What is homebrewing?

By Dave McVeigh

No discussion about home brewing can begin without first covering some of the history behind beer. Did you know the real reason why the first settlers landed at Plymouth Rock? Although they were sea-weary and ready to set foot on dry land, they stopped because they ran out of beer. That’s right BEER!

Beer was a dietary mainstay in those days. Chances are the beverage in question was called “ships beer” or “small beer” a low alcohol concoction that was drunk in formidable quantities during the colonial era. (a quart a day was a typical ration) The advantage was that beer would last longer on long voyages and not spoil like other perishable foodstuffs. Also, because water was boiled in the process of making beer, it was quite likely more sanitary than the water they might drink.

Beer had been around for much longer than this. In fact, vessels that contained beer, have been found entombed with Pharaohs. No one knows for sure when or how beer was first made. Some think that beer was produced before we knew how to make bread. For thousands of years beer was considered a (liquid) form of bread. It kept longer and was certainly healthier than drinking the water.

In early America every town had a brewery. There were thousands across the land. Everyone of them had their own unique flavor and style of beer. Then came prohibition and WWII. During prohibition all breweries with few exceptions closed for good. The few that remained open for business now manufactured “near-beer” and malted milk products. Several years after repeal, came WWII with its rationing, victory gardens and collecting scrap materials for the war effort.

Two of these, rationing and collecting scrap, are what changed beer as we knew it. First, all the breweries that closed had all the copper kettles and piping stripped from them, guaranteeing they would never be resurrected again. Secondly and most importantly, was rationing. It doomed quality brew for the American consumer for many decades. Breweries had an almost impossible time getting enough grain to brew with. They had to make their product lighter with less body and flavor. This wasn’t so bad though from a business point of view. After all, most of the men were off to war overseas and few women enjoyed drinking the heartier beverages. Now the breweries could market the new lighter beer to the women left behind. The breweries saved money and gained a new segment of the population as customers. Of course after the war, the men returned with quite a thirst. They didn’t really care, that much of the flavor was gone, they were just glad to be back.

Then in November 1978, something fantastic happened. Jimmy Carter signed a bill allowing citizens to brew up to 100 gallons a year at home for their personal use. Producing alcoholic beverages had been illegal without proper licensing since prohibition. It was now legal to ferment but not to distill. Suddenly people started discovering old recipes from pre-prohibition.

Soon we were finding out that beer had many flavors and styles. College students were also finding out they could brew their own beer to throw parties on the cheap. They were brewing great tasting beer and word began to spread. Many of the college students have gone on to open some of the craft and micro breweries we know today. I believe Bell’s (Kalamazoo Brewery) would be a good example.

Many craft brewers are home brewers at heart and willing to share their secrets. Average Joes are drinking their beer, visiting their operations, reading their books and thinking “I can do that!” And it’s true. If you can make macaroni and cheese and read a thermometer, you too can brew beer!

Today, the home brewing scene is hoppin’ – literally! Modern home brewers are as different as the beers they brew. From yuppie to hippie, from the young to retired, men and women, you’ll find brewers come from all walks of life.

There are the researcher types who learn all they can before ever brewing their first batch. Their are those who feel their way through the process and learn by trial and error. And of course their are those who just like to help for the privilege of drinking free beer.

I asked Andy Walton, former president of M.E.G.A “Why join a brew club?”
“Probably the best reason is to take advantage of the vast wealth of knowledge available through the MEGA member-base. As a new (or even not so new) brewer, it’s nice to have somewhere to turn when questions/problems come up. Personally, I enjoy the social aspect and sharing experiences with a really outstanding group of people”.

When asked “Where is the club/Home brewing hobby going?” Andy’s response was”I was first exposed to home brewing in 1980 by a friend of the family. At that time there were really very few places to get home brewing supplies, and what was available was often not the greatest quality. The availability of high quality ingredients, and information in the past decade, or so, seems to have really spurred home brewing forward.”

“Due to a shortage of resources the past couple years there has been an increase in the price of grain and hops, the two main ingredients in beer. Even with the price increase, I haven’t heard many home brewers say they were throwing in the towel. I’m sure some are brewing less, and I know many that have been brewing styles which require less, or different ingredients. Even with the shortages, there are still more, quality ingredients available to the home brewer than ever before.”

“MEGA has seen a surge in membership in the past couple years, and continues to grow. I am excited to see an increase in local home brewing interest, and have high hopes for M.E.G.A.‘s future”.

So what is this mysterious process of brewing your own? There are several ways of brewing. Most home brewers start out doing what’s called extract brewing. It’s much like making a box dinner. Foolproof. They start with a beer kit that contains the malt extract, hops and yeast. Three of the four basic ingredients. The fourth is water. In a nut shell, you boil water, dissolve the malt extract, add the hops, then cool it down to room temp and add your special brewers yeast. At this point the yeast does all the work. After a week when the yeast has finished their job, you bottle or keg it. In a couple more weeks it will be carbonated and ready to drink.

But that’s not the only way. The experienced brewers do what’s called the “all grain” technique of brewing. It’s basically the same but allows you more control and creativity in your new hobby. Instead of using malt extract, you are making that extract by taking the malted grain through a several step process first. (Malted grain is regular grain that has been germinated, then dried to stop the germination process) The malted grain is steeped in warm to hot water in steps. These steps help change the starches to sugars and create enzymes. The enzymes help break down these complex sugars into basic sugars that the yeast will love to eat.

You say the process sounds interesting, but I really don’t like beer? Well, the same basic techniques are used to make mead, hard cider, wine and pop. Many home brewers also make root beer, ginger ale and other pops for their kids.

Malt extracts come in 5 basic types, but malted barley and other grains come in 40-50 types depending on the processing they receive after germination. Each type offers a different set of flavor profiles. Combine that with 40-50 types of hops and a variety of other flavoring agents and you have an unlimited variety of recipes to experiment with. Even different yeast strains can add different flavors to your creations and there are 40-50 different common strains. Now if you really want to get daring, there are beers called Lambics and Gueuzes. These have many different strains of bacteria added. Phew! Where do I start?

Start by contacting your local home brew club or brew supply store. Clubs have a wealth of information among its members. Pick a reputable brew supply store. There should be at least one person there that has a lot of experience brewing his own beer (not wine). The store staff should be able to help you pick out the equipment you’ll need. This will run about $60. They will also help you pick an ingredient kit to fit the style of beer you enjoy. Each kit will brew one 5 gallon batch. Enough for 8-9 6 packs of what will soon be some of the tastiest beer you and your friends will enjoy. These ingredient kits usually start around $25 but after you start brewing all grain, that cost could be cut in half.

There are several brew clubs in SW Michigan. I would have to say M.E.G.A is the most helpful and closest of these. M.E.G.A. (Michiana Extract and Grain Association) has a forum and website you can access at: www.mega-brew.com. It’s free to join both the club and the forum.

Every year on the 1st Saturday of May the clubs across the nation celebrate Big Brew Day. This is when home brewing officially became legal. On this day many of the members, friends and the curious get together to all brew their favorite beers. This year it is planned to be held at Red Arrow Hobbies home brew supply shop in Stevensville. It will be open to the public if anyone would like to see how easily brewing your own can be. Members will also have some of their creations to sample. If you already brew your own, bring them a sample too! And of course bring your equipment to brew a batch.