Some students buy kegs for a good time. Others become amateaur mixologists for the night, concocting a batch of jungle juice in their backyards.
But a few local college students find joy not in the consumption of the alcohol, but in the process of making the drink itself. They’ve taken it upon themselves to put in the work of making their own beer instead of just flashing an ID and swiping a debit card at a liquor store.
Grant Larson, a sophomore microbiology major at Pitt, first began experimenting with brewing in his friend Grayson’s backyard in his Massachusetts hometown during high school — fermenting the beer in an empty Poland Springs jug. He, Grayson and fellow classmate Cole had no previous knowledge of how brewing worked, so they just threw ingredients together and hoped it would produce something drinkable. The first beverage they created was a cider with an extremely high alcohol content. They enjoyed the process so much that they kept at it.
“We weren’t doing it just to provide alcohol, we liked the backyard experiment of it,” Larson said.
The trio has since experimented with making many different types of beer, including a stout this past winter and other types such as pale ales and IPAs. The friends find recipe ideas by browsing the web.
For Larson, the entire brewing process still takes place in the same backyard with the same group of friends, where the final product is made, stored and shared. They recently began looking into a software called BeerSmith, which allows the user to create and share recipes with others. Larson says that after college, if the friends live together, brewing for sale could become a possibility. But for the time being, they will just stick to brewing on breaks.
Brewing has become an important pastime for the group as their passion and pleasure in experimenting with different kinds of beer has grown. Sometimes he brings their creations to Pitt, although he does not sell any of the product.
“We don’t produce a lot at a time, so we only have about a bottle or two each,” Larson said. “We’d have a little. But the rest we’d normally give it to [Grayson’s] parents.”
While beer can come in a variety of flavors, the four key ingredients needed to brew are water, grain, hops and yeast. Different amounts of these elements affect the type of beer that is produced. These ingredients are mixed into what is called a mash and then boiled in a large pot before being transferred to another vessel to ferment into the final product.
The boiling process requires a thermometer, as the temperature at which the mash is boiled must be closely watched. Based on the types of grains and the types of beers, the temperature will vary. Other required equipment includes a large pot, tubes or a siphon to transfer the liquid, a large glass jug to ferment the liquid in and an air lock, which lets air out to relieve pressure without letting it back in.
Larson gets the grain and hops from local supply stores to gear up for the month long process of brewing. It takes a batch of beer two weeks before it reaches the fermentation stage. After these two weeks, it will take almost as long for the beer to ferment into the alcoholic beverage.
“You basically want to make sure that, especially at that point in the process that the temperature is just right, so you can get the optimum breakdown of starches and sugars into your prealcoholic beer,” Larson said.
Michael Kalnas, a senior finance major at Carnegie Mellon, is also a meticulous brewer — although he got into the hobby in his parent’s basement instead of a friend’s backyard. He also makes mead instead of beer, which he describes as “wine but made with honey instead of grapes.”
Kalnas got into brewing about two years ago as a way to bond with his aging father. The two used to work out together, but after Kalnas’ father started having hip issues, Kalnas started looking for new activities for the two of them to do. Kalnas’ cousin, who had been brewing for 10 years, taught them the basics.
Now, every few months Kalnas will drive to his parents’ house an hour outside of Pittsburgh and spend the weekend brewing in the basement with his father. While his mom is less than enthusiastic about the space taken up by the 25 gallons of mead aging in her basement, Kalnas is grateful for the opportunity to spend time with his father.
His current recipe includes oranges, cinnamon, allspice and raisins and takes anywhere from six months to two years to make. Kalnas said it takes the same amount of time to make three gallons as six or seven — aging the mead is what takes so long. Although the process seems complicated, Kalnas said brewing is actually quite simple.
“There’s very detailed recipes, and if you follow them to a T, you’re going to get a good result,” Kalnas said. “But I think the fun comes from trying to make it your own and do something unique.”
He said having an active role in creating mead makes the products taste better, since he knows what to expect.
“With [my mead], I’ll throw in a dozen oranges and really be able to taste the difference,” Kalnas said.
Larson and his friends taste test their own alcohol but also rely on others for feedback on the batch. They constantly experiment with varying amounts of ingredients and try to make different types of beer. In the 10-15 batches of beer they’ve made since high school, only one has ever one gone bad, which Larson blames on a mistake during the sanitation process.
Trial and error is an important part of the process, as there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong, according to Kalnas. Once he and his dad got a little more confident in their brewing technique, they started experimenting with their own recipes.
“I was in the backyard picking wild raspberries, blending them up and throwing them in,” Kalnas said. “It didn’t end up working out.”
During the brewing process, if the equipment is not sanitized properly, it can be detrimental to the batch. Larson stressed that regular dish soap can alter the flavor and kill the yeast, which is why he and his friends use Star San to protect the beer’s taste and makeup.
Kalnas cites cleanliness and attention to detail as the differentiating factor between successful brewers and failed brewers. He said one of the biggest costs of brewing is buying glass containers called carboys. Glass is less porous than plastic and creates a better defense against outside contaminants. When people try to cut costs by using plastic or other cheaper materials, bacteria is more likely to get into the brew and sour it.
Patience is also vital, according to Kalnas. Throughout the fermentation process, if the yeast isn’t properly aerated, at best it will die off too soon. At worst, pressure will build up from the CO2 released by the yeast and the container will explode.
“Fermentation is all about keeping your yeast happy,” Kalnas said.
The hard work pays off, according to Pitt students Nat Miller and Madhu Mahesh. Miller, a senior psychology and Spanish major, and Mahesh, a junior psychology and gender, sexuality and women’s studies major, have both tried Kalnas’ mead and gave good reviews. Miller said it reminds her of “a more chill version” of bourbon. Mahesh likes the sweet honey taste and says it has an authentic feel.
“I appreciate the craft and artistry behind it. Especially if it’s homemade, homebrewed, I would pay more for this,” Mahesh said.
Kalnas plans to keep brewing mead for at least a few more years. He said it only costs a couple of dollars a bottle to make and the original taste makes it worth it. Once he has mead down, he’d like to move to brewing beer, but for now he’s content.
He has no plans to sell his products — he’d need a licence — but he likes the family aspect that is involved in the process and being able to share his mead with friends. He says it’s cool to show up with it to a party or give it to family members as a gift. But it can be much more stressful sharing his creations with family and friends than just sharing a drink.
“I always try to make sure to age it more, make it the best, because your pride’s on the line with how it tastes,” Kalnas said.