I first experienced home brewing in my mother’s kitchen. Through some rhetorical finagling, I managed to convince her to let me brew with my brother, though I was too young to drink at the time. All it took to get started was a lobster pot, a few buckets and a brew kit from The Thirsty Brewer in Baldwin, MD. After a time, the long fermentation and aging period made my brother lose interest. But I was hooked. Within a few weeks I was picking up cardamon at the grocery store for a Blue Moon clone recipe, and a little while later I had turned our basement refrigerator into a lagering fridge. The beer I brewed received high praise at family dinners; particularly later on, my family members were no longer just being polite.
QUICK, DRUNK MATH:
One kit makes five gallons,
five gallons fills ~48 bottles.
Fermentation takes four weeks,
and aging another three.
Call it 48 days total.
Repeat the process regularly.
That’s one beer, every day
for the rest of your life.
While I no longer have the space to spare for home brewing, now, when I walk around breweries as a reporter or a photographer, I’m reminded that the skills and resources to make beer aren’t prohibitive or even necessarily expensive. The big guys even use similarly sized kits for small exploratory batches. If you strip away the labels and the advertising and the warehouse space, there’s little difference between what a craft brewery produces and what a home brewer can cook up. In fact, the large majority (up to 90 percent) of craft brewery founders started their careers as modest home brewers. Whether it’s five gallons or 5,000, the principles are the same — what changes are the tools. Below is everything you’ll need, from starting out, to upgrading your kit, to going pro.
The Closet Brewer
There’s Never Enough Space
Everyone has to start somewhere, even if somewhere is two food-grade, all-purpose plastic buckets, a kitchen stove and a storage closet. In the beginning, you’ll be extract brewing: diluting either dry or liquid malt extract with a few gallons of water, adding hops, diluting as necessary and putting it all into a bucket with yeast to ferment. Everything is pre-made, pre-measured and packaged nicely. Even with a smaller kit, you’ll get a handle on the bare bones of the brewing process and expand your knowledge with every batch; you’ll gauge the limitations of your own kitchen and realize the importance of sanitation. What you end up with probably won’t be the best beer you’ve ever tasted, but it’ll be drinkable, and it’ll be yours.
21-Inch Brewing Spoon ($9)
White Labs California Ale Yeast ($11)
Munton’s DME, 2 Pounds ($6)
Cascade Hops, 3 Ounces ($4)
24 Amber Long Neck Bottles ($8)
Maestro Homebrew Beer Equipment ($68)
How to Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right the First Time ($11)
Star San Sanitizer, 32 Ounces ($27)
Stock Pot, 4 Gallons ($39)
Things Start to Taste Better
Once you’ve gotten a handle on extract brewing — once you’ve grown used to the smell of malt and caked your kitchen floor with sugary, hoppy water and watched the bubbling and bubbling of an active fermenter for longer than necessary, and ruined a few batches and replaced all the siphons you forgot to clean — you’ll want to start adding to your kit. The additions at this stage are relatively painless. For clarity: a glass carboy for secondary or even tertiary fermentation and a wort chiller for a better cold break. For taste: more specialty grains for steeping, and maybe a partial mash for more control or a bigger stock pot for a full wort boil. You can also start lagering, if you have an extra fridge and more time to kill. None of the tools get particularly fancier, there are just more of them, and possibly multiple batches brewing, fermenting and aging all at the same time. Besides what’s listed below, you should invest in a notebook and a pen to keep careful track of your technique for each batch and how this affects your beers’ taste.
Immersion Wort Chiller ($57)
6-Gallon Glass Carboy ($29)
5-Gallon Glass Carboy ($27)
3-Piece Airlock ($6)
Rubber Stopper ($7)
Johnson Controls Temperature Controller ($57)
Partial Mash Kit ($50)
Dogfish Head 60 Minutes IPA Clone ($51)
Stock Pot — 6 Gallon ($81)
White Labs Lager Yeast ($9)
The All-Grain Brewer
One Bank Loan Away from the Big Time
By this time you’ve explored all there is to explore inside the confines of pre-made malt, basic grain additions and the simple recipes you’ve found online. Maybe you’ve walked up your yeast game and experimented with the timing of your hops addition, but until you’re making your wort from malted grains yourself, you aren’t free to run wild. Before you make the jump you should be confident that your beer could fool most into thinking it’s store bought. You’ve probably become rather obsessive about your technique and cloned all your favorite brews. (Maybe you’ve neglected other aspects of you life, or your kid’s life, in the process.) This obsession is necessary; at the all-grain stage, the temperatures and the timing need be more exact, and there’s a lot more boiling water being thrown around, plus a lot more space and care required as you extract the glucose and maltose from the grain yourself. You’ll probably need to rope one of your friends into helping you out on brew day. After you develop your own recipes and a consistent taste, you should start entering contests — a few of which can be found through the American Homebrewers Association — to really test your skills.