Monday, June 24, 2013

La Bodega De Chema: How To Make Costa Rica Craft Beer

I have pointed out before that the beer in Costa Rica sucks.  What are the solutions to this problem?

You can be a typical expat and complain about it.  You can switch to liquor or wine (always a good solution.)  You can pay expensive shipping fees and risk broken bottles in beer-soaked cartons.  Or you can make your own beer.

This Is Not Beer
If you are living in Costa Rica and want to make something new for your pint glass, La Bodega de Chema is the place to try your hand at homebrewing.  Chema is a brillant Costa Rican who studied engineering in Rochester, New York.  While living there he fell in love with American craft beer.  When he returned to Costa Rica, he realized he was stuck drinking the same old, boring Imperial and Pilsen again (boo!) and had to find a way to bring tasty craft beer home.

The result of his efforts is La Bodega De Chema.  It isn't a bar or a restaurant, but a beer education facility.  In this little room in a quiet part of San Jose, you can sample Costa Rican and foreign craft beer, buy homebrewing products and materials, and enroll in one-day homebrewing classes taught by Chema and his brewing team.  Experienced brewers will be excited to see this course is taught using the all-grain method, and not with malt extract (mainly because imported extract is really expensive in Costa Rica.)

I was too late to enroll in his inaugural brewing class in May of 2012, but I did get a place in the second class in the second week of June, 2012.  A 5 hour class costs 20,000 colones, or approximately 40 dollars.  This price not only includes the hands-on brewing class, but also a brewing instruction manual, several beer tastings, a discount on La Bodega's products and two bottles of your own beer when it is ready 2 weeks later.  You also get to study your Spanish for 5 straight hours (what, don't you speak Spanish??)

I was the only gringo in the course that day.  My Spanish is far from perfect, but making beer doesn't require much listening.  Just watch and learn.  I will break from my usual long ranting, sarcastic style and present this course in simple, step-by-step pictures and videos.

All you need to make beer are grains, hops, yeast and water.  Start by grinding the grains.  You can do this with a plastic bag and a rubber hammer, or use this convenient grist:

 Now you have malt.  You have to soak the malt in hot water to start fermentation, which produces the most important part of the beer, the alcohol!!  We did this in a cooler fitted with a complex, handmade plastic sieve at the bottom.  It helps to have technical skills (there's a reason many engineers are homebrewers.)

It takes around an hour for fermentation.  We used this time in the most productive way possible, by drinking beer!  We sampled Imperial, Costa Rica Craft Brewing's beer Libertas and Segua and Germany's Erdinger.

The result of the hot soaking malt is a boozy soup called wort.  You have to separate the liquid wort from the grains.  Chema sends the used grains to local farms for cow feed.  How pleasantly organic.

While we are separating the liquid wort from the grains, we have to constantly take samples.  We check the samples for alcoholic content with a little glass stick called a hydrometer.  If it's too strong, you will have to water it down.  As a typical alcoholic I don't mind a 10% alcohol beer, but for the mass market 4% is a little easier to handle.

This wort has alcohol and looks like beer, but it still doesn't smell like beer.  We have to boil the wort with hops to get that lovely beer smell.  What time, what type and how much hops you add all depend on the style of beer.  I'll save that part for the beer geeks to argue about.  Most Costa Ricans just aren't ready to drink Quintupletripledipple-Dry-Hopped, Barrel-Rolled, Sour Imperial Monarch Butterfly, Double-Ds IPAs...or whatever ridiculous, over-hyped shit they're making in the United States now.

While the wort is boiling, several other things are happening.  Chema's last class prepared some hopped wort which has been fermenting for the past few weeks.  We have to add sugar to this prepared wort and mix it.  This starts carbonation, which gives the beer that happy head we love so much.  We used natural sugar; Costa Rica still doesn't have a lot of those fancy brewing products yet.

We were also sanitizing bottles while the wort was boiling.  These sanitized bottles will now store the finished, carbonating product.  To properly ferment, the bottles need to be sealed airtight with caps.  Bottling the beer is probably the most physically strenuous process in homebrewing.  Don't expect it to burn off your beer belly though.

We have added all the hops and the wort is finished cooking.  Now comes the complicated part of cooling off the mix rapidly without infecting it.  This is another part where being an engineer helps.  It's usually enough to cool off the pot in a cold water bath, but Chema constructed a nifty copper tube device connected to a water hose.  It runs cold water through the beer to cool it off even quicker.  This is the part where my technical skills would fail...

Finally we have beer.  Well, not yet.  We still have to wait 2 more weeks for the bottled product to finish fermenting.  If you've been observant, you see we're actually drinking the beer made from the previous class.  Either way the end result is the same.  I have two new bottles of Cahuita Pale Ale to drink.  It's not Imperial or Pilsen, Gracias a Dios!

I am aware that this is not a complete course on brewing beer, so please beer geeks refrain from writing comments about details I've forgotten (e.g. temperatures, IBUs)  I am an alcoholic traveler, not a brewer.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing dude! It's a nice and simple explanation of the process on Chema. I am anxious to take this course!!!!