doodlemaier (doodlemaier) wrote in homebrewing,

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Simplify: The Quest for Grocery Store Fermentables

It used to be that canned malt syrup, much like the LME that comes in extract homebrewing kits used to be readily available in the corner grocery and general store of every little town and every big city in America. With that, a small cake of brewers' yeast, a handful of wild hops, and a few pounds of sugar our grandparents and great grandparents got themselves through the dark ages of prohibition. Not that I don't love my LHBS, but in the year and some that I've been brewing all that I've ever wanted was a decent recipe that I could cook up on the fly, or whenever I wanted, with simple grocery store ingredients. I mean, it's beer. It's a basic hallmark, and staple food, of civilization. From the creative standpoint I'm glad that it's so versatile and that there are so many variations, but until I've have the space to store and use the equipment for all-grain batches of beer, or am making something extraordinary, I don't always feel good about being completely dependent on UPS & Co. when it comes to brewing a basic beer.

I've done okay with the recipes that I've adapted for ginger ale, made some things that tasted okay and went over well with more stalwart drinkers, and I'll continue to use those. But, ultimately, those "beers" lack a certain amount of body and mouthfeel and I often end up trying to mask the harsh taste and carbonation from granulated cane and beat sugar. The upside being that these ingredients are always available and easy to work with. Honey and maple syrup also are readily available through grocery stores but I'm back to the problem of their being expensive, not to mention that meads take a long time for feedback and testing results, often eating up carboy space for months. Being that I'm still largely in the experimental stages of my brewing career the time & money aspect of these options can sometimes be prohibitive.

Beneath it all beer should be simple, if not necessarily easy, like in the days of prohibition. So I got it in my head last night to set out in what's probably the worst weather of the entire year to find cheap, plentiful, readily available, and if possible, "bulk" grocery store fermentables in the 'burbs of Washington, DC., namely: Pure barley malt syrup.

Grand Mart, off of Rt. 50-w in Falls Church had 5 kg (11 lb.) plastic jugs of something labeled "Malt Syrup" but on closer inspection of the ingredients this turned out to be pure corn syrup (worth noting: pay dirt if you're a moonshiner. . . wink, wink, nudge, nudge) But, not what I'm looking for this trip, but was $9 or $10.

My next stop was the Halalco on Hillwood Ave., also in Falls Church, a favorite of mine which didn't have anything that I could find in the way of malt syrup, but does have many curious fermentables:
  • a 5 lb. jar of buckwheat honey, among other varieties (although, not exactly the best prices I've found)
  • dried fruits: white raisins, figs, dates, things I can't pronounce. And rock sugars (gur?)
  • before I forget: fruit syrups - mulberry, raspberry, cherry, grape, all manner of citrus, banana, and a bunch of other things that I'd probabaly never put in a beer. But it made me think of off-season and experiemental "lambics"
  • (and this intrigued me) a small jar (700 g, $4.95) of something called grape molasses, produced by Al Wadi of Ankahar
I can't wait to see what that turns into. They also carry an admirable selection of unusual herbs and spices, as adjuncts, that are of superb quality and often less processed than those carried by mainsteam grocers, if at all.

And lastly, H-Mart on the corner of Rt 29-e and Gallows Rd, had 3 kg (6.6 lbs., aka 5 gallons of beer! for $8.99) plastic bottles with a handle of honest-to-Dawg malt syrup! (Wang Global of Korea) The only drawback to this is the ingredients list corn starch also, albeit after the malt. . . but I bought it anyway. Afterall, corn sugar is used for bottling so how bad can a little corn starch be? Also, this product was only available in one grade (no dark, amber, light, or wheat varieties) but hell, it's available 10 minutes from my house, the price was right at a little more than ½ of what a 3.3 lb. can of Coopers orMuntons - also imported - go for here, and the measure was (curiously) perfect! Now all that's left to do is brew some up as soon as carboy space becomes open and see how this stuff shakes out in under the crown.

It's also worth noting that dried hops are sold in bulk through most health food stores in this area, as long as one is not picky about the variety; but then this is a quest for simple, not special, beer. Or if you're like me and not wedded to the idea of always using hops, this year's hops shortage might've served as the proper impetus to start experimenting with alternatives to using hops to bitter your beer. I've also had relatively good luck with repitched yeast that is reclaimed after a short period of primary open fermentation and stored in the refrigerator in an Erlenmeyer flask under a layer of beer, with a vapor lock in the opening. Used soon enough and made into a starter beforehand this makes it possible to be a little choosier about yeast than only what's available in the baking aisle. Here again - you only wait on ups once, or as in my case, schlep out to Murphy's in Winchester some weekend with a cooler.

So, I'm sure this might prove a bit coarse for some folks' sensibilities, but if you're just starting out with brewing or if all you're looking for is a simple, anytime beer; or for a cheap-ish way to test a new idea for a recipe or technique thinking outside the box (that your extract kit came in) can yield wonderful results, especially for those of us not addicted to any specific outcome. I hope others will find these ideas useful and if you've other unconventional notions that have worked well for you please share!

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