Like many people, I enjoy beer. I enjoy learning about beer, I enjoy talking about beer, and, of course, I enjoy drinking beer. For those of you in a similar situation, there is one hobby that will allow you to do all of those things at the same time: homebrewing.
Many people seem to have the idea that homebrewing produces bad beer, or is difficult, or expensive. The fact is, brewing good beer at home is remarkably easy, and can be as expensive or cheap as you want it to be (most people start with a minimal set-up, and invest in further equipment as the obsession takes hold). The bottom line is that it’s very easy to make great beer. How exactly is it done?
The easiest way to get started homebrewing is to head to your local homebrew supply shop. There, you’ll find helpful folks who can walk you through the strange apparati and vats of grains to what you’ll need to get your first batch of beer going. Namely:
1. A food-grade plastic fermenter or six gallon plastic carboy with airlock. This will be where the magic happens. You will also need a length of tubing or (even better) an autosyphon. Either option is quite inexpensive.
2. A beer kit. Kits contain a syrup that will form the base for your first batch of beer. They are very easy to use, don’t require long boiling times or a huge pot, and are really pretty foolproof. You’ll probably also need some dry malt extract to supplement the kit (check the kit’s instructions or talk to the homebrew guy). There are kits in all kinds of styles of beer, from stout to IPA.
3. Some cleanser and sanitizer. There are numerous methods for cleaning and sanitizing (not the same thing!) I like Star-San sanitizer.
4. A capper, some caps, and bottles. Cappers and caps are pretty cheap. For bottles, you can always do what I did starting out: keep all the bottles from all the beer you drink. One batch will make 50-60 12 oz. bottles of beer. Not too shabby, eh?
5. A thermometer and a big spoon.
All you’ll have to do is follow the instructions on the kit, and a few weeks later you’ll have ice-cold, frosty beer – that you made (assuming you have a refrigerator). Essentially, you will add the contents of the kit, some dry malt extract (if needed), and five to six gallons of hot water. Stir it up, pitch the yeast once the mixture (called “wort”) is at the right temperature, seal it off, and wait for about a week. You can then bottle it (adding some more DME at bottling time to carbonate) and drink it after another week. It’s very simple, but there are some pitfalls. Here are some of the things that can trip you up.
1. Bad water. If your area’s tap water is foul tasting, it will make for foul-tasting beer. Even excessive chloridation can end up affecting your beer’s final flavor. Invest in a filter, or just buy a big jug of drinking water.
2. Sanitation. If your equipment isn’t well cleaned (meaning all the gunk is removed) and sanitized (meaning that you’ve removed any evil wild yeasts or bacteria), then you can easily wind up with funky, evil-tasting beer. If you’re meticulous about your equipment’s cleanliness, there is nothing standing between you and excellent beer.
3. Temperature. Depending on the type of yeast you use, optimal fermentation temperature runs from around 45 degrees F (for lager yeast) to 75 degrees F (for certain Belgian ale strains). It is vitally important to be sensitive about your particular yeast. I’ve ruined batches of beer by letting them get too hot in the summer (ending up with truly bizarre, estery tastes), and there is no worse feeling than being unable to drink a beer that you’ve worked hard to make.
Beyond these pitfalls, there is little to trip you up. Your first beer, while perhaps not being spectacular from an objective viewpoint, will taste like the best beer that you’ve ever had. Your friends will also readily agree that it is good, because you are giving it to them for free. Soon, you can graduate from kits to extract brewing, and from there to all-grain (crafting your own recipes is one of the most fun aspects of the hobby, I think). You can invest in expensive gadgets and doo-dads, or keep it simple and cheap – it all really depends on how much of a gear-head you are. The sky is the limit for how far you want to take homebrewing.