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The Genteel Lady’s Compleat Guide to The Domestick Art of Homebrewing

Saison du Mont

Saison du Mont, Big Brew 2009

Why don’t more women brew beer?

Women I consider capable of holding national office or even starting a new country have described to me how they stand by and watch men homebrew. I have also run into more than one woman at the homebrew store who was there to pick up the ingredients for the boyfriend’s brew day.

This may be because modern American homebrewing — a hobby that in the U.S. is legally only about thirty years old –  is dominated by men,  with the attendant big-batch, outdoorsy, size-matters, Gawd-you-won’t-believe-how-hard-this-is characteristics of masculinized cooking activities.

It’s not that women are sissies (although, full disclosure, I am strictly apres-ski when it comes to outdoorsy stuff), but that men-brewing-beer has become an incomprehensible cultural habit, like driving in circles to get a really good parking spot at the gym.

Yet once upon a time, it was the good housewife who milled the malted barley and brewed it with hops to make beer (afterwards giving it a good stir with her magic stick that impregnated it with yeast). In the 18th century, nearly 80 percent of all licensed brewers were women, and many ancient myths “credit the creation of beer to women,” as beer anthropologist Alan Eames noted some years back.

And she didn’t spend hundreds of dollars on fancy equipment, either… nor did she suspend all her other domestic activities to concentrate on her brewing… and she expected her beer to complement her other domestic products, such as the family dinner (if not breakfast and lunch, or even snack breaks for lactating mothers, for whom milk stout was recommended).

So, as a newbie who has nonetheless learned a few things in the past year, here are my insights for the woman who has considered homebrewing when the rainbow was enuff.

First, remember:   homebrewing is only cooking. Not only that,  it’s not particularly complex cooking.  If you can  clean your kitchen, use a measuring spoon, and make a grilled-cheese sandwich, you can make beer, right in the comfort of your kitchen.

If, like me, you like cookbooks, you’ll enjoy learning from the homebrew canon. The beginners’ books are Papazian and Palmer, and the Basic Brewing DVDs are fabulous. Cooking is very much visual technique — I once took a half-day class in cleaning and killing Dungeness crab, acquiring skills I’ll have for life — and seeing James and Steve sparge and vorlauf and lauter is worth the price of admission.

Plus don’t you feel a little happy inside saying “vorlauf” and “sparge”?

Beat the mystique. Many of the magic arts in homebrewing turn out to be simple crafts. I’ve read lengthy instructions for boiling  sugar with water. Cooks in the know call that a simple syrup. Some homebrewers will breathlessly suggest placing your ingredients on the counter to build a visual inventory before you begin brewing. Hello, mise en place?

Speaking of which, think food-friendly brewing. I love the great big India Pale Ales, I truly do.  On its own, or paired with a bold food such as blue cheese, a crisp, sassy, over-the-top-hopped glass of beer is a more interesting experience than just about any wine I could possibly afford.  But living in Germany, and near Belgium, for two years in the 1980s taught me that some beer styles pair beautifully with food. The current fad for hoppiest-brew-evah is fun, but if you’re thinking about integrating your beer into your cooking, look elsewhere — preferably toward Belgium (though several months back, dining at 121 in Providence, I paired a Pilsner Urquell on tap with a broiled duck leg, and can still taste the crisp-fruity malt tones mingling with the earthy gravitas of duck. Oh my…).

Despite all the huzzah over $300 brewpots and thousand-dollar “brewing sculptures,”  homebrew can be done fairly economically–at least cheaper than yachting or skydiving–and a lot of the equipment can be multi-purpose, such as my digital cooking thermometer and my humongous funnel.  My $69 starter kit has brewed some excellent beer (even after factoring in the occasional addition of a funnel or a replacement hydrometer), and because I know how to use measuring spoons, my bottle of sanitizer will last me til, hmmm, at least 2011.

If you have sunshine and space, you could even  grow hops. Like growing tomatoes at home, the point is less to save money (I once had a boss who calculated that his homegrown tomatoes cost about $5 each) but to enjoy truly fresh hops, something I experienced once, when a homebrew store clerk invited me to hold and crush a single dry hop flower from his garden.

Brew at the level that makes sense for you.   Moving to partial-mash or all-grain theoretically saves money, since grain is one-third the price of extract, but it more than doubles the amount of time you’ll spend brewing, and it introduces a complexity to the process that may not interest you.

It’s also ok to start with a mix — and to stay there, if that’s your speed. A good beer kit will produce far better beer than you’ll get at at most grocery stores, and kits are engineered to be close to foolproof. You will end up with five gallons of beer (contradicting my “brew small batches” suggestion), but if you watch your temperatures and keep everything clean, there’s a very good chance it will be five very decent gallons.

Your local homebrew store may have its own kits, and these generally make wonderful beer.  My first three beers were “kit beers” (an ESB, a porter, and E.J. Phair’s Phat Quail Ale).  There are also many, many good recipes, in books, on the web, and so on. I recently brewed a milk stout (despite no actual need for it, if you know what I mean) that came from a recipe scribbled on a recipe sheet by the owner of San Francisco Brewcraft.

Build brew projects into your household workflow. I don’t cook my dinners sequentially; the spinach, rice, and main course all come out at the same time. After several homebrewing sessions, I began questioning the sacrosanct “brew day” I kept  reading about (a project conducted out on the patio or in the garage, no less).

I did two five-hour partial-mash brew sessions on Saturday mornings before asking on a list, why can’t I break up this “day” into its components — mashing, and then brewing?

It turns out I can; I just need to cool the wort quickly and keep it sanitary (though how sanitary it really needs to be before a 60-minute boil is an interesting question).  Now brewing can be a background activity concurrent with other housewifely chores: dinner and cleanup for the mash, Saturday cleaning for the boil. I also do other things while I’m homebrewing, using the kitchen timer and notes to myself to stay on schedule. Heck, maybe I’ll skin a deer, or weave a new blanket… or not.

Take back that kitchen. Brew some beer today!

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