Jeff Alworth Brewing
Here is the author, Jeff Alworth, homebrewing. (Photo courtesy Patrick Emerson)

There are many different kinds of homebrewers. Some barely do more than dissolve extract syrup in water and pitch yeast, while others have miniature-scale professional breweries. Some homebrewers make hundreds of gallons of beer a year and enter competitions; others brew once or twice, making, say, their “famous pumpkin brew” for Thanksgiving. Some homebrewers harbor a secret wish to go pro, while others are so modest they don’t even reveal their hobby to friends. If you just look at the habits of homebrewers, it’s difficult to see any unifying theme.

There is one, but it’s not the one non-homebrewers usually imagine. You don’t become a homebrewer to make beer more cheaply. Once you start considering the expense of the equipment and your time, it becomes pretty clear that the economics of the thing are at best a wash. You don’t become a homebrewer because you can make better beer than the pros. While I’ve met many who think their beer is the best in the world, they’re grading on a curve. I’ve been homebrewing for over 20 years, and nothing I’ve made has ever been as good as the world classics. Make a credible tripel and it just seems as good as Westmalle’s.

The reason homebrewers brew, and the reason non-homebrewers fail to understand why, has nothing to do with the finished product. It has everything to do with the process. We create because we can’t help it.

This past week, I experimented with kettle-souring. This is becoming a regular practice among professional brewers who want a stable, controlled level of lactic acidity in their beer. They pitch lactobacillus into wort in their kettle, let it sour for a few days, and then boil, killing all the bacteria. What results is a sour wort they can blend into beer to add acidity at whatever level they choose. It’s a lot more predictable than messing with live cultures that remain alive in the beer.

I decided to make a tart saison and try kettle-souring myself. Lacking a commercial kettle, I had to jury-rig a small-scale home system. No problem! I found a large jar, made a three-quart wort, and put the jar in a bath of warm water inside a cooler. I pitched my lacto and kept the bath around 110 F by replacing cooling water with hotter water every 12 hours or so. Was this the best way to adapt kettle-souring to the home scale? It may not have been, but it worked and I figured it out. The saison may be great or it may be so-so, but at this point that’s a secondary consideration. Figuring out the kettle-souring was the real triumph, and little breakthroughs like that are a clue to why I continue to spend valuable hours puttering around with propane burners and steel kettles.

There are certainly other benefits to homebrewing. You learn a huge amount about the process of brewing and the nearly inconceivable variables that affect a batch of beer. Some of it can be gleaned by reading about brewing or talking to brewers, but some of it is more experiential. Take for example a lesson I learned about boil-off rates. My homebrew partner and I have two kettles, one wide and squat, one taller and more narrow. We’d been using the wide one as our main boiling kettle, but on one occasion switched to the narrow kettle. It turns out kettle geometry affects the amount of evaporation that happens during the boil, so we boiled off less water and ended up with a half-gallon more, but weaker, beer.  It makes sense when you think about it, but that’s just the thing—it never would have occurred to me to think of it. These lessons are legion and, decades into this hobby, they keep coming.

But lessons like that aren’t the point; learning is an effect of the urge to homebrew, not its cause. One of the things that make humans a special kind of animal is our need to create. Something inside us propels us to paint, cook, write, invent, redecorate—and brew. We don’t do these things because we need new still lifes or peach pies, but because the process of creation is innate in our being. It doesn’t matter if someone else has already made the perfect saison. The goal is not the saison; it’s brewing the saison. That’s why we homebrew.

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Jeff Alworth is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015). Follow him on Twitter or find him at his blog, Beervana.