Over the next several weeks, I'm going to be putting up a series of posts on homebrewing. Now, I'm not an expert; indeed, I'm about as far from an expert as one can possibly be. The aim here is not to present myself as a professor of the subject, but to share my experiences as homebrew newbie learning the ropes. Hopefully, this will help to illustrate the relative ease with which you, too, can try homebrewing.
Having tried it twice now, it is my sworn belief that everyone should try homebrewing. Maybe not children, I guess. Their sticky hands would probably contaminate the equipment. Also, I doubt many children have the patience to sit around for hours watching a big pot on the stove. Another exception can be made if you don't like beer; if you're not a beer fan, you're excused from homebrewing for the same reason I'm excused from making kale chips. If you're reading this site, though, I expect that you're a beer-enjoying non-child, so you should probably try homebrewing.
I tried homebrewing for the first time about eight weeks ago. I'm not someone who is known for being "good at things", so I'm lucky that I had a friend who has a bit of homebrewing expertise. He gave me a brief rundown of the process, mentioned a few recipes he'd used recently, and we scheduled a time to meet up at our local homebrew shop.
Here's reason one you should be homebrewing: homebrew shops are awesome. Walking in the door, one is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of potential beer in the store. There's just so much untapped goodness on every shelf. You can sample different grains. You can smell hop varieties. You can envision a perfect beer, bringing together a combination that no one else ever thought of. You can be told by the proprietor that your ideas are patently ridiculous, which is likely true.
On this particular day, we decided to make a rye pale ale. I'm all about hoppy IPAs, whereas my friend prefers his stouts and lagers, so this seemed like a fair compromise. Based on my experience touring breweries, I figured we'd get a bag of rye malt, pick a hop type, throw it all in a pot with some hot water, and then probably get drunk and watch TV while we wait for it to turn into beer. Fortunately, I was not in charge of this endeavor, because that was wrong in so, so many ways.
First of all, a rye pale ale doesn't just use all rye malt; I was told that would taste terrible. You use mostly the same grains you would for a standard pale ale, except that you replace about 10% of the malt with rye. Also, hopping isn't just throwing all the hops in at a certain time. I'd assumed that multi-stage hopping or dry-hopping was difficult, but it's really not. We ended up doing a three-stage hop with Calypso and Cascade hops, both of which are delicious-smelling citrusy hops. Finally, I learned that you don't just boil the brew like a pot of pasta (okay, maybe I sorta knew that one going in). You have to keep it at a pretty precise temperature, which can be difficult when your work equipment is a big-ass pot, a four-burner stove and some towels.
That's reason number two you should try homebrewing: you get a much better understanding of how subtle variations affect the beer. This gives you a more nuanced appreciation when you drink a great beer, because it helps you understand how the flavors/textures/aromas you're enjoying were created. It's like playing a few games of pick-up basketball after having only ever watched the game on TV -- you might have known what boxing out was from just watching, but when you actually try to put that in practice you get a fuller picture of what's going on. You might be able to identify a dry-hopped beer and know what the term means, but going through the whole process yourself is quite edifying.
For your first time, I'd recommend that you find someone who knows how to homebrew if at all possible. It's not so complicated that you can't figure it out on your own, but there will be some trial-and-error if you go it alone. As I said, I was lucky enough to be helping my friend brew. When I say "helping", I mean it in the way that a small child "helps" his mother make a pie -- sure, I was adding ingredients here and there and checking the temperature of the boil periodically, but I'm not sure I sped up the process or made much of a material contribution.
Still, one must start somewhere. Six weeks later, we met up again to brew once more and to enjoy the fruits of our previous labors. I think I was at least a little more useful on my second go of it. This time around, we put together a fun little saison which should be ready in four weeks or so. More importantly, we tried some of the finished rye pale ales, which I was pretty happy with; a couple bottles didn't successfully carbonate, so that was a shame, but on the whole I'd like to think it was at least a replacement-level pale ale. Reason number three for homebrewing: you will absolutely overrate your own beer. That's not a bad thing -- you just can't help but enjoy it more, because it tastes better when you yourself have taken a pile of ingredients that were distinctly not beer and turned them into a thing that is beer. It's about as close to magic as any of us will ever get.
If you're a craft beer fan, I can pretty much guarantee you'll get something out of homebrewing. Maybe you'll produce some tasty beer, or maybe it won't turn out so well and you'll have to settle for learning some cool stuff about beer. If you've ever felt that brewery tours gave you insufficient information about the process of brewing beer, there's no substitute for trying it yourself. I promise you won't regret it.
As I said up top, there will be some follow-up pieces to this, where we'll delve a little deeper into specific parts of the homebrewing process. I'll try to have these posted as often as possible, though I'm somewhat limited because my friend's setup only allows us to prepare one batch at a time, so we can't be making something new every weekend. Have any questions, suggestions, or recipes you want to recommend? Please feel free to share down in the comments.
You can follow Alex on Twitter @AlexanderFossi.