BY TIMOTHY HARPER
The brewmaster looks at us with arched eyebrows. "So," he says. "What kind of beer do you want to brew today?
Our small group murmurs, mutters and shrugs. We can’t seem to decide. The brewmaster adopts a patient expression. He does not seem the least bit disappointed. “OK,” he says with a small smile. “Let’s taste some beers to help you decide.” He moves behind a row of tap handles and begins passing out samples.
The brewmaster is Tim Gillham; the brewhouse is Central Coast Brewing in San Luis Obispo, California; and we are a group of guests from the nearby Cliffs Resort that has signed up for a beer-making weekend package. I’ve been looking forward to it for some time as an opportunity—apart from spending a couple of days overlooking the Pacific Ocean in perfect weather—to fill a hole in my beer credentials. I’ve written two books about beer, I was one of the original partners in the Brooklyn Brewery, and I’ve given beer talks and beer tastings. But I’ve never actually brewed any beer myself.
The other guests joining me are members of a family from Northern California: Jeff Troutner, an investment adviser; his wife, Kathy, an oncology nurse; and their twentysomething daughters, Katie, a special projects coordinator for a pharmaceutical firm, and Kasey, a student at the University of Connecticut. “We like beer,” they tell me when we meet. In fact, I think each of them tells me that several times over the course of our afternoon at the brewery.
As the five of us sample several ales—red, pale, Scotch, wheat, brown, cream, stout and maybe some others—Gillham and another Central Coast brewer, Steve Forman, explain how the microbrewery’s BOP (brew on premises) program works. Amateur brewers walk in and either choose one of Central Coast’s 50-plus beers or present recipes of their own. They then brew their beer under the supervision of the professionals. Each batch produces 15 gallons of beer; that’s six cases, each case containing 12 tall (22-ounce) bottles.
As we sample beers, the brewers answer questions about beer basics, including the difference between ale and lager. Many people assume it’s all about color—that lagers are light and ales dark. That’s often true, but not always. The real difference is that lagers are made with yeast that ferments at the bottom of the brew. Ale is made with top-fermenting yeast. As a result, lagers—think Bud, Miller, Coors and other big commercial brands—typically have a light, clean look and smooth, crisp taste. In contrast, ales—think Guinness, Bass or Sierra Nevada—are typically darker and have more complex, often earthy tastes. A darker color, incidentally, does not necessarily mean a beer is stronger in terms of alcohol content.
Gillham and Forman encourage us to brew ales, which require lower temperatures and less aging, and are often easier to make in small batches. The Troutners decide they want to brew Central Coast’s popular Sweet Honey Wheat beer, light and a little citrusy. I settle on the sound—and taste—of Easy Rider Red, smooth and hoppy. Gillham and Forman thumb to the respective recipes in their loose-leaf binder, and we begin measuring out ingredients: grains of malt (roasted barley) and wheat, malt extract, hops and yeast. First the grains have to be cracked in a big hand-operated grinder; in the resulting grist the starch is released from the grains. Jeff Troutner and I watch as his wife and daughters crank the handle and lift our glasses in homage to the traditional role of women in beer making, back when every European village had a “brewster.”
We start talking about Belgium, which many beer lovers regard as heaven on Earth. Mentioning the story I wrote a while back for this magazine on Belgium and its beer culture, I tell the Troutners about the assignment letter, framed and hanging on my office wall. It reads, “Dear Tim: In Belgium, beer is a way of life. When can you leave?” Before we know it, Gillham and Forman have ducked into a back room, only to reappear with one of their Belgian-style brews. They pour glasses of the rich brown ale for everyone, and it is delicious.
The brewers tell the Troutners that the ale is an “abbey” style, and that some of the best beer in Belgium is still brewed by monks—part of a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, when strong beer provided nutritional sustenance during long periods of fasting. In effect, the beer was, and is, liquid bread. We honor the monks with another slice all around.
Gillham digs around behind a counter and comes up with an article from a beer magazine. It’s written by a brewer who apparently had been inspired by medieval monks and the documentary Super Size Me, by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who ate only McDonald’s fare for a month. Taking a similar approach, the brewer/author went on a beer-only regimen for 30 days—no solid food at all. If I am reading my notes correctly, he reported that he “lost 15 pounds and gained moments of lucidity.” As the sign on a wall of Central Coast Brewing says, “Beer—So Much More Than a Breakfast Drink.”
Amid all the distractions of drinking beer and talking about drinking beer, our group somehow manages to move ahead with its own brewing. We put our grist into big mesh bags, one for the wheat beer and one for the red ale, and lower them into side-by-side copper kettles filled with hot water. For the next half-hour, we take turns opening the kettles every five minutes and raising and lowering the bags—dunking them just like tea bags to help the beer brew in the same way that tea brews.
When commercial breweries produce giant batches of beer, this part of the brewing process—creating the mash that turns the grain’s starches into sugar—takes much longer. Since we are doing such small batches, we help our process along by pouring in pitchers of thick, sugary malt extract from a brewing supply house. We remove the mesh bags containing the mash and turn up the heat in the kettles to produce a bubbling, sweet, bready-smelling wort. We also toss in handfuls of small green hops flowers, which provide beer with a bittering balance and much of its aroma. Without hops, beer would be cloyingly sweet. The brewers note that hops, which grow on vines up to 20 feet tall, are a close cousin to cannabis, and that the hop-filled pillow—prescribed in centuries past in Europe for insomniacs—is making a comeback at stores that sell organic health products.
As we amateur brewers work on making our own beer, we continue to work our way through samples of Central Coast’s. The brewers must enjoy an appreciative audience, because they keep plunging deeper into their storeroom and emerging with rarer prizes. The strong, spicy Christmas Celebrator is as complex as any wine, and its taste, or rather tastes, reflect a number of ingredients: a malty start, followed by hints of nutmeg and cinnamon, next a suggestion of sweet orange peels, then a bit of ginger, and finally the hoppy finish.
Forman talks about why people come to Central Coast to brew their own beer. “Some do it to save a little money,” he says, “and some to get exactly the beer they want.” For many amateur brewers, it’s a hobby that blends art and science; you get to show off to your friends by serving beer you made, and then you get to share a convivial little buzz with them as you drink it.
After “pitching” our yeast into our two batches of beer—different yeasts for different beers—we help the brewers drain our beer through hoses from the kettles into plastic kegs. Over the next few weeks, the brew will ferment as the live yeast helps turn the sugar into alcohol. Our beers will be relatively mild in alcohol content, about half the strength of the 10 percent brew, a so-called barley wine, that the brewers pour for us to celebrate a fine afternoon of beer making.
Gillham gives me some paperwork that shows how we can design labels for our beer; all we have to do is e-mail our artwork to the brewery, and the brewers will have the labels ready to paste on when we return for bottling. (For customers who can’t come back for bottling a month or so later, the brewers will bottle the batch and send the cases of beer to them.)
And that’s it. Three-and-a-half hours after dropping us off, the van from The Cliffs is waiting outside the brewery to take us back to the resort. Flushed from the rigors of brewing, the Troutners suggest that some recovery time is required. We arrange ourselves in lounge chairs around the pool on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. A waiter appears. Do we want anything to drink?
Jeff Troutner pauses, and glances at me. “Do they have good beer on tap here?” he asks. I say “yes.” Doing some research the previous evening—for professional purposes only, of course—I discovered that the draft lines at The Cliffs feature Fat Tire Amber from Colorado and Double Barrel Ale from the Firestone Walker brewery in nearby Paso Robles.
We decide to start with the Fat Tire and see where the rest of the evening takes us.
The Cliffs Resort (2757 Shell Beach Road, Shell Beach, California; 800-826-7827 or 805-773-5000; www.cliffsresort.com) is an upscale family lodging that features activity packages that include birding, driving dune buggies, kayaking, cycling, playing golf and exploring San Luis Obispo County’s more than 60 wineries. The Beer Enrichment Package (available Tuesdays through Saturdays) runs $879 and includes four nights (two for brewing, two for bottling), based on double occupancy.
Nearby Central Coast Brewing (1422 Monterey Street, San Luis Obispo; 805-783-2739; www.centralcoastbrewing.com) has everything you need to brew ales, lagers, porters, meads and barley wines.
Frequent Sky contributor Timothy Harper, a journalist and author based at www.timharper.com, is the author of two books on beer and 10 others on less important subjects.
Bottle photo by Timothy Harper; photos of brewery interior courtesy Central Coast Brewery.