Hoppy Hour at U-Brew

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Contrary to the current headlines, the biggest decision most guys have each weekend is not between the blondes and brunettes at the local strip club.

Instead, it more often involves which beer to drink for the next two days.

Thus, on a Thursday evening not long ago, four healthy, potent males (Joe Sixpack included) headed down Spring Garden Street to within drooling distance of the infamous Delilah’s Den strip joint and instead veered into America U-Brew to make beer.

We had hops, not pasties, on our minds.

Now, I’m quite certain that the four of us are not alone on the matter of beer fixation.

At last count, there were more bartenders in this town than topless dancers, which – if supply and demand is a viable indication of the recreational marketplace — should stand as incontrovertible proof that, given the choice, men would rather waste all their money on booze.

I don’t mean to brag, ladies, but considering the continuing Main Line stripper scandal, I believe this qualifies as a desirable quality among males.

Not that U-Brew is absent its charms.

Tucked innocuously next to a rental car office, the brew-on-premises store (known as a BOP) lures passers-by with the sweet smell of boiling malt that I swear tickles the senses more intensely than the cheap perfume that the g-string girls apply by the quart. Inside, a row of heating copper brew kettles steamily await their patrons. Use us, they seem to say. Fill us with your ingredients.

The four of us are awakened from our trance by the voice of Joe Coady, the brewery manager.

“So, you guys wanna make beer?” he says.

Mr. Weg, the guy married the longest among us, already has his credit card out.

“Not yet,” says Coady. “First you have to decide what kind you want to brew. Dark, light, sweet, bitter…?”

“Hoppy,” I say.

Other brewers had told me that hops are the easiest way to get extra character in recipes at BOPs. Unlike beer made in smaller batches at home, the brews here are filtered to remove spent yeast and other particles that give homemade beer a fuller body. Added hops would pump up the aroma and give our beer that bitter taste you feel on the sides of the tongue.

“Hopheads, huh? Check out the Mother Superior ale,” says Coady, nodding toward a desktop computer monitor.

The brewery maintains over 100 recipes in its database. Customers can find something for every taste, from a typical American lager called Common Sense to a brain-cleaning barleywine called Olde Lobotomy. With a few mouse-clicks, we had a printout of the Mother Superior recipe.

When I brew in my kitchen at home, it’s a morning-long adventure of spilled ingredients, boil-overs, rattling pots and pans and a sticky film of goo on the floor. Thankfully, Mrs. Sixpack is an understanding supporter of my hobby, no doubt because the result of this messy endeavor is a darn good brew.

U-Brew spares you the mess. The workspace is uncluttered, the ingredients are handy and those lovely brew kettles make cooking a snap.

There’s a downside to the orderliness, though, and that’s the absence of the soulful bonding the homebrewer develops with his beer after carefully cooking the batch on his own stove, in his own pots, with the wonderfully sensuous smells of his brew filling his own home. If you can’t taste the difference, you aren’t a diehard beer lover.

Coady, apparently noticing the disdain on my face, shoves a pint glass into my hand and points me to the beer fridge. U-Brew is home of Gravity Ales, the fine, local micro that produces both draft and bottled ales. Brewers can buy a glass for 5 bucks and drink their fill of three different ales that are always on tap. I fill mine with a kolsch, a light, almost-fruity ale that’s a thirst-quencher after a day of work. I take a big sip and remember the words of Charles Papazian, whose book, “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing,” frequently advises its readers, “Relax, have a homebrew.”

So we get to work.

Dave — whose beer pedigree consists of living next to a bar in Wissahickon — fills a measuring cup with whole barley grains and dumps them into a mill for grinding. These will go into a cloth bag and steep in 154-degree water, like tea leaves. Cooking at that temperature for about 20 minutes, the grain’s sugars are extracted and readied for brewing.

Next, Weg – himself a homebrewer of questionable repute — measures the malt extract. This is the sticky stuff that invariably gunks up everything within reach. Remove the tea bag of grains, add the extract and hump up the heat to full boil.

We make our first mistake when we put Hoot in charge of the hops.

This, remember, is the single most important ingredient of our brew. We’ll use varieties from the Northwest called Willamette, Mt. Hood and Cascade; their flowers are dried and compressed into pellets that look like rabbit food.

Hoot, who will drink anything but feels more at home with a Yuengling, grabs the pellets, weighs a couple hundred grams, then tosses a few into his mouth for good measure. Bad move. Within minutes, he is reeling. His face is green, his eyes are spinning and he’s talking crazy, I tell you.

This is Rule No. 1 in homebrewing. Smell, but don’t taste the hops.

Down one brewer, we struggle on. We carefully time the addition of other ingredients. We prevent the dreaded boil-over with some quick work on the steam controls. And an hour later, we have our wort (rhymes with squirt) – an amber liquid that is cooled for the all important pitching of the yeast.

This is where U-Brew has its biggest edge over homebrewing. The 200-plus degree liquid must be cooled quickly to about 78 degrees; any warmer and you’re liable to kill the yeast before it begins its job. And if you do it too slowly, you risk contaminating your beer. I’ve built all kinds of wort-cooling contraptions at home and once even tried to do the job with a couple those blocks of artificial ice you keep in the freezer. The blasted things cracked open and leaked anti-freeze into my brew. In contrast, U-Brew has a handy piece of equipment that magically dropped our temperatures within seconds.

From here, we turn over the beer to Coady, whose staff will add another dose of hops as the beer ferments. This step is called dry-hopping and though it doesn’t do much for the taste, it adds plenty of garden-like aroma to your brew. Few mainstream brewers ever bother with this step, but it’s how the guys at Manayunk’s Yards Brewing Co., for instance, get so much hops aroma into their ESA.

Two weeks later, we return for the bottling. We call ours Bad Dog and slap our computer-made labels onto cases of empty bottles I’ve collected.

The whole affair cost about 150 bucks for seven cases of beer and about four hours of work, including the bottling.

The beer? Glad you asked.

We estimate its alcohol content at 5.5% — just the right strength for a bitter. Because U-Brew adds CO2, it’s immediately drinkable after bottling, though a little young. By the end of the week, its taste has rounded out. It’s a decent drink, the kind of beer you would sip while watching the Flyers on TV.

But certainly not the kind of beer you would drink while watching bust-enhanced dancers jiggle ’round a brass pole at your local sleaze-a-rama.

America U-Brew, Front and Spring Garden streets, 215-627-2337. Also in Berwyn, 1000 W. Lancaster Ave., 610-725-8860.

[SIDEBAR]

For man a beer-maker, it’s what’s outside that counts

Big beer companies spend millions of bucks designing labels that properly evoke the spirit of their brew. Some, like Thomas Kemper lagers of Seattle, are works of art.

The creative wonders among the Daily News gang of brewers spent about 15 minutes with clip art and a PC and came up with a dog sniffing a gorilla’s behind.

Thankfully, this is not typical of the beer labels at America U-Brew.

Hundreds of ingenious labels decorate the walls at the Spring Garden do-it-yourself brewery, and they give some insight into why anyone would bother brewing his own.

“For about half our first-time customers, the label is as important as the beer itself,” said the brewery’s sales manager, Paul Cyphers. “They come in and ask, `When do we get to make labels?’ We have to tell them, `Let’s make beer first.’ ”

Cyphers said most first-timers make beers for special occasions – reunions, birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, softball games.

John & Jan’s Wedding Ale has a photo of the happy couple, Neo-Natal Ale shows a whining baby and All Star Brew is the favorite of a bunch of ugly mugs.

Other brews clearly were designed for male bonding. Ed’s Last Night Out Bitter, for instance, probably led to a few hangovers.

“We get a lot of dogs on labels,” said Cyphers, pointing to a wall full of labels stuck inside the men’s room.

Unlike the Daily News’ Bad Dog Big Guy Bitter, some actually are in good taste.

It costs $29 to design and print enough labels to plaster on seven-case batch of beer at U-Brew.

Some of Joe Sixpack’s favorites:

Calvin & Hoppes; Ale Bundy – The Beer for Loafers; Ruby Slipper Red – Like a House Fell on Your Head; Free Beer; Jerry’s Liquid Confidence; and, of course, Duff – The Beer that Made Springfield Famous.

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