Home-brewing has been popular since the late 1970s when it became legal for the first time since Prohibition, says William Bostwick, coauthor (with Jessi Rymill) of the new book Beer Craft: A Simple Guide to Making Great Beer (Rodale, 2011). But it really took off during the '90s with the microbrew craze. "Craft beer in America became really trendy and interesting and creative," he says. "And that kind of explosion coincided with this idea of urban homesteading—people growing their own gardens, keeping bees. Those two movements coincided, and it's getting a lot more popular."
Not only that, but beer itself is getting more sophisticated. No longer relegated to frat parties and keggers, beer is attracting the attention of chefs and restaurateurs who are finding ways to pair beer with food the way they do with wines. And when you make your own, says Rymill, that gives you a better sense of what makes a "good" beer. "Knowing or learning about what different styles of beer consist of in terms of ingredients—barley, malt, and hops and yeast—has been an incredible learning experience in terms of tasting craft beer," she says. "If you haven't made beer, I think it would be really hard to learn that."
"There's a lot of bad beer out there. And you pick up on that a lot more when you start making it yourself," Bostwick jokes.
Home-brewing can be a fun hobby for fathers and sons—and daughters—to take up. "There's too much male energy in beer-making," says Erik Knutzen, coauthor of Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World (Rodale, 2011), who writes in his book that beer-brewing used to be a household responsibility that was often undertaken by women. "Not that I'm saying it should fall to one gender or another, but women's intuition is good for home-brewing."
Setting Up Your Brew Station
Beer brewing does require a few tools you may or may not have lying around your house: two- and three-gallon stock pots (cheap aluminum pots from a restaurant supply store are fine); fine-mesh grain bag; a food scale, measuring cup, thermometer, timer, and wooden spoon; a fine-mesh strainer and funnel; a glass carboy (basically, a big jug with a narrow neck); some plastic tubing, an airlock, a hydrometer (used to measure the sugars in the beer), and, of course, bottles and bottle caps, all of which you can get at a local home-brew shop (or be super ecofreindly, and save empty beer bottles to sanitize and reuse). But don't let this long list of tools intimidate you. "If you can make soup, you can make beer," says Knutzen. He adds that the equipment is pretty cheap (he bought most of his on eBay) or easy to make yourself (he has instructions in his book). And since it's summer, he recommends getting a propane burner so you can brew out in your backyard to prevent overheating your kitchen (that also makes it a fun Father's Day activity to do while you're grilling out).
Then, you need your ingredients, which, as Rymill says, are basically malted barley (barley that has been soaked and sprouted to release its sugars), hops, and yeast. Every single one of these comes in dozens of varieties, allowing you to experiment endlessly with your beer-brewing. Beers with more hops and less malt fall into the pilsner, pale ale, and saison family and are more bitter than they are sweet, while beer with more malt and less hops falls into the brown and Scottish ale families and are sweeter; wheat beers, porters, and stouts fall somewhere in between.
If you've never tried making beer before, you can opt for a kit designed to make a specific beer recipe. Those include all the right proportions of malt, hops, and yeast, and the right types you need to make a specific beer. "You can order kits online," Knutzen says, "but some of those are pretty crappy. Home-brew shops tend to have better, fresher ingredients in what they provide." But Bostwick cautions not to rely too heavily on kits after your first few attempts. "It's like baking a cake from cake mix. You don't get to experiment—you don't get to play around," he says. "It's easy, but where's the fun in that?" He adds that once you get the hang of it, you can add other ingredients to make a wider array of beers based on the season, for instance, sour cherry beer with sour cherries from the farmer's market in summer or pumpkin ales from the pumpkin harvest in the fall.
Organic or Not?
Whether kitchen chemist or professional brewer, brewing organic beer is a challenge. "Ninety percent of beers out there are brewed by Anheuser Busch or Miller/Coors, and there are only a handful of certified-organic craft beer makers. The industry of farming organic ingredients for beer just isn't big enough," Bostwick says. Another reason is that the main flavoring agent of beer, the hops, are so hard to grow organically, he adds. The little green flowers are very susceptible to pests and mold, which proliferate in the large monocrop fields in which hops are grown commercially, and most hops farmers are nervous about going the organic route. The few organic breweries that exist now get all their truly organic hops from a farm in New Zealand, which, Bostwick says, leaves little left over for home brewers. There's just one company out there that sells organic beer brewing kits and organic ingredients to home brewers, Seven Bridges Cooperative, so if you are committed to 100 percent organic beer, the alternative exists.
Another way around the problem, which Bostwick, Rymill, and Knutzen all recommend, is growing your own hops. "Hops are pretty easy to grow in most places," Knutzen says. "And mine are organic because I'm growing them organically." Given that the plants are in small backyard gardens and not large plantations, it's easier to control pests. They're also extremely fast growing and can provide your house with a lot of shade in the summer. He recommends growing a few different varieties of both flavoring and bittering hops, so you can make a wider variety of beers.
Giving It a Go
If you're interested in getting started with home-brewing, Bostwick and Rymill's book, Beer Craft, or the beer-brewing chapter of Making It offer really detailed how-to's. If you've tried it a few times and need a weekend project with Dad, Bostwick recommends his and Rymill's recipe for wheat beer. "It's a good summer beer, and it doesn't need to ferment as long." Following is a very basic recipe, along with simplified instructions for brewing it.
Wheat Beer from Beer Craft
1. Heat 4 quarts of water to 163 degrees F and add 1 lb. Belgian Pilsner malt and 1 lb. Wheat malt; "mash" (steep) for 60 minutes at 153°F.
2. "Sparge" your malt by removing it from your mash (putting the malt in your mesh bag makes removal easier) and dunking the bag a few times in a fresh pot containing about 3 quarts of hot water to remove the remaining sugars.
3. Add your sparge water to your mash water. This is your "wort." Bring the wort to a boil and boil it for 60 minutes. As soon as the water reaches a boil, add 15 grams of Hallertau hops. One minute before the end of your boil, add 5 more grams of those same hops.
4. Chill down your wort to 70 degrees F or cooler. Ideally this will take about 30 minutes. You can buy a special wort chiller for this step, or follow Bostwick's and Rymill's recommendation of filling a large sink with ice and setting your wort-filled stock pot inside it. Keep refilling the sink with ice as the original ice melts.
5. Transfer your wort to your carboy (glass jug) for the fermentation process. Pour the wort out of the stock pot through a fine mesh strainer to catch any grains, hops, and sediment, and through a funnel into the carboy.
6. Add 1/3 tube of Hefeweizen Ale (WLP300) yeast to your carboy, and plug it with a length of plastic tubing, the other end of which should be sitting in a glass mason jar. This catches a sort of brown gunk that forms as the beer ferments for a day or two. After the beer stops foaming, replace the plastic tubing with an airlock and place the bottle somewhere that's a consistent 68 degrees F so it will ferment. Then you wait for 2 weeks.
7. Now it's time to bottle! But first you need to carbonate your beer. Boil 1 cup of water in a large stockpot, and when it reaches a boil, add 28 grams of corn sugar (organic, if you can find it; you can also use organic cane sugar). Let that cool down to room temperature and add your now-fermented beer. This process can get complicated and involves a racking cane and siphon to get the beer out of the bottle while leaving behind the sediment that has sunk to the bottom of the bottle. Once you've got your beer added to your sugar mixture in the stockpot, siphon the beer from the stockpot into your bottles, cap them, and then store them in a dark, cool corner (not the fridge). It usually takes about a week or two for beer to fully carbonate. Try one after a week, and if it's not to your liking, leave the others alone for another week; keep testing until it tastes the way you want it to!