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Hophead: First Shot At Homebrew

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There's something enticing and romantic about the idea of making one's own beer right at home. Along with home wine making (yechh!) and the few in Kentucky--and elsewhere--who manage home spirits, it's the last frontier of legal DIY intoxicants.

Set up a meth lab in your trailer and ... well, you're resigning yourself to a life of paranoia and rambling explanations to the neighbors as to why you're mowing your lawn at 3 a.m.

But homebrewing? Ain't no law against making your own beer. In certain quantities.

I recently headed up to Homebrew Headquarters to buy a starter homebrewing kit. God help me, I haven't even tasted a drop of my creation and I already think I may be hooked.

Of course, I drove up there with the idea of hand-selecting a distinct personal blend of fresh-picked whole hops and the finest malt extracts available, but was quickly given a friendly dose of reality. Deciphering instructions like "Your wort will remain in the larger primary fermenter until fermentation is about 75% of the difference between original and terminal gravity" is difficult enough with the pre-made canned kits. No need to complicate things further on my first attempt. Compressed hop pellets will have to do on this first batch.

I bought the "Two Stage Deluxe" kit. The difference between it and the single stage kit is that the wort (fermenting malt extract, hops, yeast and water) will be transferred from a primary fermenting container into a secondary fermenter, called a "carboy." That's a fancy way of saying that I'll be siphoning the wort from what looks like a pickle barrel into what looks like the kind of 5-gallon plastic bottle that feeds an office water cooler. Except I can't do it the way you do it with an "Arkansas credit card," by simply placing one end of hose into my mouth and sucking until the liquid starts spewing out of the siphon. No, that would transfer nasty germs that would foul the beer. With these pre-mixed kits, contaminating the wort or beer is about the only way to screw things up--at least, according to my instructions, though I'm certain that if there's another way, I'll find it.

The kit comes with a can with ingredients to make a crisp, American-style lager, a default selection that is baffling for two reasons. First, nobody gets into homebrewing to make their own version of Budweiser. Second, lagers are the least forgiving of mistakes in timing, temperature and other factors. So like 99 percent of first-time brewers, I exchanged the lager ingredients for an ale--in my case, Coopers IPA.

If all went according to plan, it would yield a 4.5 percent ABV English-style IPA, meaning the hops would be notably subtler than an American-style (or more specifically, as Paul Hightower pointed out last week, West Coast-style) IPA.

That was all fine, except for that kinda wimpy ABV. On the recommendation of the store, I bought another pound of sugar. By "sugar," we're referring more broadly to any chemical classified as sugar, not just table sugar. In my case, I used dry malt extract. Jumping from two pounds to three could bump it up to maybe 5.5 percent. To grossly oversimplify, the more sugar, the more alcohol. That stuff I said earlier about trying not to complicate things any more than necessary? Maybe not when it comes to choosing my own blend of fresh hops. But if it can boost the alcohol content, I'm willing to do all the lab work necessary.

Anyway, it beats explaining to the pharmacist why I need all that Sudafed.

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