Concrete is as special as your favorite beer.

All of us who work with concrete understand the nature of the intimate relationship with both our material and our clients;  concrete has the power to seduce. That is true for both those who make it, and those who desire it.  This is as true for concrete dams, as it is for concrete countertops.

My profession is an accident. Every job I have had since college, I have had for the sole purpose of gaining materials and funds to make art. I became a carpenter because I knew that although nobody would be easily convinced to buy a book-grinding machine, they would be happy to pay for shelves to put their books on. Later I worked on an ocean-going tugboat in the Caribbean because I thought that the pay for sea time would easily fund my studio time when I rotated back to land. Of course, I had not anticipated that so much time would be spent ashore in Barbados, where there were many opportunities to spend my paycheck.

Returning from my stint as a sailor, I rejoined the terrestrial work force engaged in construction. A short time later, I was presented with an opportunity to assist with building a steeple that was to be constructed in an old periscope sighting facility, and then transported to its final mooring several states away.

To build a steeple is to work directly with the textures of history that combined to create them. Working with concrete is no different. It is a meditation about how to project the future by discovering the past. And because of this, ultimately it is about the present. I became entranced by that transformative power. Concrete seemed to offer a tangible metaphor for humanity and its deeds. There are other things in the world that function this way too…. Beer is one of those things.

As with concrete, craft beer is not appreciated by everybody. According to the Brewer’s Association, 1595 craft breweries shared 7% of the US market in 2009, while Anheuser-Busch held 50.1%. Beer consumption is down at an annual rate of 2.2%, while craft beer consumption is up 10.1%. And according to the latest figures available as of this writing, in the first half of 2010, craft beer was growing at a 12%/year rate.

There are signs for optimism within the craft concrete trade too. The economic downturn has hurt everybody, and especially those who rely on building for their income. But throughout the imposition of the New Economy, it is my suspicion that craft concrete has fared much better than some of the alternatives.

Most of us operate small shops dedicated to the custom needs of custom clients. We rely less on an industrial model that is built upon the concentration and factoring of labor, and more on the kind of empathies that build a humane community. Although none of us would shy away from wealth, most of us do not view wealth as a monoculture based on money.

In addition to making concrete for the home, I am a home brewer. Although I have been enjoying beer for most of my life, only recently have I started to make it. What surprised me was how similar brewing is to the visceral requirements for making concrete. Let me take you on a journey…

Beer has been made for a long time. Some historians have surmised that beer, not bread, provided the catalytic spark that lead to settled agriculture. Certainly whichever was first, the other soon followed.
The yeast to make bread, wine, and most ale is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Bread is made from dough, which is then cooked. Bread dough requires flour (made by crushing grain seeds) a leavening agent (historically yeast) and water.
Beer is made from the same grain seeds, which are germinated, and heated (malted) to halt their growth and fix starches. The grains are then steeped in a warm water bath to convert the grain starches into fermentable sugars, or malts. This is called the mash. The water used in the mash is then drained to become the basis of beer, also known as the wort. Hops (or other preservative spices) are added to the wort, and the entire mixture is brought to a boil. The wort is then cooled and yeast is added. The nascent beer is placed in a container sealed against the elements save for an exhaust for the carbon dioxide the yeast produces as it converts malts to alcohol.
In ancient times, a low alcohol beer would have had similar nutritional properties as bread, while also providing a safe source of potable water.
Just as hands that love it should make concrete, those who hold it in disdain shouldn’t make beer. And if you like beer, you need to know what you like about it, or you will get lost on the way there.


Choosing the grain

Just as cement comes from rocks, sugar for fermentation comes from malted grains. This is mashed (steeped in hot water) to convert the stored starches into fermentable sugars. Prepared malt extracts can be bought as a substitute for this, but this is like buying a bagged mix of concrete that says it is ‘for countertops’. Not only will it be much more expensive, it is also difficult to tell what went into its preparation.
All the sugars in beer come from the malts, and a lot of the other flavors do too. If you want a malty and toasty beer, add some Munich Malt. The basis of a clean crisp beer might be Pilsner Malt. If you want the beer to be dark, with a deep roasted flavor, consider the use of Chocolate or Black Malts.
The basis of most beers is barley that has been malted at a low temperature. Often called Pale Malt, this grain provides the engine of sugar (maltose) production in the mash. There are many other grains that have been malted to hold convertible starches, and confer other flavors and color into the wort, but many of these lack the enzymes required to precipitate the conversion of starch into a sugar. These enzymes are called Alpha and Beta Amylase. The reserve of these enzymes within a grain is called its “diastatic power”, or DP. Some malts only have enough DP to convert themselves. But Pale Malts have DP enough to convert themselves, and other malts in the mash.
If you want the beer to be sweeter, and have lower alcohol, choose grains that do not have enough DP to convert all the starches in the grain. If you prefer a bigger, dryer beer, choose efficient malts with a high DP, and use more of them. A beer can be ½% or 13% alcohol. And it is the sugars converted from the grains’ starches that will provide yeast with the fuel to deliver the result.


The Mash

The primary purpose of the mash is to convert the starches contained within the grains into sugars the yeast will eventually use to convert to alcohol. It’s analogous to making cement. For this, a sufficiency of water, controlled temperature, and enough time are required.
Most sugars are converted after steeping 30 minutes. Most brewers let the mash continue for a full hour to be sure that as much conversion as possible
Both Alpha-Amylase and Beta-Amylase are required to convert the long starch molecules into fermentable sugars. Alpha-Amylase cuts the starch into dextrins and some fermentable sugars. Beta-Amylase completes the process, turning the shorter chains into maltose. Unfortunately, each enzyme works best at different temperatures. Alpha-Amylase works best from 149º to 158º, while Beta-Amylase works best in the 124º to 144º range. And Beta-Amylase prefers a thicker mash (less water) than Alpha-Amylase, because it works better when it can attach to the grains.
If the mash temperature is high, it will yield a sweeter, but lower alcohol beer. If mash temperatures are low, then not enough starches will be converted to dextrins to, in turn, be converted into maltose. The beer will be thin and starchy, with also a lower alcohol content than what should be possible.
So, just as with water content in concrete, an ideal water temperature/water content amount needs to be reached. For most home brewers, this is a temperature of 149º-153º with 40 oz of water/lb of malt used.


The Sparge

Once the sugars have been converted in the mash, it is time to fill a kettle with the resultant wort. Because of the large surface area of the grains in the mash, it is helpful to wash out with water. The water should be warmer than the mash to help coax the sugars away from the surfaces of the grain, but not so hot that bitter flavors from the husks are leached. In practical terms, I find that 170º works well for this process. The sparge should take enough time for the hotter water to do the most work. 15-30 minutes seems to be a good range. I also use enough water to make sure that I collect enough wort in my kettle to allow for significant evaporation during the boiling process.


The Boil

This is where the wort is spiced with hops, and readied for yeast. Most boils are in the range of 60 minutes, but they can be either longer or shorter. The boil also helps reduce the amount of fluid and concentrate the sugars. If I’m brewing a 5 gallon batch, I will probably fill the kettle to about 6 ½ gallons, and let about a gallon boil off over the next hour.
Hops come in many varieties, and are used for a few purposes. The hops added to the beginning of the boil will add bitterness and act as a preservative, but add little hoppy flavor. Hops added toward the end of the boil, will give flavor, but little bitterness. And hops added after the boil, will give the beer aroma. As with concrete, timing is the key factor.
Once the boil is complete, the wort needs to cool down to a temperature the yeast is bred for. For most ales, this is somewhere between 55º-75¬º.


The Fermentation

Once the wort has cooled, it is transferred to a fermentation vessel. For small batches this could be a clean 7 gallon re-sealable bucket. (And not the one you got your last shipment of ADVA in!)
Now add the yeast to the wort. Let it acclimatize, then vigorously aerate the liquid. A stainless steel mixer mounted to a drill works well for this.
Once aerated, place the cap on the fermenter. Make sure you have left some means for gas to escape. For a plastic bucket, a hole, fitted with a bung and a plastic vapor trap will work nicely. In a few hours the first bubbles will appear in the trap. After a day, it will become quite vigorous. This is evidence that the yeast is happy, and making beer for you!
Although not all brewers do this, after a week, I transfer the beer into a glass carboy. This serves two purposes. Once the beer is in a clear vessel, I can see how much the cloudiness has cleared, and gauge when it will be ready for bottling.
The other reason is that the beer is cleared from the yeast cake that has accumulated at the bottom of the fermenter. This ‘cake’ can be quite large depending on the flocculation of the yeast. Part of the reason that I start the fermenter with 5 ½ gallons for a 5 gallon batch, is the yeast cake can take up that much volume.
Another vapor trap is placed on the carboy. Let the beer sit for 2 or more weeks.



At this point, the beer is ready to be put in a bottle. It should already taste mature, but it will be a touch flat. While in the bottle, the beer will continue to mature, but carbonation can be enhanced by adding 1 qt of water/5 oz solution to the beer prior to bottling. This will add significant carbonation to the beer over the next 1-2 weeks.

I like bitter beers. I find them refreshing and engaging. I tend to prefer bitter ales that don’t use the floral hops aroma to mask a cloying sweetness. I also like porters that are dry, with a hint of the back-of-the-palate grab that a dark roasted malt can give it. And I like a beer that fills the mouth with a live feeling. I like beer to have character. I am not bothered when each time it is made, it changes slightly. It becomes like tasting something for the first time.
I don’t like corporate beers, but I do understand that it is an amazing infrastructure that is required to make them. They are amazingly consistent. And they are marketed in a way that enjoyment is conflated with consumption. So many units are made… and with such similarity.

Like beer, I like concrete to show the hand of its maker. I like concrete to look like concrete. I like the holes. And if not structural, cracks do not bother me. Concrete is an old material, but not yet understood. It defies definition. It describes the past, and predicts the future. But it requires being in the present to understand and appreciate it.

Just like beer.

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