The ultimate hand-crafted beer is your next homebrew
In a funny sort of way, homebrewing has come full circle. Thirty-four years ago, our country’s 39th President, Jimmy Carter, signed H.R. 1337 which effectively legalized homebrewing nationwide. And now, shortly after another presidential election, our 44th President, Barack Obama, has released to the public his recipe for the first beer ever brewed on the White House grounds. The fact that this presidential beer—a honey ale—was made with honey gathered from the White House’s own hives is emblematic of what homebrewing has become today, a craft, like cooking (or beekeeping), that empowers people to do for themselves and rely less on packaged, processed, mass-produced food and beverages.
Were it not for Prohibition early in the 20th century, homebrewing may well have been the kind of basic home skill passed on from generation to generation like baking, pickling or hunting. But as we know, that dark period for imbibers had a lasting hangover that affected both the making and consumption of alcoholic beverages for decades. The craft beer revolution, which not coincidentally was kick-started by Carter’s pro-homebrewing legislation, put the artisanal craft of making beer back into the peoples’ hands (basically the definition of craft beer) and opened adventurous beer drinkers’ eyes to the flavor possibilities out there in the many different styles of beer that were increasingly becoming available.
Back in 1980 there were only eight craft breweries in the U.S., but after three decades of strong, steady growth, there are more than 2,000. While macrobrew sales are flat, craft beer continues to grow, even in a terrible economy. The rise in popularity of homebrewing has not only mirrored this growth, it has been further invigorated by the do-it-yourself, locavore foodie movement where people have discovered the satisfaction and challenge of making things from scratch. We don’t know if Martha Stewart has ever homebrewed, but it’s the kind of skill she’d surely approve of. If we can make bread from scratch, how much different or more difficult is it to brew our own beer?
A handful of homebrewers from around North America—of varying different skill levels and expertise—shared their experience and knowledge to encourage others to follow their lead.
From Drinker to Homebrewer
It’s not a given that just because we love to drink craft beer, it will inevitably lead us down the path to homebrewing. However, for an increasing number of people that is indeed the case. Their motivations and inspirations may differ, but their gateway generally started with wanting to peer behind the curtain, as it were. “I had been working in beer-centric places and having been a [craft beer] aficionado, I eventually wanted to know, ‘How do you make this?’,” Tim Fukushima, a 36-year-old homebrewer and lead brewer for Driftwood Brewery in Victoria, British Columbia, says. “I wanted to know more.”
For some that interest and curiosity follows a natural progression. “I started by drinking craft brew up here in the Pacific Northwest,” Troy Robinson, a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad who works part-time as a brewer at Mill Creek Brewpub in Walla Walla, WA, explains. “Friends who had family members who were homebrewing said it’s not that hard to do, you should check it out. I was super-excited to be able to make the same sort of beers I like to drink.”
Jeremy Tofte, whose Thai Me Up restaurant in Jackson Hole, WY, features a modest three-barrel nano-brewing set-up in the back, had a similar motivation, though it was one specific beer that set his homebrewing adventure in motion. “When I was 21 I lived in Bend, OR, and every Wednesday Deschutes brewery would have Obsidian Stout on tap. We could only get it every Wednesday because they didn’t bottle it yet and they didn’t have it on tap anywhere else. So my roommates and me started making beer because we wanted to have an Obsidian Stout every single night.”
Sometimes, though, it’s actually a killer homebrew that provides the inspiration. “I had a friend at Western Washington University that was a homebrewer,” Jonathan Perman, the 2012 Homebrewer of the Year at the National Homebrewing Competition says. “He let me try some of his beers and I was blown away by the quality of what you can make in your kitchen. I decided to try my hand at it.”
The proliferation of cooking shows on cable has certainly helped inspire people to eschew processed, store-bought foods for homemade. It’s also demystified basic skills like baking, pickling and organic gardening that, for generations raised on the idea of convenience over quality, were lost arts. While the idea of whipping up a Thai curry at home 10 or 15 years ago may have seemed “out-there,” today it’s no more unreasonable than, say, brewing a batch of pale ale. Homebrewing is just another activity—that, granted, requires some precision—we can do in our kitchens. “Cooking is a pretty good analogy for brewing,” Robinson says. “It’s a little more than just putting on some water and making mac and cheese, but if you’re able to follow a few steps in a recipe and just pay attention to what’s going on, it’s just like cooking.”
There are actually a lot of similarities between baking bread and brewing beer. They share three common ingredients—grains, yeast and water—and require precision in the execution of the multiple steps in order to achieve the best results. Sure, you’ll be able to enjoy a slice of warm bread after just a few hours, while the fermentation of homebrewed beer takes at least a couple weeks, but both are solely dependent on the proper functioning of the yeast in order to produce something that’s edible or drinkable. Or as Perman puts it, “The yeast make the beer.”
Despite the similarities between the two, baking bread initially seems like a less difficult activity. Mustering the nerve to dip your toes into the homebrewing water may, in fact, be the biggest challenge you’ll face. And sometimes a little help from friends can provide the necessary nudge that will get you started. “My husband and I received a homebrew kit as a wedding gift in May 2010,” Jessica Murphy, a 31-year-old human resources specialist for the federal government explains. “We kind of stared at it for a few months not really knowing what to do and then one day we decided to just brew it. The experience afforded me this extra knowledge about beer and I was hooked.”
There is, of course, a learning curve when you undertake any new hobby or endeavor. But it need not to be too intimidating. “If you buy a homebrew starter kit, it’s not hard at all,” Perman assures us. “As long as you’re diligent with your sanitizing and you know how to follow basic instructions, it’s very straight forward.”
“For beginners, you can start out with a regular pasta pot, some malt extract, some water and some hops and you’re pretty much on your way to making beer,” Robinson says. “There are ways to make it more complicated, but to start off it’s really simple.”
For those who become enchanted by the magic of the homebrewing process—from so few ingredients comes such a wonderful product—“making it more complicated” offers the opportunity to expand your skills and experiment. “We started learning from [malt] extracts,” Tofte says, “and the next thing you know, someone taught me all-grain brewing. We started brewing once a week, making a mess, ruining the carpet, learning our lessons. It slowly turned into a passion, as it does for most people.”
Once the basic steps of homebrewing are understood and eventually mastered, a whole world of creativity opens up. This may be one of the most attractive things about it, in fact. Stodgy style definitions are becoming of less interest to brewers and drinkers alike, so the ability to create your own style-defying beer is a big draw. You can play with hop and malt varieties, dry-hopping, adjuncts and different gravity levels to make something truly original.
For Tofte, that creative freedom is one of the most satisfying (and rewarding) aspects of it. A last-minute shake-up of a tried and true recipe recently had an exciting result: the beer won a gold medal for the best IPA in North America at the North American Brewers Association in 2012. “We changed the hops, the strike temp, the mass temp, the gallons of water per pounds of grain. We changed everything. The dry-hopping time. We did it just to experiment. And, sure enough, whatever we did, won the gold medal. It just shows that it’s always so much fun to experiment and try something new. The last thing in the world I want to do is make a [standard] German or English beer.”
Even small tweaks can produce dramatic results, however. “I sometimes like putting in a pound or two of malt that isn’t typically found in the style I’m brewing,” Murphy says. “I made a Doppelschticke Alt for a homebrew competition and I added rye malt, which isn’t typically found in the style, for a little added spiciness. It was a great beer, and I won Best in Show.”
Homebrewers who start out following other people’s recipes inevitably find themselves writing their own recipes. You not only get the satisfaction of doing something original, you can brew to suit your own palate. “Frequently I’ll think of a beer that I like to drink and try to make something like that,” Robinson says. “Or, more frequently,I’ll try to change it and make it a new type of beer using maybe less traditional ingredients or maybe some different brewing techniques to make something that you can’t necessarily buy at the store. I like to do something that’s unique.”
From Homebrewer to Professional Brewer
There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained from sharing what you’ve made by hand with people you care about—whether it’s a loaf of bread, a bowl of organic tomatoes, or a well-hopped IPA. What may begin as a hobby for perhaps self-interested reasons can grow into something larger as one’s skills and interest level increase. For Homebrewer of the Year Perman, the next step was entering his beers in competitions, so their quality could be assessed by Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) judges. “I enter them in competitions more for the feedback, just to sort of see how I’m doing and what people think of my beers,” he says. “I don’t really think that I have the greatest palate, so I like to have some feedback on what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong.”
Though it obviously doesn’t always lead to this, with the growing number of craft breweries, many homebrewers find themselves gainfully employed doing what may have started out as a hobby. The modern craft brewing industry was, in fact, founded by enthusiastic homebrewers who basically just transferred their skill to larger brewing and fermenting vessels. For decades, homebrewers have been like minor league ball players in professional sports perfecting their craft before they move up to the big leagues.
Though a passionate homebrewer in his early twenties, Tofte actually became a restaurateur when he had the opportunity to buy a defunct business at age 25. He kept a 20-gallon homebrewing system going in the back of the restaurant, so he and friends could brew on it. But it wasn’t long before he figured out that with the proper licensing, he could realize his dream of also being a brewer, albeit on a nano scale. “One of my friends’ brothers was like, ‘If you want a brewery so bad, why don’t you just use what you [currently] have as a brewery?’,” he says. “At first I thought that was silly, and then the following year I applied for all the licensing. The next thing you know, what we were doing for fun all those years—my passion—became my job, which is great. It made me accountable for making really good beer. It was a great growing opportunity and experience to go from making it for fun to then making it for fun when you actually had consequences.”
Driftwood lead brewer Fukushima actually started homebrewing with the idea that it would, in fact, help him in his efforts to get a job. After befriending Driftwood’s owners and sharing his homebrews with them that he had been perfecting for a year and a half, they approached him when they were ready to hire their first employee. “I had already developed a relationship by going in there and getting yeast from them and asking questions about brewing,” he says. “I brought in some samples that may have been a bit basic but I think they could see that I had an understanding of balance and why a beer’s drinkable.”
For Murphy, who’s actually a beer writer in her spare time, brewing will happily remain in her kitchen at home. Nonetheless it’s something that she heartily recommends for others. “While I don’t necessarily want to be a professional brewer,” she notes, “I think anyone who has an interest in beer and would like to know more about beer should at least brew an extract batch.”
Hail to the Chief
It’s inspiring as a craft beer drinker that President Obama—who could presumably have any beer in the world, if he wanted it—decided to try his hand at homebrewing. There probably isn’t a better time, in fact, to follow his lead. “I think it’s easier now more than ever,” Tofte says, “with the Internet and so many other resources and opportunities, like magazines and Youtube. The [brewing] technology is better and the products are better. It’s like anyone can make good beer now.”
And how can you beat the satisfaction of sharing something that you’ve made by hand with friends or family? Enjoying the fruits of your labor yourself is one thing, but making that shared experience of drinking a beer together more personal is something special. “When someone really enjoys a beer that you brewed,” Murphy says, “and you have an in-depth conversation about how it’s made and how you came up with the idea, that’s a great feeling.”