In the winter of 1994, Sam Calagione was living in Manhattan and working as a waiter when he fell in love with beer and bought a beginner’s homebrewing kit. On a whim, he added overripe cherries from the corner bodega when he brewed an English Pale Ale in his kitchen in Chelsea.
“It felt awesomely rebellious to ignore the recipe and go on my own creative journey,” Calagione told The Takeout.
The whole process was so inspiring to Calagione that he threw a party to share the finished product. Everyone agreed the beer was really good, even Ricki Lake, who Calagione says attended the party after he’d done a modeling gig on her talk show. She wasn’t the only celebrity sampling this cherry pale ale. Calagione lived with actors Joe Lo Truglio and Ken Marino, who’d just started the MTV show The State. He remembers them, along with castmates Thomas Lennon and Michael Ian Black, watching as he climbed on top of his coffee table and declared this was what he would do with his life: brew beers with culinary ingredients. Seven batches of homebrew later, he opened Dogfish Head Brewery.
While most origin stories aren’t this dramatic, you’d be hard-pressed to find a brewery operating today that doesn’t have homebrewing in its DNA. It’s no coincidence that America’s craft brewing movement really got going after 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed the law that federally legalized homebrewing. In 1979, Ken Grossman established Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and in 1982, Colorado hosted the first Great American Beer Festival. The industry expanded in the years that followed, as growth really bloomed in states with permissive homebrewing laws. It wasn’t until 2013 that all 50 states had legalized the practice. Mississippi was last to allow it and also ranks dead last in number of breweries.
But while we owe America’s beer boom to homebrewing, many got into the hobby for down-to-earth, practical reasons. Turning the brewing industry on its head wasn’t even a pipe dream to these folks.
Randy Mosher, author of Mastering Homebrew, remembers a big motivation for his early homebrewing: learning what the exotic beer styles he’d read about tasted like, since they weren’t available in America in the early 1980s.
“When we got Michael Jackson’s big World Guide To Beer, we went through that thing like crazy and sorta thought, ‘Hmm, a witbier? That sounds kinda good, I wonder how you make that?’” Mosher said. “Fortunately his books are pretty detail-heavy, so we figured out a lot of Belgian styles by kinda making it up.”
His brewing partner Ray Spangler won the American Homebrewers Association’s Homebrewer of the Year award in 1989 with a saison at a time when most American beer drinkers had never tasted the style.
In some parts of the world, homebrewing is simply the cheapest way to get alcoholic beverages. Pete Brown, author of Miracle Brew, says this was the case for most British homebrewers until ten years ago.
“We pay the second highest beer duty in the whole of Europe, so we have very expensive beer,” Brown said. “Traditionally over most of the past 40 years homebrew wasn’t about quality. It wasn’t about flavor. It was about getting cheap beer.”
The same was true in the U.S. pre-1978. “Back to the land” activists in Vermont circulated an illicit homebrewing guide in the 1970s that’s been republished as Mountain Brew. It details a process similar to what Brown described: reconstituting malt extract, adding a lot of sugar and hoping the end result gets you drunk.
For American drinkers, there are certainly cheaper and more convenient ways to get a buzz than homebrewing in 2017. Consumers also have access to a wider variety of beer styles now than possibly at any other point in human history. So why homebrew? For beer aficionados, there’s no better way to deepen your connection to the beverage you love than to try to make it. It’s like watching the World Series, then going to the batting cages.
Getting by with a little help from robots
Today, there’s a whole universe of options for getting started in homebrewing. The only thing simpler than a malt extract kit like Calagione first used is a countertop brewing device, an emerging area of home beer making that’s half Keurig coffee maker and half late-90s bread machine. You won’t earn much cred for using these machines, but it’s also less likely you’ll screw the whole thing up somehow.
The biggest player in this area is PicoBrew, offering a range of sleek, app-controlled products that look like something you’d find in The Sharper Image or Brookstone. Their main products use PicoPaks: sealed, branded K-cups of grain and hops that are sold through their website. The idea is that you can buy a pod of, say, Tallgrass Brewing’s Buffalo Sweat oatmeal cream stout, and after pressing a few buttons and waiting a few days, drink the freshest possible version of that beer short of visiting the brewery in Manhattan, Kansas. All this runs about $700 depending on the features you select.
The HOPii takes that idea and makes it even more foolproof. Breweries send customers sealed containers of unfermented wort, the liquid that eventually becomes beer, which pop into an appliance that looks like an electric water filter. You pitch the yeast yourself and add hops, but that’s pretty much it. The beer ferments in very controlled conditions and after a few days, you drink it from the appliance’s tap. The closed loop keeps oxygen out and claims to offer the closest replacement for drinking beer straight from a brewery’s fermenter. The Kickstarter for this product blew past the $50,000 goal, raising more than $380,000. If you pledged $299, you’re getting a countertop fermenter this month.
Brew 101: malt extract
For folks who want a more hands-on experience, or just don’t have as much money to burn, you can join the estimated 1.1 million Americans who manually homebrew. Many start by using a malt extract kit. These kits cut out the step of extracting sugars from malted barley, allowing even beginners to experiment with adding odd ingredients.
If you start with a one-gallon batch (rather than the more traditional five-gallon batch), you can use a regular stockpot and get a kit with most everything else you’ll need for around $50. MoreBeer! has a large selection of these kind of kits and supplies, as does Northern Brewer, though Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired them last year. As Calagione told me, “Frankly, I’d stay away from that one if you’re independently-spirited.”
Nerding out at the homebrew shop
Most urban areas have homebrew shops where you can also buy kits, raw supplies and random helpful doohickeys from real live human beings, too. The added benefit of buying supplies IRL is that you can ask shop employees any questions you might have after reading your kit’s instructions.
A homebrew shop can also tell you if one of the 1,700 homebrew clubs in the U.S. meets in your area. These meetings are a good place to get advice or share samples once you’ve brewed a batch or two. While most of these clubs are groups of homebrewers who brew in their own homes, some like Chicago’s C.H.A.O.S. Brew Club offer a shared space to actually do the brewing and store all the gear and supplies you use making beer. That’s a great option if you’re like Pete Brown and have family members who won’t tolerate brewing supplies at home. “My wife says if I homebrew, that’ll be the last straw,” he told me.
If you can’t find a homebrew club or just feel like going it solo, there are a plethora of books on homebrewing you can consult for advice. My favorite is “Brew Better Beer” by Emma Christensen, probably because her background writing food recipes makes her brewing instructions more user-friendly, with thorough descriptions and reassurances for common anxieties. But even she wouldn’t advise jumping into homebrewing alone.
“If at all possible, brew with somebody who has brewed before. Have a friend come, but don’t let them do everything,” Christensen said. “Make yourself be an active participant, but have them there to help you and answer questions. It makes a big difference.”
Stepping up to all-grain
Feeling confident and have experienced friends willing to help you with your first batch? You might want to try an all-grain kit from Brooklyn Brewshop or your local homebrew supply store. Brooklyn’s standard kits make one-gallon batches and come with easy-to-follow instructions. Even if you don’t start with all-grain brewing, you’ll probably end up there. It’s how commercial breweries make beer and if you ever want to enter a homebrewing competition, you’ll need an all-grain batch to have a shot at winning. Plus, all-grain brewing has the added benefit of leaving you with spent grain, which can inspire another whole project.
However your beer comes out, Randy Mosher says you’ll be a practitioner in a most intimate form of art.
“You’re making something that other people are putting in their bodies and the sensations of aroma and taste and flavor go into some of the more emotional and primitive parts of our brains. So you have this ability to really reach out and affect people in really deep ways with flavor. For me, that’s the magic of beer: being able to kind of get inside there and mess with people’s heads a bit.”
Advice for novice homebrewers from old pros
Sam Calagione: “Start with two books: the original bible of homebrewing, The Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian, and then second, (shameless plug) ‘Project Extreme Brewing”’by me and the Alström brothers. Those two books are both geared toward beginner homebrewers. Both have really interesting recipes and if you love a lot of current American up-and-coming cult breweries like Treehouse and Other Half, etc. ‘Project Extreme Brewing’ allows you to not have to wait in line at their tasting rooms, but replicate their awesome beers right in your own kitchen.”
Randy Mosher: “Be ambitious, but not too ambitious. You don’t have to brew a starter baby pale ale. Pick a style you like. Don’t decide you’re going to make a lambic the first time out. Probably not best to try and brew a super-high alcohol beer because you’re not going to have the patience. Pick something kind of normal-strength that you like. Read a book. Be creative. It’s all about the art. You’ve got to understand the science, but you’re doing it for art reasons. Make something you want to make, don’t just copy somebody else’s beer.”
Emma Christensen: “Brew with an experienced friend. Know that there’s a lot of wiggle room in things. People get really obsessed with hitting the right mash temperature or how active the fermentation is or how much yeast to pitch into the wort. Know that if you at least get it in the ballpark it’s going to be OK. It is important to pay attention to sanitation and cleanliness, but know that if you do your best with it, you’ll probably be OK. Also, make a one-gallon batch.”
Pete Brown: “Recognize what you’re doing is cooking. And cooking is about creating reactions within and between the ingredients that you’re using. I’m a keen amatuer cook and I would often get frustrated by cookbooks that would say, ‘OK, now do this’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but why?’ And then I read ‘Cooked’ by Michael Pollan and he said, ‘OK, when you’re sorting onions in a pan, this is the reaction that’s happening. This is why the flavors change. This is the Maillard reaction when you’re grilling meat. That’s why it’s important to do it in this way.’ If I ever do homebrew, I’ll treat it in exactly the same way: understanding why I’m taking each step and what each step is doing to the ingredients. Because if I understand why I’m doing it, I’ll understand more about when I get it right and when I get it wrong.”