<I’m still in Seattle, flying back on the redeye tonight. Get ready for a big post on microbreweries of the Emerald City. For now, here’s this week’s newspaper column.
Homebrewing is the best thing you can do in your kitchen
Home brewers are the reason we have craft beer today.
As recently as 25 years ago, the beer aisle was a depressing place; a frigid wasteland stocked with half a dozen brands of watery lagers, and it didn’t matter which one you picked, because they were all clones of each other anyway. When you hear jokes about American beer, this is the beer they’re talking about. Needless to say, it was hard for people to be passionate about beer, and those who wanted styles outside the mainstream had little choice but to get a vat, some barley, yeast and hops, and try to make their own.
Out of this first wave of home brewers came the original microbrewers, opening tiny brewpubs all over the country and sewing the seeds for today’s regional craft breweries. Even though the beer selection for most Americans has vastly improved, home brewing as a hobby is stronger than ever, and it’s easier to get started than you might think.
Home brewer Thomas Barnes received a hands-on initiation to the hobby. “I was invited over to watch a friend do a batch,” he explained, “then I bought a home brewing kit and he talked me through it.”
Barnes, 42, has spent the last 8 years expanding his brewing skills, growing ever more confident and creative. He remains mostly an extract brewer, using malt syrup instead of actually milling and mashing the grain, although he does use a partial-grain mash when a recipe calls for it.
It’s innovations like malt extract syrup that make home brewing more accessible to the novice nowadays. Neophytes can progress in stages, beginning with a simple “dump and stir” all-inclusive home brewing kit and progressing to more advanced methods as they grow their knowledge and skills “A home brewing kit is 60 to 80 bucks, and it’s handy because you get a fun little book on how to brew.” Barnes says. He also points out that if attention is paid to the temperature of fermentation, those innocuous little kits can produce some decent beer.
According to Barnes, the minimum equipment you’ll need to get started as a home brewer is a 5 gallon stock pot, a stove, a food-grade 5 gallon plastic bucket, an airlock for the bucket, food-grade plastic tubing for siphoning, and a bottle of bleach for sanitation. Setups for advanced home brewers are usually a great deal more complex than this, but you can grow your brewery in parallel with your abilities as a brewer.
“Brewing with all-grain instead of malt extract is more difficult, but ultimately allows more control over the beer’s character,” says Patrick Hughes, a computer science student and 6-year home brewing veteran. Like Barnes, Hughes started out assisting a friend of his who was an experienced home brewer.
“I was looking for a hobby that didn’t involve drinking beer in front of the computer,” Hughes, uh, explains. “My buddy and I started brewing beer. We didn’t go all-grain until the 4th or 5th time.”
Hughes, 33, offers a practical example of how little space is required to actually operate a home brewery. The diminutive kitchen of his second-floor duplex apartment comfortably serves as a brewing space, Kegging station, and fermenting area, with plenty of room left over for less important things like cooking and cleaning up.
From time to time, cleanup can be a serious issue in home brewing. “I decided to brew a Russian imperial stout,” Barnes relates. “The fermentation was so lively that I blew the airlock off and got black-colored goop all over the inside of my friend’s teacher’s shirt closet. He thought it was really funny except for the cleaning bill and the mop-up.”
When asked about how a newbie could screw up their first batch of beer, both Barnes and Hughes agree that sanitation is key. Disinfecting everything that comes in contact with the nascent beer prevents unwanted microorganisms from infecting the brew and making it really freaking horrible. Other key points are watching the stove closely for boil-over and making sure that the fermenting temperature is constant, even, and not too high. Home brewing books will detail proper temperatures for different styles of beer.
A wealth of information has been published on home brewing. One of the earliest books on the subject, still considered the home brewer’s bible today, is The Complete Joy of Home brewing by Charlie Papazian. Barnes also recommends John J. Palmer’s How to Brew as a more technical resource.
New brewers who’d like to benefit from the knowledge and experience of a group can attend meetings of the Upstate New York Home brewers’ Association (UNYHA). Association members are happy to offer advice, discuss technique, and share both knowledge and beer. Meetings and events are detailed on their website (www.unyha.com). With a little study and experience, novice home brewers can quickly turn into capable crafters of beer, adept at brewing various styles to exacting specifications.
When you get there, give us a call. We’ll bring the growlers.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at https://beercraft.wordpress.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.