If you have toured a large brewery or even seen a Samuel Adams ad, the idea of brewing beer at home may seem daunting, what with all the copper kettles and such. But experts say you can get all the supplies and ingredients for your first five-gallon batch of beer for less than $80. Once you have the equipment, making a six-pack will cost about $3.
Taylor Caron has been home brewing for 10 years, and is the manager of Hops & Berries, a store for home beer and wine makers in Fort Collins, Colorado. He said you can save money by saving old bottles, and using an old 5-gallon stock pot. Beyond that, you could spend about $40 on a fermenting vessel, capper and caps. The simplest vessel is a food-grade bucket with a lid and airlock, but many brewers opt for a carboy, or large, heavy narrow-neck bottle, with a stopper and airlock.
Caron sells a basic $64 brewing kit, which also includes an adhesive thermometer, racking can and siphoning tube, and a spring-loaded bottle filler. “From there, the sky is the limit,” he said.
Justinian Hatfield of Lakewood, Colo., has been a home brewer for about 15 years. He said the most important home brew tool is a book.
“Probably the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Charlie Papazian's The Homebrewer's Companion,” he said. “It's got all the answers to any question a beginner home brewer is bound to have.”
On the other hand, the materials may be less important than patience and “a desire to create.”
“We are do-it-yourselfers, and enjoy the process almost as much as the outcome,” Caron said.
Hatfield offers a summary of the home brew process.
“The beginner home brewer will most likely be using the extract method, in which the goodness of the whole grains has already been extracted into a liquid form,” he said.
Boil the extract with water, hops and any additional ingredients. After it cools, add yeast and put a fermentation lock on the bucket and let it ferment for about a week, he said. Then add sugars, bottle and cap the beers, then let them sit for another week or two.
In the college town where Caron works, he sees many engineers and biochemists turning their expertise to home brewing, but he said virtually anybody can be a home brewer.
Caron suggests starting with a simple style of beer you will enjoy drinking, and get some experience before trying to make lagers and strong high-alcohol ales, which he said require tighter temperature control and careful yeast control.
Caron teaches a monthly home brewing class, but it’s more of a confidence booster than a requirement for beginners.
“The biggest piece our classes offer is actually seeing a brewing session, and confirming that, with a few basic essentials, beer is not difficult to make,” he said.
If brewers run into bad batches, most solutions come down to proper cleaning. “The importance of sanitation in brewing cannot be overemphasized,” Caron said.
Hatfield agrees. “Make sure to sanitize everything,” he said. “You really need to worry about everything that touches the beer after the boil. It’s really easy to ruin a batch because some piece of equipment wasn't clean.”
Even if the beer tastes OK, you might turn off tasters if everything isn’t cleaned properly.
“A pet peeve of mine is when people don't take the labels off their bottles when they use them for homebrew,” Hatfield said. “When I see that, I wonder how clean those bottles really are.”
Caron said other common problems include scorching the extract, fermenting in a spot with extreme temperature fluctuations and impatiently drinking the beer prematurely. To solve the last problem, Caron recommends brewing “frequently enough that you'll have something to drink while you're letting the new batch age.”
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