i brewed my first beer in 2011 at the ripe age of 21. it was a very basic IPA brewed in tandem with my friend ben. recently into the bureoning craft beer scene, we decided we had to try to make beer ourselves. we visited a local homebrew warehouse (back then amazon and other online homebrew stores weren’t even that big!) for our goods. the place was massive and i remember feeling overwhelmed but wanting to look cool, so i acted like i knew what everything was. we were poor college kids and balked at the expense of the whole production – the equipment as well as the ingredients themselves! but we persevered and picked up what we needed, cutting as many corners as possible.
we brewed our beer on the back deck of his chicago flat. it was march and there was snow on the ground. we took turns standing in the cold, presiding over the mash and the boil. when it came time to bottle, i hated having to clean the 50+ bottles and sanitize everything. and to top it all off, the beer didn’t even come out that well (big surprise). yet for some silly reason, i was hooked. we brewed a few more beers together before we parted ways and i moved to georgia.
i started brewing again when i met my partner in 2014. he’s younger than me, and was just getting in the craft beer scene as it made its way down to the south. once again, we rallied the troops, headed to our local homebrew store, and bought all our equipment and materials for a first beer. and once again, everything was expensive and the beer turned out mediocre.
our first brew together was followed by a series of unfortunate brews – once we forgot to put priming sugar in a batch, and thus none of the bottles of beer carbonated. then i sparged a witbier way too much, and ended up with a watery off flavored drink. finally, we successfully brewed a super hoppy pale ale, which gave us the confidence to continue on our fermented and malty path. that was 2015. three years later and we are still brewing.
i say all that to illustrate that brewing beer is neither easy nor care-free. it takes a lot of specialized equipment, a certain attention to detail (and sanitation), and there are plenty of opportunities throughout all stages to make mistakes. i advocate a do-it-yourself approach to life, but only when it makes sense – i.e. balancing the energy required to learn a skill with the appropriateness of the skill when applied to your life or community. homebrewing requires a large input of energy to learn the skill, usually by trial and error in your kitchen over many months. and seeing as most towns these days have local craft breweries putting out lots of awesome beer and providing jobs for the local community … homebrewing doesn’t seemingly contribute to the community in a meaningful way.
brewing your beer is also expensive. first, there is the equipment start-up cost which usually ranges in the hundreds of dollars. maintaining some of this equipment is a process and requires time and money. then – the worst part – brewing the beer usually isn’t cost effective. i’ve found that the price of ingredients for a 5-gal batch of beer are roughly equal to the price of a case of local craft beer. factoring in the hours of labor and equipment costs, you’re probably better off leaving the operation to a local brewery!
yet despite the cost-ineffectiveness and grinding labor, we continue to brew. we made some rules for ourselves to make home-brewing worth it. rule number one is we aim to brew beers you can’t buy in stores. rule number two is we only brew occasionally. rule number three is we share our homebrew as a gift.
you can walk into any grocery store in america and find hoppy ipa’s, clovey wheat beers, and coffee stouts. we decided that if we were going to continue brewing beer, we would not brew styles like these that are commonly available, or we would brew them in a unique way. my self-study in herbalism has greatly informed my brewing, and i enjoy brewing traditional styles coupled with herbs – some examples are a wheat beer brewed with lemon balm and chamomile instead of hops, and a pale ale with fresh rosemary and juniper berries. i couple herbal actions and energetics with the style of the beer and the occasion for drinking. the lemon balm wheat was brewed for relaxing on hot summer nights. the rosemary juni ipa was brewed for stimulation on cold winter days. bringing herbs into beer has changed homebrewing for me, for the better. i really never found fun in following other people’s recipes, and actually enjoy the process of writing and tweaking my recipes more than bringing them into fruition.
andrew likes to brew beers with interesting grain combinations, and has had his eye on an ancient grains (quinoa, chia, millet) brew for a while. we have a couple awesome reference books with interesting recipes and ideas, that i would highly recommend to anyone on the strange brew path. the first is sacred and healing herbal beers by stephen harrod buhner. buhner collected recipes for any kind of beer with herbs dating all the way back to the middle ages, and reprinted them as is with no modernization. most of the recipes in this book are not for beers as we think of them, but i have used the herb combinations and uses to inform my recipes. the second is sustainable homebrewing by amelia loftus. this book has interesting recipes, but also takes a holistic approach to brewing including info on growing your own ingredients and using spent grains.
brewing certainly can be expensive, but there are ways to down on costs. when acquiring equipment, if you are patient and live in a metropolitan area, you may be able to find someone selling their entire set-up on craigslist. during the brewing process, you can adopt semi-advanced practices like washing (saving) your own yeast so you don’t have to buy an expensive bag of yeast for each brew. you could also culture yeast or wild ferment (yeast is the single most expensive ingredient). using the bi-products of homebrew would also contribute to the value gained, and there’s suggestions for this in sustainable homebrewing. i make bread and granola with our spent grains instead of chucking them. once i get my cottage food license, i hope to start selling my spent grain granola, which will help re-coup some of the costs.
we only brew occasionally to cut down on the stress associated with the brewing process, and also because we just don’t drink that much beer! we brewing in 2.5 gal batches to better fit our needs, and even several batches this size per year is enough to sate us and our friends and family. which brings me to my last point – giving beer away is one of the main reasons we continue to homebrew. it sure is satisfying to crack open a beer your brewed after a long day … but it feels even better to see your friends and family do the same, and to enjoy it. alcohol has been a pillar of human communities forever, and the social aspect of sharing brews brings us great joy!
so there’s a little peep into my life as a home-brewer. i would love to hear other brewer’s thoughts, or questions from those interested in trying it out!