It's cold in the back room of Humboldt Beer Works, and steam is rising from a big metal pot.
We can hear the soft clanking of metal on metal each time Josh Reed scrapes his spoon against its sides. We're sitting in a space that looks like a cross between warehouse and test kitchen. A rectangle of linoleum covers one corner of the concrete floor, beer posters hang above a pair of sinks, and Reed's brewing rig burbles on a rolling metal rack.
"Most beginners really get intimidated by what we're doing today," Reed says, "but this is the easiest part. If you can make soup, you can brew beer."
As he talks, a few men settle back in their folding chairs, reading over the recipe for today's coffee porter ale. Some lean forward, jotting notes.
Today, Nov. 7, is Learn to Homebrew Day, and classes are going on all over the country, including this free, drop-in session in the Eureka brewing supply store co-owned by Reed. On hand to help are members of the Humboldt Homebrewers club, which meets here monthly.
Reed has set out sample ingredients for us to sniff, touch and taste. The hops, grains and yeast make little piles of pale green and dark green, brown and buff. He points out the difference in resin and residue between whole hops and hop pellets when we crush them between two fingers.
Sitting near me is a young woman hoping to learn a little more before she brews her first batch at a friend's house. A few seats away is an older man who wants to know why the bottles exploded when he tried to make beer back in college.
It was probably an infection, Reed says. When beer comes gushing out of a bottle, frothing and foaming up everywhere, that's usually what's going on. (It can also be beer bottled too soon, or beer with too much priming sugar.)
Often, when beer goes wrong, the problem can be traced to faulty sanitizing — which shouldn't be confused with cleaning, Reed stresses. Beer-making gear is cleaned after a batch is finished. It is sanitized, with special sanitizing solutions that don't get rinsed off afterward, before you begin again.
Once beer-to-be has finished boiling, anything that touches it has to be sanitized so stray micro-critters won't spoil the environment for the star microorganism — yeast. During fermentation, yeast feeds on the sugars in what is basically a grain tea, excreting alcohol and CO2. As one brewer told me recently, "We don't make beer. We make food for yeast." And yeast likes things very, very clean.
While Reed briefs us, he invites a member of the Humboldt Homebrewers up to sanitize the carboy — a big glass bottle with a stopper and an airlock to allow release of carbon dioxide during fermentation. There is yet more bottle-sanitizing talk, and Reed confesses that he doesn't bottle his homebrew anymore. He uses a keg.
Still, he says, "As a beginner, you need to bottle as a rite of passage. Everyone should have to suffer through that."
I've only made beer once, at a now-defunct place outside Sacramento called Brew it Up. It provided the sanitizing, kettles, fermenting space, bottles, bottle capping and labels. If you wanted them, it even provided recipes and ingredients.
That was lazy-brewing heaven, not cheap, but oh-so-satisfying. Its house recipes were great — my husband and I drank Brew it Up beer at our wedding.
There are other brew-on-premises businesses scattered around the state but so far none in Humboldt. The best you can manage here is to talk some friends into letting you help out at their place. For that, as with so much about beer in Humboldt, it helps to start with the homebrew club, which meets at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month. It's a friendly crowd; members make tasty beer and love to share practical tips.
You can certainly learn to homebrew from books or online videos. But when you learn locally, from someone like Josh Reed, you get local lore thrown in. From Reed, we learned that if you set a carboy on a concrete garage floor in Eureka, you're likely to have perfect temperatures for year-round fermentation. If you want to grow your own hops, though, look to Fortuna and Fieldbrook for better weather. Get a cutting from a friend for the best results.
A Date with Beer
The calendar is light on beer events this season, which I hope gives you time for one don't-miss-it hour that you can schedule for yourself. Take the tour that Lost Coast Brewery has begun offering at its sleek new brewtopolis at 1600 Sunset Drive in Eureka. The size alone makes the place worth looking over firsthand, because no one else brews on this scale in Humboldt.
The brewers are friendly. If you tour on a weekday, like I did, they might wander by and offer you a sip of the grain-soaked water that's on its way to becoming beer. Also on weekdays, you might see the bottling, kegging or packaging lines in operation. Someone might sit down to run things at the computerized control room, where three screens show which ingredients are being dispensed and what's happening where.
There's not as much activity on Saturdays or Sundays, but you can still expect lots of beer-making information, a stop by Barbara Groom's old flour-mill-turned-hop-grinder, and a view of the lone root beer fermenting tank, dwarfed by the towering beer tanks beside it.
This is the perfect time to stop by as Lost Coast is doing a soft opening of its tours as it refines the format. Everything feels new, casual and friendly. Also perfect: The tour is still free, including two beer tastings. There are discussions about a paid package that includes tastings and a souvenir glass, but nothing has been formally announced.
Right now, Lost Coast offers tours on the hour from noon to 4 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. For its holiday schedule and other updates, keep an eye out for the cardboard sign on Broadway near the Sunset cemetery and on the brewery's Facebook page.
Carrie Peyton Dahlberg appreciates other people's homebrew, but won't be sanitizing beer bottles any time soon. Email her with your beer news at firstname.lastname@example.org.