Brewing beer like The Martian

Warning – Non EVE material ahead

if you have not seen “The Martian“, stop reading this silly blog and run to the nearest cinema.  Throw your wallet at them and demand to be let in – fake terminal cancer, a sick cat, mother-in-law visit, whatever you have to do but watch the movie.  If you have seen the movie (and hence are allowed to continue reading), you know that Mark Watney is stranded on Mars with nothing but his ingenuity to keep him alive.  As expected, he slides from one near catastrophe to the next and only lives because he can “science the shit out of this“.  This quote embodies both his attitude and his ability to survive and – coincidentally – is very close to my real life job.  With the exception of course that much more is at stake than my puny life, my boss depends on my work to secure her next promotion.

With stakes this high, the difference between engineering and science becomes important.

Science and Engineering

The difference is attitude and duct tape.  Attitude because it just has to f-ing work.  Duct tape because it is awesome.  I know the difference real well, I was trained formally as a real scientist but escaped starvation and ponytail by joining an engineering company.  I have been around engineers since 2001 and adopted their practices, never repeat a successful experiment, always use a little more power than the rating and if something doesn’t work, blame the programmer, the customer, the verification department (who is comprised of women, so yes, go blame them while you are at it) but never give up, never surrender and never admit that you could be wrong.

So, having slowly become an engineering type, I started brewing my own beer.  There were two reasons for it, a) its the only thing that I can think of that would justify my hours spent studying microbiology and b) American beer is awful. Wait, let me rephrase: the mass produced watery, metal-tasting, urine colored chemical concoction that is sold to hapless teenagers (oh, wait, another American oddity, but maybe for a later post) is of course undrinkable.  I had hesitations draining a can that someone brought to my house down the sink lest I kill my septic system.  But in the US, you can also get really good beer, craft beer, amazing stuff, much better than the average beer common in my home country.

And yes, I brew my own – so far I have done it from kits sold by Northern Brewer.  The kits normally come with a sack of grain to steep the water with, several pounds of liquid molasses and a detailed recipe that even a lapsed biochemist like myself can easily follow.  The outcome is pretty good, actually and I tend to have a “floating inventory” of 4 cases with 2 additional cases in brew at any given time.  Its (just) enough inventory to cover home invasions of friends or wife’s church groups. I have a special shelf for my friend Oreamnos where I keep 1 bottle / batch I brew.  The longer he waits, the more he has to drink.

So, I was out of kits and ordered a few new ones based on the high recommendations – especially the Bourbon Barrel Porter.

The RED LETTERING that additional equipment was needed escaped my attention.  Its too small somehow, I didn’t quite see it.

So, the kit arrives and instead of the wee sack of grains and several bottles of molasses, a single sack of gigantic proportions flops on my doorstep.  Plus yeast and stuff.  Having been in customer service, I of course assume they got my order wrong and call the helpline.  A man answers, authority in all things brewing percolates through his beard and my phone.  I shall provide an annotated transcript.

Me:  Hi there, I wonder if you could check, I seem to be missing something from the kit you sent.

Him (says): Yes, Sir, please let me look it up, whats the order number?

Him (thinking): my shift is almost over, please let this be quick

Me: <order number>.  SKU is U1604

Him (says): so, whats missing?

Me: Well I was wondering where the malt is.  Normally it comes in a bottle

Him (says): the malt?  The Malt?  Oh, I understand.  Sir, you have a “all grain” kit. The malt is in the sack.  Together with the grain

Him (thinks): Why did I give up my job at McDonalds? At least they didn’t force me to talk with complete idiots.

Me: Oh

Him (says): Yes, its all there, you need to mash it out.  You know how to do this, right?  Right?

Him (thinking): that guy is clueless.  He doesn’t deserve my beer. He’ll kill people and blame it on me.  Why doesn’t our marketing department enforce training courses and “beer brewing licenses”.

Me (thinking): I have no clue what “Mashing” out is.  It sounds violent, maybe stomping it with my feet?  I am so screwed.  

Me: Sure, I know all about it.  Thank you for your help!

Him (says): no problem, thank you for ordering with Northern Brewer

Him (thinking): that guy is so dead in the water.  But hey, he already paid, so who cares.

Ok. So, thoroughly intimidated and cut to size, I take stock of my situation.  I bought a beer kit that comes with literally no instructions, I have no experience and if I need additional equipment, I will have to improvise it.  Lesser men would now break down sobbing and tell tales of terrible customer service.  But if Mark Watney can make potatoes out of shit, I can make beer out of a sack of grain (mash, malt??).

Youtube to the rescue.  I had never heard the term “mash out” and using clips from self-professed experts that it is entirely necessary for any decent beer, entirely optional and can be omitted without effect whatsoever and that it can be done in one of many different ways, each having a PhD worth of pros and cons.  But vital is that the mash (thats the grain once its in water) is at the correct temperature.  They all agree with that.

Temperature.  Hm.  I used to have a thermometer for the turkey.  Normally we cook turkey until dead and crisp but for the sensibilities of our guests we pretend that we have full control over the temperature.  We have a thermometer.  I turn it on and it tells me that it is 180 F on the kitchen counter.  I know nothing about Fahrenheit (Celsius man, me) but Siri does and no, its not that hot.  So, the thermometer is busted.  Ok, I could go and buy one – but that would mean I have to find pants to wear and its Saturday.

Alright, lets estimate.  150 F is warm, nearly hot.  I need that for the initial infusion.  But how keep it at the temperature for an hour?  Oh.  Look a Coleman cooler box.  That’ll do it. It even has an outlet on the bottom – it kind of fits a hose I have.  It even fits snug, we are all set.

I take 3 Gallons of hot (yes, yes, I have no idea how hot) water and pour into Coleman – then throw the grain which instantly becomes a heavy, sticky mess but with nice aroma. I realize that I didn’t make enough water and quickly boil more with one hand while the other stirs the pap and the third holds the tube close with rubber bands.  More water and the mash looks kind of OK and I congratulate myself to my ingenuity.  Until to comes to drain it.  I put my normal boil kettle on the floor (wife is not in the house or the entire thing wouldn’t happen) and open my sophisticated rubber band tap.  Nothing.  No liquid flow.  Must be plugged.  I reach into the mash (burning my arm) and poke around the inlet.  Nada.  Stuck.  Nothing.  I take a chopstick and insert from the top into the hose aiming to pry loose a blockage.  A measly trickle ensues.

Coleman Bewing

Not good enough!  Well, blockages can swiftly be cleared by blowing through the bottle end of the hose.  And success, the clot removed, the hose fills, much pressure comes down, hot sticky, black, sugary, slightly smelly mash…

… squirts everywhere, on the floor, the wall, the cabinets and finally into the kettle.  If wife was here, I’d be dead.  I mean, bodyloss dead, not just podded dead.  But she isn’t and I am balancing the Coleman with one hand, hold the tube with another, fish the strainer out of a drawer with third and fend off the cat who assumes there are edible things around.

The mashout water comes next, its hotter, much hotter (it would be exactly 170 F if I had a thermometer and knew in Celsius what 170 was but hey, its engineering, not science, pass me the duct tape, will you?).  Same trick – slight problem – the pot is full.  It holds 5 gallons.  I made 7.  Hm.  Means, I have 2 gallons too many (yes, I can do that calculation without my HP35, thank you). With the foot, I angle for a pasta pot and use it as a secondary brew kettle.  May the wife never find out.

Ok, so, blowing out the hose allowed about a pound of mash to be in my brew kettle where it really shouldn’t be.  Should I filter?  Bah, lets start boiling.


Boiling water is about the only thing I am allowed to do in the kitchen on non-brew days and I have full confidence that I can pull it off.  Problem is, that the smaller pot comes to boil much faster than the larger one.  Physics is weird that way.  So I need to stagger the brewing and transfer some liquid from larger to smaller which results in splatter of hot (really hot) sticky, pitch black liquid on on the burners with the instant satisfying sizzle that signifies hours of scraping the glass top later.  Hops!  Must add hops!  I am running on two pots with unequal volumes, I should weigh the hops and divide accordingly.  Or eyeball it of course.

I mean, really?  Did you think I would break out an analytical scale at this point?

Boil complete!  The secret of good beer is (apparently) a quick cool down after the boil.  Much gizmos can be purchased to that effect, me, I use ice cubes thrown into the water bath.   Easier, cheap, free in fact.

Oh. Look, we are out.  No ice cubes left.  Wife used the space for peas.  Well, that means, it’ll cool down a lot slower, I keep running water around the steaming kettles until I can sort of touch it.

In the meantime, I sterilize the primary carboy with chemicals and the hoses to siphon the wort.  Of course, I forget some basic fluid dynamics and manage to siphon about 1 Liter of sterilizing solution directly onto the floor.  Physics is a bitch and when I think about it, I really don’t like gravity all that much.  Good thing wife is not at home (I think I mentioned this before, right) and I am get ready to fill my carboy with the wort using sterilized equipment.


That stuff is easily the blackest brew I have ever done but it runs just fine (aside from the pound of accidental mash in the bottom) and the carboy fills nicely.

Done!  Its still too hot for the yeast but I can give it a good swirl already, airlock on it and a good shake.  As a consequence, the airlock neatly slides out of the neck of the glass carboy, onto the (now) sticky floor and a decent wallop of liquid goodness follows it in a pleasant arc.  Swear words may have been said at this point.  I can neither confirm or deny.

But finally, its all cooled, cleaned and ready for some yeast, which is added deftly and with nearly all going into the beer rather than stuck on the glass.  Now all I have to do is to lift the wet, slippery carboy containing 6 gallons of liquid and safely move it to its primary fermentation place. Nothing bad can happen now, we are home free.  Right?

Well, dear reader, I don’t like movie spoilers but like Mark Watney, all is good in the end.  I improvised, I took shortcuts, I swore like a sailor, I made a mess, I cleaned up a mess but its done.  I can now relax and drink a beer.

Oh look whats in my fridge.


That stuff is very tasty, indeed.  Only complete idiots brew their own beer.

2 responses to “Brewing beer like The Martian

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