Last weekend, I went to my local homebrew supply shop (Beer, Beer, and More Beer) as they were having a 15% off sale. I figured that I'd stock up on a couple of kits and get some supplies like bottle caps so I could save a little bit of money. I've never seen the place so packed before, as it was almost like a big party with free food and beer samples. (Too bad for me I had just been to the Indian buffet!) I usually go there on the weekends, and there are usually only a couple of other customers in there at a time. On weekdays, there aren't many customers there either, but there's a lot of activity, as employees are going back and forth between the showroom and the back area. From what I understand, they do most of their business online.
I've been homebrewing for just over a year and a half now, and I've tried quite a few of the ale kits. (Why not lagers? I'll get to that later - nothing wrong with lagers.) By now, I have a pretty good sense for what I like, and I'm making some of these for the second time now, and there are some kits (looking at you, Honey Ale) that I just won't bother with again. I bought the American Red Ale kit, which is probably one of the most nicely balanced ales that I've ever had before. My friends also seemed to pick that as a favorite the last time they were over. I also bought a kit for the Blind Pig IPA. I have mixed feelings about IPAs. Oftentimes, all you can taste are the hops, and it's like drinking a pine tree. This one though, while definitely having a prominent hop bite, is really smooth and goes well with spicy food. I just have to watch it when I have a 22 oz. bottle of it - as the 7+% alchohol content tends to make me pretty loopy.
One thing that was cool was that I got to meet Mike McDole. For those of you who don't know, Samuel Adams has a homebrewing contest called LongShot, where the winners get their beers bottled and sold in a special mix pack. Mike won for his Double IPA, and the pack should be available in February, if I remember correctly. Mike also has a kit that he created that I've made, called Mike's American Amber Ale. It's pretty tasty stuff, and my friends liked that one quite a bit as well.
He's obviously a much more experienced homebrewer than I am. The thing is, I was planning on expanding my operation a bit this summer. I was going to get a gas-powered burner so I could boil all five gallons using all-grain kits. Funds turned out a little short, so I'm still doing partial-boils with malt extracts. This is not such a bad thing, because even though that gives me a lot less freedom to experiment and work on my own styles, I still produce some damn tasty beer. What was cool when I talked to Mike was that he told me that he still makes a lot of extract kits, as he thinks that they turn out pretty damn good as well.
Personally, I'm pretty satisfied with the kits that are available. As of right now, there aren't any where I wish that they were more or less hoppy/malty/bitter/yeasty/etc. Maybe the more I get into this, the more I'll want to experiment. There's always time to expand on all this.
Sometimes when I talk to people about homebrewing, they express some interest in starting it up themselves. My advice is this: only do it if you 1) really like beer (and by beer, I'm not talking about American macrobrews - not that there's necessarily anything wrong with them, but what's the point when it's so cheap and readily available?) and 2) like to cook. If you're not intersted in one or the other, then don't bother.
Also, unless you're planning on getting a special fridge just for fermenting your beer, you should probably really like ales. (And if you think that ales are dark and lagers are light, please punch yourself in the face - the only difference is that ales ferment at higher temperatures - and I've made some that were as light as a Budweiser - but, you know, with flavor.) What's nice about ales is that there is a really large range of styles which include Hefeweizens, Porters, Stouts, Belgians, etc.
There's just something special about a homebrewed beer. As I've explained before, you might be able to buy a good marinara sauce in a jar, but nothing beats making your own. Same deal with homebrews. It's also really cool to have friends over for beers and treating all of them while shelling out as much as you would on yourself if you just bought your own beers at a local bar.
But what if you're interested in brewing, but you don't want to do all that work? Well, I have no experience with it myself, but there's a thing out there called Mr. Beer. It seems kind of cheesy, but I've read a lot of positive reviews of it. For one, it seems pretty easy to use. Secondly, the initial cost is only about $40. Third, they have a pretty amazing variety of kits you can buy. Lastly - how bad can it possibly be? It's beer, dammit! (Okay, it could be like Miller Chill - but they don't have a kit called "College Frat Boy Douchebag Lime" from what I can tell.)
I'm hoping that somebody I know will buy one so they can tell me how it turns out. I almost want to buy one so I can find out for myself!