Here’s to brew!
Two beermakers set out to create the perfect pint
The shed in the backyard of Rafael Ortiz’s brother’s house in Corning is small. With all the equipment—three large kettles, a refrigerator and bookshelves—it is cramped with just two people inside. Ortiz built the one-room structure last year and it’s where he keeps all of his beer-making materials.
“This is my pilot brewery,” he said. “It’s where I’m working to perfect my product.”
On this Thursday in early December, the weather couldn’t have been nicer. Good thing, too, because once the beer gets a-brewing, the shed gets mighty hot. That’s because the first step calls for heating water to about 170 degrees. After Ortiz and his partner, Jorge Vasquez, add a large bag of grain to the water, it sits there, in the largest of three kettles—called the mash lauter because during this phase the concoction is called mash—for an hour.
During that hour, we tasted a coconut porter they had made that was ready, cold, in the shed’s large refrigerator. Next came some of their favorite microbrews we’d picked up at S&S Produce: He’Brew, Edinger, Three Philosophers and Butte Creek Organic Pilsner.
“We’ll drink Three Philosophers and then start vorloffing,” Ortiz said. By vorloffing, he meant extracting a bit of the liquid, which had, after an hour, settled at the bottom of the mash lauter, and pouring it over the top. This would break up the layer of grain to help the liquid flow smoothly into the second kettle, aptly called the “kettle.”
Ortiz, who lived in Mexico until he was 15, is well-dressed and extremely friendly—the kind of guy who will greet an almost-stranger with a hug. Vasquez is also very approachable, though softer-spoken. Judging by the rapport between the two it’s strange to think they didn’t like each other when they first met nine years ago. Ortiz would go into the auto shop where Vasquez worked and ask for parts, and they just didn’t get along.
One night, about a year later, all that changed. They found themselves out together through a mutual friend and they got to talking. Vasquez had dreams of going to culinary school. Ortiz hoped to learn the art of brewing.
‘So I said, you go to school to be a chef. I’ll go to school to be a brewer,” said Ortiz, now 31, recently married and living in Chico. ‘Then we’ll get together and make a brewpub where people can get great food and a nice microbrew.”
Vasquez set off for San Francisco and got his degree from Le Cordon Bleu. He is now head chef at Rawbar in downtown Chico. Ortiz studied in Vermont at the American Brewer’s Guild. In addition to brewing, he works at the Wal-Mart distribution center in Red Bluff and Les Schwab in Chico.
‘What’s cool is that those things we said we were going to do, we’ve actually done them,” Ortiz said. They don’t have a brewpub yet, but it’s still their goal.
Right now, Ortiz is trying to perfect his brew with his home operation, which is more sophisticated than Joe Schmoe’s down the street but doesn’t yet bring in the cash—because that would be illegal.
‘That would be bootlegging!” he joked while sipping on a pint of He’Brew.
So, when they have finished a batch—usually about 15 gallons—rather than selling it, they bottle the beer and hand it out to friends and family, and of course save some for themselves.
Last May, in the Sierra Nevada Microbrew Festival, they took first place in the ‘specialty beer” category for their Imperial IPA. One of the judge’s comments read: ‘I like it! Can I have more?” They also won third place in the ‘India pale ale” category for their American IPA.
The idea of making your own beer is nothing new in Chico, home of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., whose founder, Ken Grossman actually started out as a home brewer. There are a couple hundred home brewers in the area, by Dawn Letner’s count. She owns the Home Brew Shop, also started by Grossman, which caters to beer and wine makers. Right now, interest in beer making is pretty high.
‘The popularity has gone through spikes,” said Letner, who has worked at the shop for 20 years. ‘Right now there is a renewed interest. Up until this year I saw more winemakers. Now, over the past 12 months, I’ve noticed more home brewers.”
And it’s not an expensive hobby, either. A 5-gallon pot and $75 will get you everything you need to brew your own. There are even recipe books that explain how to mimic favorite brands. Ortiz’s ‘pilot brewery,” as he calls it, is a bit more sophisticated and has set him back about $10,000 so far.
‘People who home brew enjoy having that hobby—not because it’s saving them a bunch of money,” Letner said. ‘There’s a lot of pride that comes with creating a really good beer.”
While Ortiz and Vasquez pick and choose their grains to affect the taste of the beer, it is in the kettle that different, fun ingredients can be added. And it is this step of the process where Vasquez’s expertise really comes into play. “We play off each other,” Vasquez said.
“He’s so great with spices,” Ortiz said about his culinary friend. “We made a lemongrass beer once.” They also made a beer flavored with chiles from Mexico. This time around, however, they decided to make a full-flavored IPA.
Ortiz flipped through pages of equations, starting with his original recipe, to find just the right gravity for the wort. He then took a sample of the liquid, dropped it onto his refractometer, and checked to see how close he had come to getting it right.
“Hopefully when we dilute it, it will get down to [the density we want],” he said, “and we will have achieved our goals as brewers today.”
Diluting the wort using the last of the three kettles, filled with boiling hot water (there’s another equation for how hot this one should be), is the final process before bottling, adding yeast and letting the beer sit for 12 days to ferment.
“If you look at one of these bottles two days into the process,” said Ortiz, motioning to a large glass container, “it’ll look like a tornado in there. That’s the yeast—it’s our workhorse now.”
Twelve days later, there’s beer to be drunk. Unfortunately, the cold climes affected the fermentation process and it didn’t come out exactly how Ortiz and Vasquez had planned. Ortiz shook his head in disappointment as we tasted the finished batch of IPA.
“It’s not as good as it could be,” he said. (Despite a low carbonation, though, the beer tasted pretty damn good and could even be compared to Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale.)
“The wonderful thing about brewing is there’s always something that goes terribly wrong,” Ortiz added, smiling.