Thinking About Homebrewing
I spend a lot of time at beer tastings and festivals these days, making a show of myself in a way that encourages people to engage in conversation. People are eager to discuss their discoveries and passions for beer, which are extreme and kaleidoscopic. In these halcyon times, a huge variety of amazing beer experiences are there for the taking, and people want to partake.
The one thing I’ve been hearing a lot lately is “Y’know, I’ve been thinking about homebrewing.” This comes from all ages and lifestyles, from the barely legal to middle-aged bankers. My answer is always the affirmative, “Yes, do it.”
Homebrewing is highly rewarding. There is nothing like the satisfaction of flipping the tap and drawing a tall, sparkling brew, tailored to the season, the only beer of its kind on the planet, tasting the pleasures of self-gratification. And of course, it’s even better if you can pass it around. Sharing a homebrewed beer is an act of kindness, grace, and civility.
When I started brewing in 1983, the beer landscape was pretty bleak. Our modest goal was access to good beer. We drooled over Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer until it looked like a dog-eared toy catalog, then we reverse-engineered the recipes: saison, porter, witbier, rauchbier. All of these are commercially available now, so it’s something different that drives today’s seeker, something bigger.
It’s about controlling our own destiny.
Passive entertainment is out. People want to do something, not just sit around and have their experiences spoon-fed to them. It’s time to get our hands dirty and make things. This cuts across all types of cultural activities; beer certainly falls into that bucket.
This desire to make something and share it has created an industry―craft brewing―successful enough to shake the foundations of beer in this country. Sometimes, if you just believe in something and keep pushing and going where the spirit takes you, amazing things happen. Craft beer is still a long way from being the top dog in the market, but who would have thought it would get to where it is? For sure, it’s here to stay.
So, if you’ve been thinking about brewing, get busy. Start thinking about what you’re going to brew, beer by beer, season by season. Picture a great tasting beer that you brewed, foamy and cool in your hand. It’s way worth it. Set a date, buy a kit, get a good book and start brewing.
The process is simple. Beginners use malt extract syrup or powder as the base, which skips the more complex and time-consuming mashing process. To this are added small amounts of various specialty grains and then at different times during the boil, bittering and aromatic hops are added. When cooled, yeast is pitched and fermentation takes place. A few weeks after that, the beer is bottled. Don’t be scared by wackos like myself. It’s not that hard. You can do it in a kitchen in an apartment, and you don’t need to learn to weld. Not for a while, anyway.
You will need to learn the basics of cleaning and sanitation, because everything else rests on them. Beyond that, the rest of the science, technology, culture and art behind brewing is rich and fascinating, well worthy of pursuit. You don’t necessarily need to learn it all―in fact you can make perfectly fine beer without it―but the background stuff will enrich your brewing and yourself.
Making beer is the best way to learn about our favorite beverage, and gives you insight you can’t get anyway else. Cooking up a recipe for a kitchen-brewed beer is pretty much the same as at a craft brewery. You’re trying to coax 900 flavors out of a pile of grains, a handful or two of hops and some yeast. You’re going to get an education in tasting, too. When you brew, you know for sure where all those flavors come from and you’ll become more aware of the subtleties in your―and everybody else’s―beers. You will learn to be especially vigilant of flaws and off-flavors that can ruin all your hard work.
As you grow as a brewer you will learn to concoct a recipe that will give you just the profile you were looking for. After a few batches, you may want to step up to all-grain mashing. It takes more time and a little more equipment, but gives you total control of the recipe, since it’s just a scaled down version of commercial brewing. You might find difficult brewing techniques like decoction and Belgian slijm mashing worth a try. You could grow your own hops, malt your own barley and, yes, even weld up some of your own equipment. You may, like many, decide to keep things very simple. There is no one way to pursue homebrewing.
And as I have repeatedly said here before, one of the best side benefits of brewing is that it puts you in the same league with some really amazing people. Uncap a bottle and you’ll know. There are clubs everywhere, so seek them out. Of course there’s a national organization, the American Homebrewers Association and its online forum, which by the way is about to be expanded considerably. There are online groups for hops, judging, historical brewing and other specialties, but the local groups are where the action (and friendship) is. I can’t recommend them highly enough. You’ll see what I mean once you go to a meeting. Oh, and do bring some beer.
On a personal note, this will be my last homebrewing column for All About Beer Magazine. It’s been more than 13 years now, long enough to do any one thing, I think. I’m not going away, though. Like a beery Whack-a-Mole, I’ll be popping my head up around here in a different context. For this last column, I thought it would be appropriate to end at the beginning, with my heartfelt suggestion to stop thinking about and just go ahead and start brewing. It has taken me on an amazing journey and there is all likelihood that it will do the same for you.