Boil and bubble

Home brewing is one of my many hobbies. This makes sense, because it’s basically standing over a bubbling cauldron filled with strange herbs and muttering to myself. I mean, can you get more witch/wizard than that?

Up until now, I’ve basically stuck with older, “traditional” methods of brewing, like you’d find in an eighteenth-century kitchen. There are a variety of reasons for this, but…look, here’s a video. You’ll either get it or you won’t.

I’ve made several batches of this ginger beer, using my enormous dutch oven for the boil, and “racking” off into some sturdy pint bottles with flip top stoppers. Here’s an action shot from the last batch I brewed up, back in September of last year.

Photo of ginger beer simmering in a large dutch oven.
Put everything in a pot and boil it.

As simple as this recipe and approach is, it turns out some pretty decent results! There’s also a lot of room for experimentation. Different ratios of molasses to sugar, different types of sugar, different proportions of dried-to-fresh ginger…you can kind of just do whatever you want.

Unfortunately, there’s a pretty significant down side to brewing like you were born three centuries ago, and that’s inconsistency.

Let’s face it, even using the process shown in the video above, the sterilization is basically non-existent. You’re simply going to get bacteria in your beer. It’s not the sort of bacteria that’s likely to make you sick, but it will impart some odd flavors. Also? Getting this stuff to properly carbonate is a challenge all on its own.

Sure, you can get bottles that over-pressurize and explode (although that hasn’t happened to me), but it’s much more likely that the yeast just up and dies for no explicable reason. I’ve had batches of this stuff look very active the next morning, and I’ve bottled it up and left it on the counter for two or three days in a warm kitchen, but when I cracked the bottles after chilling? Nothing. No bubbles whatsoever.

It’s frustrating, to say the least. I mean, it’s still fun—especially if you’re a history nerd like me—but sometimes you just want a decent, consistent, and drinkable beer.

That’s when it’s time to break out the modern methods.

I resisted sterilization, careful measurements, and timed-to-the-minute boils for years, but I finally decided enough was enough and invested in a small, one-gallon brewing kit. And this morning, I put it through its first brew day.

Here’s an exciting photo of some grains steeping in my stainless steel stock pot.

Photo of a muslin bag of grain steeping in a metal pot.
That white thing is the top of a muslin bag filled with grain.

I went with a pretty basic extract kit this time, mainly just to get my head around the whole “modern” approach. The kit did come with a handful of specialty grains to add color, aroma, and flavor, though, so that’s a plus!

Overall it took about an hour and a half from prep, to boil, to cleanup. The result is now sitting in a corner of my kitchen.

Photo of a one-gallon jug of fermenting beer.
Are you even a wizard if you don’t have something foul bubbling away in your kitchen?

Hopefully, the fermentation goes well, and I’ll be able to bottle up this bad boy in a couple of weeks.

But why brew beer, anyway? Isn’t that for hipsters and homesteaders? What does beer have to do with magic, apart from the whole cauldron aesthetic?

Well, because brewing beer is precisely why we have the cauldron aesthetic associated with witches and magic.

The history of brewing is inextricably linked with the history of witchcraft. Here’s a decent article to get you started down that rabbit hole.

And here’s a quote from another article…

“In the dark ages, brewsters, women who brewed beer, had some rather odd advertising methods. To be noticed in crowded markets, they tended to wear tall, pointed hats. To indicate when a brew was ready, broomsticks would be placed in the doorways of alehouses. Images of frothing cauldrons full of ready product and six-sided stars to indicate the quality of the brew also abounded. Lastly, out of manifest necessity, cats would be kept in the brewhouses to protect the grains from mice.”

The Dark History of Women, Witches, and Beer” by Scotty Hendricks

Spend an afternoon Googling this stuff if you really want your mind blown. Brewing beer stands right at the intersection of witchcraft, feminism, and antisemitism—so it’s a very good place to start working a little magic into your politics, or vice versa.

And yeah, of course, there’s the whole “beer is good” thing. Assuming you like it.

Anyway, it’s time for me to wrap up this post and get on with my day. My next recipe kit isn’t going to order itself.