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.