When I saw Fat Tire and Field Mag announce their contest to develop film in beer I knew I was entering a rabbit hole, but I couldn’t have possibly known how far that rabbit hole went, or what I’d find at the bottom.
While I’d been told about Caffenol and its derivative formulas for developing film in liquors, their mention was always derisive, usually described as a “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” sort of developer. Regardless, and heavily incentivized by the $3,000 grand prize, I decided to start with high-speed film. My logic was based on friends’ experiences with Caffenol and Beerol, characterized by low contrast and obscenely long development times. I figured a high-contrast high-speed film like Santa Rae 1000 (Tasma) might combat those effects.
The first roll looking this good was not within my expectations. It thoroughly starting me down the path of madness for the next three weeks as I wondered how far I could take Beerol, and just what exactly I’d stumbled upon.
For my first developing attempt, I used a user-submitted recipe from Caffenol.org, with flattened Fat Tire beer as a base and a ratio of one teaspoon Vitamin C powder and two teaspoons washing soda (not baking soda) for every 250mL of water.
I was not prepared for what emerged from my little Paterson tank.
My Paterson tank needs 500mL of developer for a roll of 120 or 220 film, and since I was shooting 6×9 I started going through quite a lot of beer. At 388mL per bottle, the Fat Tire I was getting from the gas station across the street (whose staff probably thought I was developing a drinking problem) quickly became more expensive than normal developer, with Kodak XTOL powder to make 5L only costing $10; food for thought for anyone considering trying this at home.
While I was happy with my recipe and the scanned results, the first roll of Santa 1000 rated at its ISO 1000 box speed was decidedly thin. For the next roll I figured bumping development to 18 minutes with the same speed rating would remedy the issue, but the solution (as with life) would not be so straightforward.
The film quickly became extremely grainy, belying Santa 1000’s customary fine grain for its speed. Contrast also increased to levels that started introducing artifacts in smooth tones, as seen in the sky above downtown Sedona in the frame you just scrolled by.
Since pushing the development time higher would only further exacerbate these issues, I decided to take the opposite approach and started aggressively over-exposing the film and pull processing the film.
At this point, I began seeing results I could scarcely believe. While still not as fine-grained as it would be in traditional developers, the tonality and dynamic range I was getting were far exceeding my wildest expectations, even when using a dark red filter and circular polarizing filter (CPL) combo as in the above image.
At 388mL per bottle, the Fat Tire I was getting from the gas station across the street quickly became more expensive than normal developer…
After more testing, I eventually settled on a 13 minute development time as the best compromise between retaining a practical film speed and image quality improvements, but since Santa Rae1000’s speed seemingly wasn’t required to produce good results, I began looking to other film stocks in my freezer. I still had an ample supply of Fujifilm NEOPAN ACROS 100 II from a May trip to the Sierras, and as one of my favorite films I could hardly wait to see how it would respond to my newly created witch’s brew.
Keeping the 13:00 development time and chemistry the same, I shot my first roll. Once again, I was not prepared for what emerged from my little Paterson tank.
Even though I’d rated the film at EI 12 (a 3-stop overexposure from EI 100), I was shocked by the 12+ stops of usable dynamic range and fine enough grain to print.
While the negatives produced with this method are dense, they’re perfectly printable optically and well-suited for scanning. Highlight retention is especially impressive, retaining detail in clouds while overexposure reached deep into the shadows. This was also in part because I’d started being extremely careful when mixing the developer, using the same techniques I would to dissolve any other powder into the solution and using filtration to ensure the final product was free of undissolved chunks. It went a long way in reducing artifacts common to Beerol.
I was shocked by the 12+ stops of usable dynamic range and fine enough grain to print.
With my ideal combination of film and development recipe in hand, I decided to set out into the wild to capture my images for the contest. Two weeks had passed at this point and the submission deadline for Fat Tire’s beer development contest was looming (that is what started this journey down the rabbit hole, after all). So, I tossed my trusty Horseman VH-R in the truck and prayed for good weather.
First stop: the North Rim.
After driving around for an afternoon I’d captured several vantage points, hoping to leverage the extreme highlight retention I’d observed in previous tests for scenes shooting straight into the sun. Between the 3-stop overexposure/development pull and the applied filter factor I ended up shooting at EI 2, but once again the Beerol delivered.
Beaming with delight at the fortuitous weather, I carefully secured my two North Rim rolls and departed for Monument Valley. Wildfires in California were blowing smoke across Northern Arizona and Southern Utah, imparting familiar landscapes with unique combinations of light and shadow I might never see again.
Arriving at the park entrance and completing the required COVID paperwork, I drove around the valley loop and was decidedly uninspired. The clouds were fleeting and the light harsh, doing little to translate the grandeur of the buttes to black and white film. Hoping for better results later in the day, I simply set up at the parking lot and waited, watching the light change for hours until sunset.
I was rewarded with one of my favorite black and white shots I’ve ever taken.
While I ultimately didn’t win the contest, the journey of learning just how to extract usable results from an unholy-smelling developer made from Walmart ingredients was its own reward.
It epitomized analog photography’s spirit of experimentation, producing artful black and white images far more than the sum of their parts. It granted the same wonderment I experienced the first time I successfully developed film in my sink, creating images inside a little plastic tank seemingly by magic.
As a follow-on, experimenting with pulling film so aggressively translated laterally to other projects, like getting the best results with trichrome Rollei IR 400 (more on that coming soon).
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