Woman craves new brew supply store

I'm such a wimp sometimes. One of my New Year's resolutions for 2008 was to make at least one batch of homebrew. Now it is September and I haven't even started yet. (Actually the timing may be perfect because fermentation can get screwy in summer weather.) So I went to the nearest brew supply store, which shall remain nameless. It's about 45 minutes away and I hadn't been there in years. I was happy it was still there, but, as in the past, I was not happy with the customer service. I got the equipment I wanted, no problem. The staff was friendly enough. But the staff also didn't really listen to what I wanted and, because I was shy, I walked out of there with an off-the-shelf "kit" when what I wanted was separate, fresh ingredients. I feel like I went in there expecting to get deli treatment (um, I'll have the Italian coldcuts, but can you put it on whole wheat, and yes I'd like mayo, mustard sure, can you throw on hot peppers?) and instead was handed a premade tuna sandwich from the refrigerator case. Yes it's kind of the same idea, but... not really.

Before moving to the area, my previous brew supply experiences were at the Modern Brewer in Cambridge, MA. The Modern Brewer is fabulous. You can pick your own grains in bulk and crush them on the spot in a cool noisy machine. You can open the tap and pour malt extract or honey into your own container. You can peruse the refrigerator section for the yeast of your choice. You can even measure out and label your own hops. If you need help from the friendly staff, they'll give it. If they see you made some strange choices, they'll gently steer you right. But they aren't trying to be the decision-makers, and the set-up lets the customer be hands-on and have fun picking things out. This nameless place--I have no idea if they even offer stuff in bulk. I didn't see anything like that in the store. Maybe if I asked they'd go in the back and get something for me, but it's not that hands-on participation that I like.

So back to the kit I bought. I started brewing on Sunday night and as I unpacked the kit I was even more ashamed at buying it. The brewing directions seemed poorly written. For example, no directions to take Specific Gravity readings (which are key for confirming when to switch fermenters and for calculating alcohol content). No directions to sterilize materials. Huge temperature ranges and very vague descriptions of some steps. If you're selling someone a kit, it's possible they don't know what they're doing, so why not provide blow-by-blow instructions that cover key points and are easy to understand? Heck, why not use BOTH SIDES of the page? Why make an amateur boil and strain the grains when they can just put them in a mesh bag? Does sparging make any difference in an amateur production like this? Also, I was sad that I bought something with pre-cracked grains and unrefrigerated unlabeled hop pellets. How long had these things been sitting on the shelf? And... what were they exactly?

Lessons learned: Stand up for myself. Have a clear idea what I want and why. Try to find other sources of brew supplies. Also, I think the kit is OK this time because I AM a little rusty at brewing. It's taught me stuff. It's a starter kit in the sense that I'm starting to remember the finer points of my old hobby. Thank you, stupid kit. (For all I know, this batch will turn out great and I'll get hooked on kits!)

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