What, you may be wondering, is the next thing to check off on the senior bucket list? Or maybe just to add to your own? For seniors Owen Harrang, Alan Hagins, Zach Sherman, John Tapscott, Stoddard Meigs and Ted Marrinan, they had their answer as early as their sophomore year.
Owen Harrang explained their project, “We had a friend who graduated two years ago— Derek Mraz ’14—who did a similar independent study with a group where they sought to recreate the original beer recipe that Matthew Vassar used.” These seniors have followed in Mraz’s footsteps, seeking to recreate not just Vassar’s recipe, but also those of other microbreweries around the Hudson Valley. Zach Sherman said, “But this time our research, instead of focusing on Matthew Vassar’s original brew, is focusing on the broader spectrum of contemporary brewing in the Hudson Valley,” he said.
Harrang added that the living arrangement this year helps their process. “We all live in the new TH circle—except for Zach who is in the TA’s—so getting together to brew is quite easy.” Sherman agreed, saying that having more time as a senior helps as well. “Being 21 and having space in the TH’s makes brewing much easier to do, research and most importantly, enjoy.” He went on, “Personally, I feel like I do have more free time, but that’s also probably because, as a pre-med bio major, this is my first semester with no labs.”
While the six seniors are excited to be brewing their own beer, it also is part of a serious independent study, and all hope to learn something valuable. Initially, Harrang explained, none of the seniors had any experience brewing beer. “To begin with, we visited several breweries and brewpubs in the area to understand how both the process and business of brewing works and then decided to try making our own.” He went on, “When we went to buy our equipment, we had no idea what we were doing until an employee at Halftime, Mitch DeSimone, came over and spent half an hour helping us choose the right materials and giving us advice.”
Harrang went on to say that the types of people they run into in the business help smooth the process. “It has been surprisingly painless, to be honest. It helps that everyone we meet in the trade is unbelievable helpful and encouraging,” Harrang said. They also got more help from Vassar grads. Harrang said, “When two Vassar alums who work at Cottrell Brewery— Carlisle Schaeffer and Drew Rodgers—heard about this class, they invited us to come brew a batch with them with some real professional equipment, which was a great experience for us,” Harrang said. “We’ve gotten personal tours and talked to well-known Brew Masters.”
As for the actual home-brewing process, Sherman explained that they are limited to brewing ales. “Not having a place to reliably store our beer at 45 degrees and the long fermentation time make it difficult to brew lagers,” he said. Their first batch was a Pale Ale, and they are currently working on the primary fermentation on an American Amber. The first batch of beer was named in honor of their hard work. Harrang said, “Our first batch was titled ‘Taste Like Beer’ because while it certainly wasn’t the greatest, you could tell it was beer, which was pretty much all we were going for. A small victory.”
Sherman agreed, saying, “Our first beer turned out pretty good, but a little on the heavy side for a pale ale. We were unable to take a specific gravity reading on it, so we also don’t know what its alcohol content is, but we were just happy to brew a decently tasty, safe and carbonated beer on our first attempt.”
Safety is not too much of a concern when it comes to home-brewing. Sherman explained, “But that’s one of the reasons home-brewing is legal in America: it’s actually pretty hard to screw up.” As for their next batch, Sherman said, “Hopefully we will be able to become experienced enough that we can start to hone in on our taste preferences and be more specific with our methods.”
Harrang explained that the process of brewing beer is lengthy, but ultimately rewarding. “It is very much akin to cooking or baking,” Harrang said. “There are three main ingredients: hops, malt, and yeast. To make the first stage of beer—called wort—you add these ingredients at different times and quantities to boiling water depending on what type of beer you are going for.” Sherman explained, “The whole process leading up to the primary fermentation, including the boiling, the hops, etc. takes a few hours, and we can do it just in a weekend afternoon.” Harrang went on, “After the fermentation process is complete, the wort is officially beer. You bottle it up and let sit for another week with some added sugar for carbonation and then you are ready to taste it!”
In total, Sherman explained, the process takes about three weeks. The seniors have made sure to share the fruits of their labor, as well. Sherman explained, “We have hosted informal taste parties, which really consisted of offering it to our friends and getting their opinions on it. With around five gallons per batch, there’s plenty to go around.”
Harrang added that they plan on sharing with a wider group of people later this year, saying, “The beer brewed with our friends at Cottrell Brewery will be brought down and available for all at Founders Day, so be sure to come through and taste some extremely local beer!”