Homebrewers Say Their Craft is Well-Worth the Fuss
Considering the militant emphasis on cleanliness, the mad-scientist equipment and the scarcity of places to buy hops and barley, it’s no wonder some are intimidated by the idea of brewing their own beer.
But according to those who are knee-deep in the hobby, it’s something you can ease yourself into and still find satisfaction. Joshua Hubner, president of DC Homebrewers Club and a nine-year veteran of the hobby, says more and more people are taking the plunge and brewing their own beers. “It’s definitely become more of a mainstream hobby,” he says, adding that about 750 people are on the club’s e-mail list, and monthly meeting attendance hovers around 50. “Since I’ve been in DC, I’ve seen it grow every single year.”
Even the White House has gotten into the act. Thomas Jefferson is known to have homebrewed while living at Monticello, but the Obamas are thought to be the first residents to have tasked their chefs with brewing beer – with honey from the White House beehive.
There are a handful of reasons why the homebrew trend is exploding in DC, one of which is simply that area imbibers have greater access to the nationwide movement of craft brews. It can be argued that the national deregulation of homebrewing by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 indirectly gave rise to the craft beer movement across the country, and in turn has further inspired the homebrewing hobby.
We live in an age of house-made bitters; single-origin, single-pour cups of coffee; and locally grown and raised everything. Where food and drink are concerned, artisanal is the name of the game. For Justin Owens, server and fromagier at Restaurant Eve, brewing at home gives him the opportunity to create unusual flavor pairings like infusing a Hefeveizen style beer with blood oranges or adding strawberries to a brew. He sees his hobby as an extension of what he’s learned from the experimental environment that surrounds him at work. The American Homebrewers Association says its members listed creativity as the number one reason they homebrew.
Owens and others point out another crucial benefit: DIY brewing costs less. “Why buy it if you can make it yourself?” asks Chef Kyle Bailey of Birch & Barley, who started brewing about six years ago after his wife bought him a kit online. “It’s cheap, and you can make a lot at a time.”
Most homebrewers do, in fact, seem fanatical about sharing their experience. Hubner’s primary piece of advice is to “Get involved, because there’s a lot of human resources in the area, a lot of local homebrewers that want to talk to you about homebrewing.”
As for the nuts and bolts of getting started, Hubner points out that brewing beer is really just a matter of “sugar and spice being turned into beer by yeast.” He says, “The malted barley is your sugar source. Hops tend to be your spice, but people use all kinds of crazy stuff. And then the yeast takes that and gives you alcohol.”
He dutifully mentions sanitation, but adds that the worst that can happen is that your batch turns out like vinegar and needs to be tossed.
KYLE BAILEY’S ADVICE FOR HOMEBREWERS
- Stay clean and methodical. Make sure your work space is sanitized and that you are following the recipe.
- Make sure it’s the correct temperature.
- Don’t compromise on ingredients.
- Remember when you scale up that a little still goes a long way. I’ll never forget going to try someone’s white sage beer or rosemary beer. It was so vile! Like a rosemary punch in the face. Keep flavors subtle. Think of a brew like a salad: Don’t overdress it.
- Ask people who know what they’re doing. That’s how you learn.
- Northern Brewer – Forum.NorthernBrewer.com
- Homebrew Talk – HomebrewTalk.com
- Reddit – Reddit.com/R/Homebrewing
Hubner echoes others that the social aspect of homebrewing keeps him engaged. “What I really love about homebrewing is the great community you become involved in,” he says, adding that his club incorporates all walks of life. “It’s a fun group, and it’s great to be a part of it.”
These two clubs generally meet once a month at rotating locations to share homebrews, advice and constructive criticism.
Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP)hosts annual competitions, camping trips, a chili cook-off and other special events throughout the year. BURP.org
DC Homebrewers hosts competitions and a handful of how-to classes a year. DCHomeBrewers.com
WHAT YOU’LL NEED:
Derek Terrell of My Local Homebrew Shop (featured on pg. 31) offers his advice to novice brewers.
Malt is made by roasting germinated grains (usually barley) in a kiln. There are at least 100 distinct types of malt available in a variety of roasts. Like coffee, the darker the roast then the darker and more intensely flavored the brew. They are sold as extracts in powder or syrup form.
Hops, the component “used to add bitterness, aroma and flavor,” come in three forms: pressed into pellets, whole dried cones (more perishable than pellets), and fresh hops (most perishable). There are some 80 varieties of hops, with European styles providing more traditional, familiar flavors and American hops often pushing the envelope with such exotic flavors as passion fruit or mango.
Brewer’s yeast, the fermenting agent in beer, comes in dry or liquid form. English strains tend to be malty, American strains are generally milder in flavor and drier on the palate, Belgian strains tend to be especially fruity and sometimes tart, while German wheat beer strains are often banana-like or clove flavored.