perspectives and purpose. What is YOUR story? The best stories are rich with detail and personality. How are monuments built? Work on your own and you’ll find it’s easier to work together with others. It’s worth an exciting presentation. How do we broadcast ourselves? Who do we leave our ideas to? If a cave isn’t your thing, what do you like? What is your character? What do you promote?

We All Wear Many Hats
Our roles in society are varied. In the best relationships, roles are freely exchanged and offer mutual benefits such as reducing friction and offering respect. It’s in your interest to support someone who supports you. If a need exists, the opportunity is equally great. To ask is a big step. Traditional funding puts money in a singular category while sharing in a group can provide greater accountability and accessibility among peers. Why not offer an identity among the myriad others we interact and inhabit?

Acknowledgement and Approval
I’d like to acknowledge the family and friends who have already given in this campaign as well as the contributions of support at other times in many other forms. There’s not much more direct indication of interest in your idea from your family and friends. Offering approval is almost as gratifying as receiving it. It’s a reciprocal relationship when gratitude flows circularly. A modest contribution is a generous and favorable vote. Start a positive feedback loop and create a cooperative framework for funding and assistance. Throw the dog a bone.

Make Your Mark
Business plans are ingrained in the fabric of citizenship in capitalist societies. The fruits of your labor can be something you decide to grow. Many systems in the U.S. serve you as a corporate entity. To exercise your citizenship in a larger sphere requires more strategy and identification with a future economy you are participating in. The pen has largely been replaced, but words are as valid as ever. Systems that arrange and organize work help to transform our lives.

Celebrate It
Enthusiasm is magnified by sharing it. We’ve all heard that life is a journey, not just a destination. Embrace experience and if you have anything to express, do it. An expression is an end in and of itself. Results will follow your statement of intent. Be a noisy friend. Well, maybe not noisy, but insistent. Whatever comes of it, remember that there is alway more to be gained than lost. Consider the impetus for your goals and how they have driven your daily thoughts. Each action you take has a complex history of where you’ve been and where you want to be. Most of all, have fun with it. It is something we can celebrate together.

Thanks for contributing.

Stay Tuned: Adventures in Beer (Part I) coming soon. Cheers!

3/4: Announcing Area 34 Brewing

We’re approaching our startup like any good craft beer — with passion, patience and persistence.

The idea to open a brewery started as a search for a business that lived up to the potential of a rural NY property purchased as a homestead in the ’70s. As the Lonsky family members are not employed by farming or otherwise working the land, it is managed with piecemeal activities that are not likely to produce enough income to sustain the farm into the future.

The tide of change has provided new opportunities. New York State has recognized the farm brewing industry and is providing incentives to encourage NY agricultural inputs and production. The craft beer industry is booming as more people find increasing satisfaction drinking artesanal beers with a multitude of styles. The beer renaissance has given license to brewers to try a wide variety of grains, hops, fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, shoots, spices and just about anything else that creates a noteworthy brew. The charge of craft brewers encourages the discovery and adoption of fresh, creative flavors which are, more and more, from local sources.

This is just the beginning of our story, but the brewing industry has been part of civilization for millennia. Some have credited it FOR civilization. Whatever you believe, the time seems right for this particular brewery.

This is an appeal for your contribution and feedback. We consider the wider purpose of building a brewery. The brewery is a first step toward the goal of creating a destination where the beer is one of many reasons to visit. There are numerous ways to develop tourist-friendly sites, exploration and activities.

As far as the name goes, it has many dimensions of meaning. The brewery is breaking ground in the area bounded by Routes 34 & 34B though “we are not alone” and we look forward to more craft breweries dotting the region. We’ve always enjoyed the fantasy and possibility of science fiction, thus the name is also an homage to the popular extraterrestrial research site Area 51. We look forward to including inspirational, thought-provoking technology in our operations and environment.

It has been an adventure of discovery just to reach this starting point. There are many new frontiers to explore. We welcome you to join us in building and brewing a better tomorrow. We will be launching our crowdfunding campaign soon. Thanks for visiting!