'Here, have a glass of my beer':
The satisfactions of home brewing
"To show Englishmen, 40 years ago, that it was good for them to brew beer in their houses would have been as impertinent as to gravely insist that they ought to endeavor not to lose their breath; for in those times, to have a house and not to brew was a rare thing indeed.”
--William Cobbett, 1821
Home brewing, once the norm, had practically vanished by Cobbett's time. It made a clandestine comeback in this country during Prohibition (1920-33) and died again with Repeal. No one seemed to miss it much.
But these days homebrewing is making a very healthy comeback. Homebrewed beer seems the right drink for locavores. A visit to Home Sweet Homebrew (2008 Sansom St., (215) 569-9469) on a typical Wednesday night will find a dozen enthusiastic amateurs, sipping, sampling and stocking up on raw materials. There are homebrew clubs and competitions and judgings: a whole circuit of county fairs without the livestock smells.
Why might you try something as recondite as home brewing?
- Freshness. There is one thing that every beer lover knows: The best beers in the world may not arrive at your home port in the best condition. If your favorite style of beer comes from far away, many of the bottles will disappoint you.
- Meditation on beer. The world’s most careful palate will never attend to, take apart, reintegrate and rhapsodize on a flavor as thoroughly as the average palate that has built that flavor once or twice from scratch. Even if your homebrewed beer shows up rarely on your table, it’s bound to help you enjoy all the other beers you taste.
- Pride in craftsmanship. Let's face it, there's not much left that you can make at home that outshines its commercial equivalents. I can think of four things; soup, beer, pizza and love. Perhaps you can think of some others. It may be vitally important to you to have a real, simple, single thing that you do that doesn't need to be hyphenated to be understood. At work you may be an adjunct-manufacturing-data-systems-analyst. By the time you explain to someone what it is you do, you've forgotten what it all means. At home you can be a Daddy Lover Brewer Baker. Best of all, you can share what you do in the simplest and most direct way imaginable: “Here, have a glass of my beer.”
- Satisfying an idiosyncratic taste. The homebrewer can, with just a little practice and diligence, create exactly the beer he wants to drink. He can produce a supply whose development he monitors in the cellar.
A few simple steps
How does it work? One of beer's best-kept secrets is how easy it is to make. Anyone who can make a good beef stew can make beer. The beginning homebrewer buys a concentrated malt extract in a can. She dilutes the extract with water, adds pelletized hops and brings it to a boil. After the boil, she may add some more hops. When the wort cools down, she adds yeast and sets it aside to ferment. The boiling takes about an hour. Fermentation usually takes two to five days, depending on the temperature and the specific gravity of the wort.
When fermentation is done, she primes the beer with a small amount of sugar and puts it in squeaky-clean bottles. The sugar starts a secondary fermentation. The bottle traps the CO2 from the fermentation and that carbonates the beer.
How good is this beer? It's better than a lot of what you can buy. Some beer styles— English bitter and porter, for example— can be replicated nicely with this simple process. The concentrates, which used to be made primarily for the baking industry, are being more finely tuned for the homebrewed all the time. You can tinker with the kits, adding this and that to change the flavor, just as you might add your own seasonings to canned spaghetti sauce. There are even some deluxe malt extracts from Australia and Belgium. If you like the styles of beer they offer, these “kits” can give you first-class results with just a bit of doctoring.
A social occasion
It's just a little bit more trouble to buy and steep your own grains, extracting the sugar and then boiling it. This step adds two or three hours to the process, which means you can invite a friend. Because the sugar doesn't undergo a long cooking to concentrate it for canning, the beer is livelier tasting. You can even make a credible imitation of many of the world's beer styles.
The best way to get started is to talk to an expert brewer. In Philadelphia, everybody who brews ends up at Home Sweet Homebrew talking to Nancy Rigberg or George Hummel. George is the amiable prize-winning brewer who’s apparently never heard a silly question he didn't like. Nancy is the wine-lover who's turned her palate to beer. Along with homebrewing advice and supplies, Home Sweet Homebrew has all the local beer news. If you show up on a Wednesday night, there's even homebrewed beer free for the tasting.