While many people know how beer is made and have great respect for the veteran brewmaster, most think the brewing process is too complicated to try at home. The American Homebrewer's Association wants to change this misconception, and so the organization is celebrating its 14th annual Learn to Homebrew Day today.
More than 230 events are scheduled for today, in homebrew shops, breweries and garages throughout America, with one sole purpose: To teach newbies that brewing beer at home is not only fun and rewarding, but easy.
"A lot of people think it's complicated and takes a lot of time," AHA director Gary Glass told me via phone. "And that's really not the case. It's pretty simple. If you have minimal abilities in the kitchen you can still make good beer at home."
While Glass is undoubtedly correct (he is an expert after all), making great beer at home is a bit of a challenge. I can speak from experience on this. My one shot at making my own beer at home ended up producing a stout that tasted more like vinegar than beer. Great beer, however, can be had, but like any other kitchen activities, practice makes perfect.
When I spoke with Glass, the most important factor he emphasized for homebrewing is sanitation. This means making sure any surface that will come in contact with the beer or ingredients needs to be squeaky clean, lest you run the risk of contamination. It's also important that one tries and educate him or herself as much as possible before starting. (The AHA has an incredible website of resources you can peruse to help get you started.)
So what are the benefits of homebrewing? Aside from saving money—ingredients for a typical five-gallon batch, which yields about 24 bottles, costs between $25 to $45—homebrewers get the satisfaction of tasting something they brewed themselves, and can even make a party of it so others can get in on the fun.
I also spoke with Glass, who has been working with the AHA since 2000, about some of the obstacles a beginner can expect, including the best solution on how to start if you live in a smaller place. My full interview is below.
NAGY: How many year's have you been homebrewing?
GLASS: 20 years.
Q: And you are from where?
A: Currently live in Boulder, Colorado, where the American Homebrewer's Association is headquartered.
Q: What are some of the challenges a beginner can expect?
A: Overall, I would say it's actually really easy to make great beer right from the start, but the biggest challenge is going to be making sure everything you use to make beer at home is clean and sanitized. That doesn't mean you have to have an autoclave at home, but you do have to be diligent about cleaning and using a quality sanitizer.
Q: What would be a quality sanitizer?
A: Well, I actually recommend using a sanitizer like Star San or Iodophor. These are no-rinse sanitizers, which make it really easy. They are a little bit more expensive than, say, using household bleach, which works great, but you do have to make sure you rinse bleach well or it can cause off-flavors.
Q: Yeah, I would say bleach may cause some serious off-flavors...
A: [Laughing] Yeah, if you don't get it properly rinsed, it really doesn't taste very good at all.
Q: So when you say "no-rinse," it literally means you don't need to use water after it?
A: That's right. You can use very small amounts because they are contact sanitizers. So, unlike bleach, you don't have to soak equipment in [no-rinse sanitizer] for 15 minutes or so to work. You can use the no-rinse products and just swirl a little around, and as long as that sanitizer comes in contact, it will sanitize that surface within seconds.
Q: If you don't sanitize properly, how will it affect the beer?
A: If you don't properly clean and sanitize, then you can get, most commonly, wild yeast. There are some bacteria that will affect the beer, too. One of the great things about beer, though, is because of the alcohol and low PH, there are no known pathogens that can survive in beer. So you can make something that tastes bad, but you can't make something that can harm you.
Q: So you won't keel over from your brew?
A: [Laughing] Well, there's always the problem of drinking too MUCH of it, but you're not going to make something that could make you, or anyone else who samples your homebrew, sick.
Q: So what is the "best" beer style for the beginner, if there is such a thing?
A: I don't think there's necessarily a "best" beer style, but there are some to avoid. I wouldn't try to do a light lager or any kind of lager. Lagers are more difficult and more challenging to make. I would go with an ale, and go with something that you like. I probably wouldn't go with a barleywine or an imperial stout or double IPA on the first go-around, but a pale ale, porter or stout all make good choices.
Q: I live in Brooklyn, so the kitchen is not exactly large. What kind of adjustments would I have to make, if any, to homebrew?
A: There's actually a company in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Brew Shop [Note: Read my story on the company here], and they specialize in one-gallon batch sizes. This has become much more common. The more traditional brewing method would be [making] five gallons at a time, but if you're living in a small apartment, five gallons can take up quite a bit of space.
I started off brewing in a rather small apartment with five-gallon batches, but I was also in college and my roommate didn't mind [laughs]. For a lot of people who are living in apartments, brewing smaller batches is a great alternative, and it has a lot of advantages, too. It not only takes up less space, but it's going to take a lot less time as well, because there is less volume to bring up to temperature or to a boil; it takes less time to cool it, and less equipment to cool it down to fermentation temperatures. And there also is a lot less cleaning time because there is a lot less to clean.
Q: Any last advice?
A: I would emphasize the need to clean and sanitize. You also need some patience. The brewing process doesn't take that long, but the fermentation process is going to take a couple of weeks, and then you're going to need a couple of weeks in the bottle, at minimum. So from brew day until the point until you're actually enjoying your beer, it's probably going to take a month. So knowing that from the get-go, it's important to understand when you're getting into it. But if you have that patience, and you can clean and sanitize everything, you're going to have success with this hobby. I guess I would also heed a warning that a lot of people who get started in homebrewing, it quickly becomes an obsession [laughs].