Friday, June 21, 2013

Should you homebrew?

Sometimes when I have an idea for a blog, I'm not sure whether I've already written it, or it just contains ideas that I've either thought about or talked to people about so many times that it feels as though I've written it down.  So, maybe I've done this before.  If I have, you can go ahead and demand a refund.

With that said, there might be some folks wondering whether they should get into homebrewing or not.  My answer to them is:  Yes.  Oh God, yes.  Sweet, merciful Jeebus, DO IT!  Go out, now!!!  Buy a kit and start making beer!  Why are you sitting around like an idiot reading this when you could be making beer?

Ahem.  Allow me to try a more nuanced approach.

I've been homebrewing for about six years or so now, and it doesn't look like I'll be giving it up anytime soon.  Sometimes, while sharing some yummy brews with friends, they express some interest in trying it out for themselves.  However, it's a bit of an investment in both time and money.  I remember when I was first contemplating the idea of whether to start or not, my biggest worry was that I would buy the kit, brew a couple of batches, and then it would sit and collect dust until I finally decided to get rid of it.  Some homebrewing friends of mine told me that this wouldn't happen when I finally got around to tasting my homebrew, and that was one of the deciding factors for me to go ahead and give it a shot.  Also, I got a book from my sister-in-law about the hobby that finally convinced me to take the leap.

Realize that when it comes to making your own beer, you have a lot of options.  The cheapest one seems to be the Mr. Beer kit.  I have never used it myself, but I've checked out some online reviews.  It seems as though it's possible to make some pretty decent beer with it, but you won't have a whole lot of control of what you can get.


From my own experience, I started with a kit than ran me about $200 (which included everything I needed to brew, ferment, and bottle an entire batch).  That kit used extracts instead of all grain, and I would boil 3 gallons and then later add 2 gallons of water for a 5 gallon batch.  After doing that for a couple of years, and making some really tasty brews, I invested another $200 for an outdoor burner, a wort chiller, and a 7 gallon kettle.  With that, I continued to use extract kits, but I'd boil all 5 gallons at once, and my windows weren't all steamed up from brewing inside anymore (and my wife wouldn't complain about the smell, either).  As I said, the beers I made before were good, but there was a significant upgrade in quality when I went this route.  Supposedly there's another upgrade if I ever switch to all-grain, and I just might do that someday, but as of right now, I'm pretty happy with what I'm getting.  Plus, I just might invest in kegging my beer instead of bottling it one day.

So, here are some things to consider if you're thinking about making your own beer:

1.  Do you like beer?  Duh.  Don't even consider it if you're not a fan of beer, or if you just like to have one every once and a while.  If you like to have at least one beer a day, then this is a good starting point.  If you can't imagine dinner without a beer to compliment it, then that's even better.

2.  Are you an alcoholic and/or binge drinker?  This isn't for you.  It takes at least three weeks for a batch to be ready for drinking, and you're just not going to be able to get your fix quick enough.  This is for people who like to sip and enjoy their beer - you know, those who value quality over quantity.

3.  Do you like to cook - especially for others?  In other words, do you take pleasure in making a meal, sharing it with others, and watching them enjoy what you created as much as you do?  This is similar.  Part of the fun of homebrewing is sharing your brews with others.

4.  Can you follow directions?  I had a few people tell me about how they ruined their first batch and/or couldn't seem to ever get it right.  Pretty much any kit you get is going to tell you how it's done.  If you can follow directions, you'll do fine.  I even goofed up a couple of steps on my first batch, and it still turned out okay.  I can't imagine how deliberately those folks must have completely ignored the directions.  Don't get me wrong, I've had some bad batches before, but I think it's safe to say that I'm at a 90% success rate at least.

5.  Does your taste in beer lean toward ales?  Ales are easier to make because for the most part, you can just do them at room temperature.  The good news is that you have a really great variety of beers you can make when it comes to ales, from Hefeweizens to Stouts to Belgian Tripels.  It is possible to do lagers, but it would involve buying a lot more equipment up front, and from what I understand, if you want to make a really clean-tasting macro-lager like a Bud, you're going to have a hard time.  The big breweries are able to get their beers to be so consistent because they have a hell of a lot more money invested in their equipment than you ever will.

6.  Do you like expensive styles like Belgians?  Here's the thing - I don't recommend getting into homebrewing to save money on beer.  I suppose that after doing it for a while, you'll eventually wind up spending less money per beer.  With that said though, if you're the kind of person who's shelling out $4-$8 per bottle for some imported Belgian ales, then you might want to try making your own.  I've made some pretty excellent Belgian Pale Ales, Dubbels, Tripels, and Saisons.  The kits are slightly more expensive than your average American Pale Ale kit, but when you're making 5 gallon batches, it evens out.  (Expect to pay about $40-$50 on a Belgian kit as opposed to $30-$35 for a standard Pale Ale.  One batch yields about two cases of beer - try getting two cases of Belgian Ales for $50 at Costco - it ain't gonna happen.)

So there you have it.  If you're on the fence, hopefully this will help you to make a wise decision.  If you're still on the fence, then I recommend the book that pushed me over into the wonderful world of making my own brews - Charles Papazian's The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.

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