Start homebrewing your beer with these tips

If dad (or hubby) loves his beer, especially his craft brews, why not get him into homebrewing? Let him explore his passion for beer this coming Father’s Day by becoming your personal brewer! It’s easy, it’s CHEAPER than buying commercial beer, and is honestly a fun, sometimes social event.

Part of the beauty of brewing is that homebrewers are also free to experiment and make their own styles and hybrids, and can also brew copies of beers that aren’t available locally. Almost every well-respected beer has clone recipes out there on the interwebs, and they can often be just as good (and sometimes better) than the original.

Heck, maybe the best beer I’ve ever tried is a homebrewed Pliny The Elder clone made by a homebrew pal, Jesse Ferguson. Pliny, from Russian River Brewing in California, is a wonderfully complex double IPA that’s simply not available around here. I’m not sure how dead-on it was, I just know Jesse’s clone was amazing.

Behind the hop curtain

Making beer isn’t complicated. There’s no mystical alchemy to producing a fine pale ale or stout. In fact, there are only four ingredients in the vast majority of beers – water, barley, hops, and yeast. That’s it. In fact, the famous German beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, states that those are the only ingredients allowed in beer.

As long as you can follow directions and keep things clean, you can make good beer at home. I can barely boil water, but have made hundreds of gallons of excellent brews.

The basic process starts when the brewer removes sugar from malted barley grains or extract (syrup) by heating it to a certain temperature (usually 140° to 170° F), then boiling it and adding various hops at various points. This hot liquid is called “wort”, but is pronounced “wert.” Think “word” with a “t.”

After boiling the wort for an hour or so, the brewer cools it off as quickly as possible, using ice baths, a copper “wort chiller,” cold packs, snow, or just sealing it and letting it cool down. Once it’s cooled off, said brewer simply adds yeast, waits a couple of weeks, bottles or kegs it, and waits for it to carbonate (a couple of weeks for bottles, a week or less for a keg). They then enjoy the fruits of their labor with friends and family. Merriment ensues.

Of course, there are a near-infinite number of variables involved in the process, but the same basic process is used to make golden ales, IPAs, stouts, and the vast majority of beers out there. Brewers can change the taste of their beer through choices about barley malts, extracts, hops, yeasts, timing of ingredient additions, etc. Part of the joy of homebrewing is experimenting with old recipes by using slightly different ingredients to tweak the brew.

Oh, and brewing craft beer is cheaper than buying it, sometimes significantly. I make a fine cream ale that costs under $20 to make 2 cases and a really top-notch Belgian ale for around $25. Sure, you can go nuts and brew a $50 imperial stout, but even that’d cost waaaay less rubles than 2 cases of Old Rasputin! Most decent ingredient kits live in the $25-$40 range … or even less when you get to advanced all-grain homebrewing.

Malts and hops and yeasts, oh my!

New brewers can make fine beers right out of the gate. Don’t be intimidated by all the choices … there are plenty of pre-made ingredient kits that will produce fine brews for low costs. Dad doesn’t need to understand the difference between crystal malt and caramel malt or how cascade hops add different flavors and aromas than Columbus hops. That will come with time, if his passion for brewing is ignited. To start, he just has to follow a recipe.

Brewing equipment choices

Dad could start with the frozen dinner of homebrew – Mr. Beer – if simplicity is key, but I don’t recommend it. Mr. Beer’s small batches are 40% the size of regular brews and brewers are then locked into the very narrow range of beers Mr. Beer puts out. It’s a fine, somewhat cheap way to get started, but understand that the equipment is really a dead-end because it won’t serve as the basis for a homebrew setup, and there isn’t much of a market for used Mr. Beer equipment if/when dad decides to give it up or get more advanced.

That being said, if you decide to go in this direction, Mr. Beer kits are available at Wines & More, select Target and Sears stores, Newbury Comics, and elsewhere.

The more common, and most flexible, system to start with is fairly simple – a couple of buckets, some hoses and other small equipment, a capper, and some empty bottles. “True Brew” kits by Westport’s own Crosby and Baker are readily available and can be bought locally through Tamarack Wine & Spirits in Lakeville, Debucas Wine and Liquors in Raynham, Adamsville Wine & Spirits in Adamsville, RI, Pioppi’s in Plymouth, Cape Cod Beer (yes, the brewery) in Hyannis, and others. (NOTE: Since this column was published, a full-service homebrew store opened in Westport – Adega Wine and Beer Making Supplies, on Route 6 near White’s.)

These kits are also available at dedicated homebrew stores in Providence, Foxboro, and Attleboro – the Basement Brewhaus, Witch’s Brew, and the Hoppy Brewer, respectively. They’re all full of friendly, knowledgeable folks who can serve as guides down the path to brewing.

A basic True Brew kit, with ingredients for your first batch, will cost approximately $80-$100. There’s oodles of added equipment one can buy, each of which will make beer incrementally better, but True Brew is a fine starter.

All the places listed above will also have other True Brew ingredient kits (typically $20 to $40 for a 2-case kit), while Tamarack and the homebrew stores carry a more extensive variety of ingredients, kits, equipment, and supplies.

There are also a multitude of homebrew supply web sites out there. I’m a frequent customer of Northern Brewer, but other popular sites include More Beer, Midwest Homebrew Supply, and Austin Homebrew Supply. Northern Brewer will sell you the equipment and an ingredient kit for $80 plus shipping, and their Caribou Slobber recipe is an excellent brew.

Originally published on June 6, 2013