We’ve been homebrewing for about three years now, with fairly few mistakes and many successes. Most of our beer is handed out to friends and family or consumed during parties. Either people have been nice, or it’s actually drinkable.
Awhile ago one of my oldest friends asked us a favor. He asked us to brew a beer for his upcoming wedding. This is a guy who would give you the shirt off his back, even if he didn’t have another. This was a must-do.
After discussing flavor options and timelines, and Ken’s request for a lighter beer than our normally huge stouts and porters, we decided on a California Common Ale.
If you’re not familiar with the beer, it’s actually a hybrid between an ale, fermented at room
temperature, and a lager, fermented at very cool temperatures. Ales are what we do; from IPA all the way to Stouts, the ale yeast ferments well at 55 to 75 degrees. Lagering requires a separate fridge rigged with an externally controlled thermostat, and we sure didn’t feel confident trying that out for the first time. So California Common, or “steam beer” it would be.
Historically, the California Common was an
improvisation by the gold-seekers in California and Nevada during the 1860’s. Without refrigeration they were unable to make a true lager, but they were looking for a refreshing beer based on a lager yeast. You can read more about that here.
The most notable beer on the market of this type is Anchor Steam, brewed in San Francisco since the 1980’s. This was the beer we had to try and emulate.
Not only were we using a new yeast, we had the daunting task of brewing enough so that each guest could take home a big beer. It turned out that meant brewing three 5-gallon batches back to back. We intended to brew one for testing, then brew two more, but when we recalculated we figured out we’d have to use the test batch too. Nobody wants to be short on beer, especially when it’s a party favor!
With 18-month-old Baby M. milling around and gallons of boiling water being poured from here to there, timing was crucial. And the back-to-back brewing task really helped us refine our process. We would boil water in every available receptacle and wait…until morning naptime. Then it was a full-on race to steep the grain and make the necessary temperature adjustments in the brewing process before draining the wort. If we got
that far in the process with a sleeping baby we were good to go. Boiling and siphoning to a fermenter is safe enough with a toddler around and you don’t need four hands the whole time.
The first batch tasted right. We elected to go ahead and brew the second and third back to back in
a weekend. Aside from small temperature differences the beers came out reasonably similar; as well as can be expected for quality control in a home kitchen with a baby and a deadline.
As the beer sat bubbling in the basement, the second task was to make sure that it was well dressed for the event. That meant bottles and labels.
We are lucky enough to have a great friend in the restaurant business who saves us 22-ounce bottles. The Saporro Beer bottles are our favorites because the labels soak off so easily in a bin of Oxy Clean. (Pro tip for all you homebrewers out there). If you’re in Salt Lake, be sure to visit Yellowfinn for sushi and drinks (they have full strength beer, wine and sake). For months they collected brown bottles for us for this project, and we are forever grateful.
Next up was the label. Until now I had been printing black and white labels on our ancient laser printer. I would cut them on a paper cutter, wet with a sponge and stick them on the bottles. The paper, which can be bought at a brewing supply, does an ok job for a label here and there, but this project called for something a bit more professional.
I did a google search and the first company that appeared was
Grog Tags. That seemed right to the point. I read a little, downloaded advanced vector templates and went to work. I stole a picture from Ken’s lovely bride Wendy’s Facebook page and got to work with my limited Adobe Illustrator skills. Of course I consulted our friend Jessica of Petite Lemon along the way.
The result in one week’s processing time was far beyond my
expectations. The labels were very reasonably priced, professionally printed and made from a vinyl-like material that allows them to be peeled and re-stuck. Once people drink the beer they can easily peel and save the label without having to do anything special. Bonus!
When all three batches had been bottled and given their time to rest we had a little tasting with the bride and groom. The end product was about 4.5% ABV, illegal for a Utah grocery store, but slightly lower than the Anchor Steam. We tasted all three batches in addition to a bottle of Anchor. In all, the three tasted alike, which was our hope. They were not as effervescent as the Anchor, probably due to natural bottle conditioning rather than the forced-carbonation that beer manufacturers use. The style of beer is not my favorite, but it seems to have been successful as far as tasting like our example.
All that was left was to hand over the labeled bottles and attend the ceremony. The bride and her
friends really dressed up our beer, pairing it with a root beer and a beautiful Celtic bottle opener. They even called us up in front of the party to credit us with the beer, which was very sweet.
It was really satisfying to make a product, package it and send it out the door to such great people for a beautiful wedding. I know they think they got the great end of the deal, but the list of things learned and processes perfected is as endless as it is diverse. It was a win-win.