How They Do It – The Brewer

Home Brooklyn Life How They Do It – The Brewer

By Ivana Kottasová

When Drew Dewitt brews beer, he has many things to worry about, starting with the temperature of the water. It’s boiling in a big pot. Dewitt watches the thermometer closely. The water must be exactly 148 to 149 degrees. “You have to be focused, not run away to watch TV, because all the steps are absolutely crucial,” he says.

Wheat is one of the essential ingredients in brewing.
(Ivana TK/The Brooklyn Ink)

In the beginning are four ingredients: water, wheat, hops and yeast. Most people think of hops as the main ingredient. But the balance of all four is the key.

Dewitt, a large enthusiastic ex-Texan with a beard, makes his own beer three times a week in his Brooklyn apartment. He also helps others brew, in his job at Brooklyn Homebrew, where he gave Brooklyn Ink a demonstration.

He makes five gallons each time. That is enough for about 20 bottles. “On average, I would use three pounds of grain and seven to eight pounds of malt extracts, one small pack of yeast and three to four ounces of hops, depending on the type of beer,” he says.

Extracts are the mash ingredients that are the source of sugars. Those become crucial for alcohol production later on. In mass production mash is made by soaking grains into water. That allows the enzymes to convert the starch into sugars. But it takes hours. Home brewers like Dewitt use convenient pre-packed malt.

He makes sure everything is ready and on hand, like a TV chef with bowls of pre-chopped onions and spices. Dewitt has a bowl of finely crushed grains ready. Next to that is a bag of hops. And some spices.

He makes sure everything is clean and sanitized, almost like a surgeon getting ready for an operation. Only after a thorough cleaning does he add the grains to the boiling water, keeping it as close to the ideal temperature as possible. Too hot or too cold water changes the conversion of starch into sugars and spoils the flavor.

“It’s almost like making a tea,” he says. “Some people put the grains in a bag and boil it. It smells kind of sweet and porridgy. Some people don’t like it.”

Dewitt removes the wheat after a while and puts hops in. “A beer would not be a beer without those,” he says and smells the fine, almost powdery green stuff with his eyes narrowed.

The hops make the beer bitter. “You boil it for 60 minutes for the bitter taste. For flavoring, you add more hops after 30 minutes,” he says. “The hops contain essential oil, so longer you boil them, the more flavor is released.”

This is also the time to add some spices: “Orange, chocolate, chipotle peppers, pumpkin, if you want to make a holiday beer,” he says. “Some of them are a bit weird, depends on what you like.”

The beer boils for an hour. Then it’s time to cool the pot down. The faster, the better. “It’s a food safety thing. The faster you do it, the less chance for bacteria to get excited,” he said.

He gets rid of the sediments that are left in the pot after boiling by ‘whirpooling’: he moves a spoon in his hand gently but fast enough to create a little centrifuge in the pot. All the “stuff” goes in the middle and he scoops it out. “Some people filter it,” he says. “It’s a common mistake of the beginners that their beer is cloudy. The sign of a good home brewer is clarity.”

Dewitt then adds the yeast to allow for fermentation. This turns the beer into an alcoholic beverage. “It’s kind of like when you make a bread, but not,” Dewitt says. “When making a beer, you are having the yeast consume the sugars to make the alcohol and the CO2 is just a by-product, as opposed to the baker, who wants the CO2, so that the bread rises.”

This is when his patience gets tested. The fermentation, in which the yeast consumes the sugar, takes around ten days. There is no way to speed it up. The hydrometer at the fermentation bucket shows the amount of sugar inside. The starting point is somewhere between 1.05 to 1.04. The right level at the end of the process is about 1.009. (The level for plain water is 1.000). He has to check the meter regularly to see the slow progress. “Sometimes, I just go like this,” he says and goggle-eyes at the bucket theatrically.

But even after the 10 days of waiting, the beer is still far from ready. It has to be bottled and carbonated. “It gets the best after about six weeks, but good enough after two weeks,” Dewitt says. And then, if the lid is sealed properly, it can last for years. “But frankly, I never have that problem,” Dewitt says.

Text TK

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