My brother and I brew beer in Bernal Heights. We do this to carry on the proud Bernal tradition of the North Star Brewery, which operated a century ago on Army Street near today’s South Van Ness.
Also, we like good, local beer. So we make our own.
I don’t know how many other Bernal brewers are out there, but we’re not alone. In fact, I know we’re not even the only ones making homebrew on our block.
Here’s how it’s done:
My kitchen is all electric, which isn’t ideal. It takes nearly an hour to bring just a couple of gallons of liquid to a boil.
This ordinary food-grade 5-gallon bucket is our primary fermenter. It needs to be clean and sanitized so bacteria don’t compete with the yeast and turn our beer sour.
Sean stirs the wort. (That’s what you call beer-in-progress before it’s fermented.)
Note the use of Hetch Hetchy water for the win.
We steeped this bag of grain in the water as we brought it up to a boil. Now we sparge it — rinse hot water over and through it to extract sugars. Most of the sugar in the wort will come from malt extract, which we’ll see in a minute.
But first, we pause to take in the sunset.
Malt extract, made from malted barley, is mostly sugar; it’s the main food for the yeast, which eat sugar and produce alcohol. Professional brewers and some advanced homebrewers do a “mash” to extract the sugars from the malted barley directly.
Using dry malt extract is more expensive, and some might say it’s cheating. But it saves a lot of time and equipment. My electric stove would take forever to get the larger volume of dilute mash runnings up to a boil, so we’d probably have to get a propane burner and do the boil outside.
Once all the sugar is dissolved and the sweet wort is boiling, it’s time to add the hops.
The hops go in the bag, and the bag goes into the boil:
We use four different types of hops, added between 60 minutes and 5 minutes before the end of the boil.
After an hour, we take the pot off the heat, and drain and sparge the hop bags. Then we set the covered pot in the sink, which we’ve made into an ice bath for cooling.
Then, we go out to dinner. Baby Blues barbecue has become the usual spot, and it seems to bring good brewing karma.
Side Note: As indicated by his t-shirt, Sean’s a Potrero Hill resident now. We shared the Bernal apartment where I still live (and where we now brew) when we first moved to San Francisco. He’s got Anchor Brewing Co. as a Potrero neighbor. Southern Pacific now brews at their brewpub at 19th and Treat, on the middle ground between our hills. We live in a golden age for beer.
Oh, here’s me, still at dinner:
By the time we’re back from dinner, the wort has cooled enough that we can pour it into the primary fermenter, top it up with more Hetch Hetchy water, and add the yeast.
The beer will sit in the primary fermenter for about a week, until the airlock on top stops bubbling.
Then we siphon it into the secondary fermenter, a glass carboy, and add more hops (called “dry-hopping,” although the hops don’t stay dry). We’ll leave it in the secondary for two weeks, and then either bottle or keg it.
This latest batch will go in the keg, to be ready to drink around February 15. If we’d bottled it, we’d need to wait another week or so for it to get fizzy.
We used to make pretty labels for the bottles, but they’re a pain to soak off when it’s time to clean the empties for the next batch. Now we just write the style, month, and year on the cap (eg. “IPA 1/13”) with a stylish Sharpie.
Besides, it’s what’s inside the bottle that’s important. After six years of tinkering with our recipe, Thomas Brothers IPA is a damn good beer if I do say so myself.
I don’t want to jinx anything, but the last two batches of Thomas Brothers IPA were brewed on October 14 and 24 — the days of the first games of the National League Championship Series and World Series, respectively. The Giants went on to win it all.
We brewed this latest batch on Sunday, after the 49ers won the NFC Championship. I plan to cheer on the 49ers at next Sunday’s Super Bowl with a glass of our World Series brew. It is proven. It is tested. We know it works. Knock on wood.
PHOTOS: Joe and Sean Thomas