Our brewery in the wilderness

Su Lum
Aspen, CO Colorado

With all the “brew-ha-ha” going on over Aspen’s new brewery, I thought it was a good time to reprint the Alaskan homesteaders’ home-brew recipe.

We didn’t have electricity or running water on our homestead in the early ’60s, but we had the basic necessities: a frozen moose carcass, 100 pounds of potatoes, canned food, tobacco, cigarette rollers and a “home-brew kit.”

The kit consisted of a 30-gallon plastic garbage can, a bottle-capper, boxes of caps and a hydrometer, all readily available in Alaskan stores, and 120 quart bottles scavenged from dumps.

We were three adults and a baby living in a house trailer that was 8 feet by 33 feet, insufficient space to breathe in, much less to accommodate a brewery, but we had no money and this was the option.

The formula was simple: 20 gallons of warm water, 20 pounds of sugar, two cans of malt and two packages of yeast. Mix with a long paddle, drop in the hydrometer and wait 10 days to three weeks for it to sink to the level marked “B,” which stands for, “This Beer must be Bottled immediately even if it’s 3 a.m.”

After bottling, wait another week for the beer to “settle.” An average batch would yield 70 quarts of beer, alcohol content 7 to 8 percent, significantly stronger than domestic brands. Once a batch was bottled, a new one was begun, so it was a continuous operation.

Water had to be hauled from a distant spring, a major expedition in itself, and, of course, it was ice cold and all 20 gallons had to be warmed up on the propane stove.

Because of space constraints the “crock” (garbage can) sat on a table in the kitchen area. We could put the ingredients and about five gallons of warmed water with the crock on the floor, easier to stir the mix, but after that, the crock had to go back on the table but it would be too heavy to lift. This meant climbing up on a stool to pour in the remaining 15 gallons, pot by pot.

Every day the beer had to be “skimmed” ” up on the stool to ladle off the scum. We put the top of the garbage can on upside down, where it provided a handy and badly needed repository for gloves, papers and other miscellany.

One day we discovered the top had tipped over and deposited its contents into the brew, including Burt’s jacket, a pair of mittens and a loaded pistol in its holster. We were a little worried about that batch, but it came out fine.

Ironically, one of our problems in the frigid Alaskan winters was keeping the beer cool enough. The warmer the temperature, the faster the brew reached the bottling point. If it brewed too fast, the batch would be ruined.

Our large wood-fueled furnace had a tendency to “run away with itself,” a woods expression meaning “ignores its thermostat.” Thirty below outside, we’d wake up in the middle of the night boiling hot and gasping for air. Burt would discipline the stove and we’d open the windows and fan the door; this often was the moment we would discover the hydrometer had dropped to “B.”

Siphon the beer by sucking on a plastic tube, pass the 70 filled bottles down the hall to the one wrestling with the recalcitrant capper, the floor awash with beer to be cleaned up with precious rations of melted snow.

But ah, a good batch was better than champagne, and store-bought beer was thin piss water in comparison.