Learn How to Homebrew
Why BYOB when you can make your own?
Kelsey Shannon of Milford brews with a group at Nashua's IncrediBREW.
Along with the explosion of microbrewing and the craft beer industry in general, homebrewing is booming. Makes sense — the endeavor really seems the perfect hobby. You get to be creative, be a bit technical and have a good time with friends while imbibing the fruits of your labor. The scale might be a bit different, but homebrewing techniques involve many of the same processes and pitfalls of larger-scale operations.
For the total novice beer-maker, the best place to start might be IncrediBREW in Nashua. They recently turned 21 and claim to be the oldest brew-on-premise operation in the nation. Here, they have taken out the initial expense of equipment and streamlined the process by using malt extracts along with the grains. Plus — and this is important — they clean up the mess. Sign up for a class, pick a recipe or style, mix the ingredients and return in two weeks to bottle 72 22-ounce bottles ($150 to $170). Bring friends to share the bounty or sign up for a split-a-batch class. Either way, once you have smelled the brewing process and tasted really fresh beer, it may be time to turn the next page — the semi-serious hobbyist.
Chris Aguiar, manager of The Beer Store in Nashua, knows beer. He sells it, he drinks it, he makes it. If you’ve seen those Mr. Beer kits, he advises you to avoid them. “You’ll be able to make beer successfully, but it really won’t be very good.” He suggests going with a more sophisticated kit that uses grains for a mash that needs to be cooked into a wort, cooled, sparged (additional water added), fermented with the proper yeast and racked into a secondary container for conditioning. The fermenting stage is where the magic happens — sugar becomes alcohol. Mr. Beer uses only malt extracts that shorten the process, but the alcohol still happens.
Homebrew kits start anywhere from $39 for a Mr. Beer Kit to $79 for a bare essentials plastic kit to $1,000 or more for a stainless system that takes out the guesswork. The Grainfather All in One Brewing System includes the heating element, a pump to recirculate the mash and a chilling unit to cool the wort quickly. The plastic units provide just the fermenter (where the yeast is added) plus small accessories and assumes you have a large pot to cook the mash.
A new trend is brew-in-a-bag. This method uses all grains and offers more control for the homebrewer. It is often sold as a kit with recipes, thermometer, hydrometer and stirring spoon. No additional water is added, so it only makes about three gallons. Think of it like making tea with a huge tea bag. Disposing of the contents of this brewery-in-a-bag when finished is the largest problem.
Then there’s the beer cleaning equipment — bottle brushes, keg cleaners and an assortment of sanitizers and solutions. Aguiar says that cleanliness is the most important aspect of beer making. To make a clean-tasting beer, you need to have clean equipment. The wrong bacteria can spoil the whole batch.
Other needs include room to store the beer. Many homebrewers make only 10 gallons at a time. Assuming there is significant consumption during the bottling process, a kegerator that holds a 1/2 barrel or 15.5 gallons of beer would provide ample beer for about two months’ enjoyment with friends and family. That would also translate into 165 12-ounce bottles, which would require another refrigerator for storage. Keep in mind that the best reason for homebrewing is creating a fresh beer — beer in a kegerator (or even in bottles) loses its fresh taste as time goes by. Of course, freshness depends on the style of beer. A rough guide to go by is that the higher the content of alcohol (or ABV), the longer a beer will keep. Using a CO2 pump to dispense beer from the keg is also preferred over a manual or party pump that introduces unwanted oxygen. The ideal temperature for storing beer is 38 degrees. Beer lovers find a place in the kitchen or basement for their kegerators ($400) for fresh beer on tap at any time. Built-in kegerators streamline the look, but generally cost more.
With equipment at the ready, it’s time to zone in on a style of beer to make. At Jasper’s Homebrew & Winemaking and Supply in Nashua, they have thousands of recipes and all the ingredients necessary to build a beer — grains or malts (partially germinated grain), hops and yeast. With just these three ingredients, the combinations are endless, but recipes can be quite complex with a variety of grains and malts for sweetness, hops for backbone and bitterness and style-specific yeasts. In addition, flavoring essences can be added or the fermenting beer can be dry-hopped or macerated with fresh fruits. Of course, fresh, unchlorinated water is key, too.
The brewing process is really a science ((Boil Duration (hr) x Boil Off Rate (gal/hr)) + Batch Volume (gal) = Pre-Boil Volume (gal)), but it’s also an art — and the traditions and their variations are endless. The skill is easy to learn, but difficult to master. The road is wide and sometimes bumpy. Like wines, there are many brews that are drinkable, even great, but few that are exceptional.
Homebrewers can attempt to duplicate their favorite commercial brews or just wing off into uncharted territory. Why not? The beginner’s basement is where most of the new microbreweries were born. A homebrewer got serious and good at the craft. Friends begged him or her to make more, and a love of the suds, a GoFundMe page, hard work and risk-taking took them into commercial operations. And maybe it all started with a Mr. Beer kit.