A hydrometer is an important tool when it comes to homebrewing. Or so they say. The hydrometer is used to determine the alcohol level of your brew. I suppose that is actually useful if you’re interested in that sort of thing. The secondary use of a hydrometer is it can let you know when your beer is done brewing. You take a measurement at the start, just prior to pitching the yeast and it will give you the projected ABV; then when you’ve hit that mark you’ll know the yeast is done fermenting. This is useful because it prevents you from bottling your beer prematurely which will result, most likely, in bottle bombs. So, like I said, the hydrometer has its uses.
I don’t have a hydrometer. Or rather, I don’t use one. I had one when I started because it came with the kit that I purchased. But very early into my brewing experience, perhaps on the 3rd brew, I accidentally broke it while washing it. Oops. Because I was such a young buck at that time, and so eager to do what I was told, I had bought into the absolute necessity of the hydrometer hook line and sinker. So I knew it must be replaced.
The problem is I live out in the middle of rural Western Pennsylvania. I actually live near the Tri-State area: I’m about 10 minutes from the WV panhandle and 15 minutes from Ohio. Where I live there are no homebrew shops so I’m dependent on the internet for my supplies and paying the shipping for 1 hydrometer didn’t make sense. But then one day, while waiting at a light in Ohio I saw a sign for a homebrew supply shop. So I followed the sign. Then I followed another sign. Then I turned. Then I turned again. Then I followed more signs. Eventually I left the main road and ended up on side roads. Then I left those. Still the signs continued until I arrived at the “shop.” The entrance to the shop was down a….road that consisted of gravel and dirt and wound its way through trees. Actually, when I started to drive down this road (literally down it as it is a steep hill) I couldn’t see the shop. I made it through the trees and arrived. The homebrew supply store was a….shack. A shack in the woods. Literally. Some guy had purchased one of those large storage outbuildings and handmade a sign that proclaimed it was a homebrew store. I saw Deliverance when I was younger and it kind of traumatized me. I turned around and left.
But a couple of days later I started thinking about that missing piece in my homebrew kit and how badly I needed a hydrometer. So I ventured back out to the shack in the woods. The second time, I looked around and saw that the shack was actually in the backyard of a decent house. I rang the bell and the proprietor came out of the house and opened up the shack and then let me in. Inside the small space was the a counter and cash register and shelves loaded with homebrewing goodness. I asked him if he had a hydrometer and he said he thought so. He rummaged around behind the counter, stood up and said he had two different types, which one did I want?
Now here was a dilemma. My kit came with one and I had read many times about the necessity of using a hydrometer but I’d never encountered two different types! So I thought about it and then fell back on my usual decision making process and asked him which one was cheaper. So I bought the cheaper one and left, grateful that I hadn’t died and that no one had told me I got a purty mouth.
However, when I returned home I discovered my hydrometer was some sort of freakish hydrometer for monster beers. Or rather, for chemists who made moonshine. So far as I can tell, my hydrometer is for spirits, not beer. So it sits in the basement gathering dust.
Shortly after that experience I brewed some more beer and amazingly, without a hydrometer, they turned out okay! Hmm…what else might I not need I started to wonder.
Then my wife and I took a trip to Philadelphia. While there we visited City Tavern. The City Tavern focuses on recreating colonial America dishes. In their bar (where we went) they offered beers based on recipes by our Founding Fathers. I couldn’t drink the beers; they were not gluten free.
But, they had a recipe book that included the historical recipes the current ones were based upon. And in it, were beer recipes. Guess what I learned: they didn’t use hydrometers. They also didn’t use sanitizer, carboys, or really pretty much anything we use now. They also didn’t use barley, mainly molasses and corn (I’ll write more on this in another post). In fact, their recipes basically consist of throwing different sugars into a barrel, throwing yeast in, and putting a canvas tarp over the barrel for an indeterminate amount of time.
That is when the light went off: I don’t care about all of the technicalities of homebrewing, the nitty gritty details like hydrometers or zealous sanitation. Maybe I should; but I don’t. I homebrew because it is fun. I homebrew because it is a creative outlet for me and I homebrew because all of the gluten free beer available on the market isn’t worth the price they charge for it.
Then, yesterday, my friend sent me this blog post by author Patrick Rothfuss. If you aren’t familiar with him, I highly recommend his Kingkiller Chronicles. They are available on Amazon and just about everywhere else in the world. It turns out Patrick makes mead. And his approach to mead making is my approach. The post is hilarious and captures how I feel when it comes to making alcohol. I should warn you, he uses offensive language, but still read it if you want to see what I think about homebrewing.