Home-brewing beer is catching on
Watery Bud Light may still be the most popular beer in America, but anyone who’s been to a bar or beverage center lately has to have noticed that craft beers are catching up, gaining more taps and shelf space. And with the proliferation of brewpubs and small craft brewers, there are more breweries in operation today than before the start of Prohibition.
Beer is back, with craft brewing leading the way. And home brewing is part of the trend, as more beer lovers are finding that making their own is as easy as following a recipe. The beer is as good as any you can buy, and once you’ve purchased the equipment, you can actually save a little money doing it. Even President Barack Obama has gotten in on the act.
I started brewing my own a few years ago and have been curious about the differences between how a home brewer makes beer and how a pro does it. After spending an afternoon with longtime home-brewer Tony Galea of Duanesburg and a morning with the Van Dyck’s chief brewer, Drew Schmidt, I’ve concluded that despite significant differences in detail, the fundamentals are much the same.
Galea is in uniform — a black “Got Beer?” T-shirt — when I enter his kitchen. He starts the five-gallon batch of “Junior’s IPA” — named for his 21-year-old son — with roughly three and a half gallons of water, in which he steeps a little more than a pound of assorted grains for roughly 30 minutes.
This produces a small amount of fermentable sugar; his primary source will be malt extract — a liquid concentrate as thick and sticky as honey that many home brewers favor. (Galea’s recipe calls for eight pounds, which take about five minutes to pour into his brewpot.)
Professionals such as Schmidt, and some advanced home brewers, use grains exclusively for their source of fermentable sugar. The process is more complicated, requires more equipment and takes longer, but the ingredients are slightly cheaper. And most drinkers are hard-pressed to tell the difference in the finished product.
Schmidt’s 300-gallon batch of brown ale — which he starts by steeping roughly 475 pounds of grain — is made in a huge, industrial kettle that looks something like a cement mixer. After steeping, he donates his spent grains to a Milton pig farmer. Galea’s spent grains go into his compost heap — he grows his own hops, along with two of life’s other essentials, garlic and habanero chilis. I recently made dog biscuits with a load of mine.
Galea brings his pot to a boil by cranking up the stove; Schmidt injects steam to the metal jacket surrounding his. The hops — a few ounces of dried, unprocessed leaf hops in Galea’s case vs. a few pounds of concentrated pellets in Schmidt’s — go in at the boil for bittering; more get added a few minutes before the end for flavor and aroma.
After the boil, the beer must be cooled quickly so the live yeast can be added without killing it. Galea sets his brewpot into a picnic cooler filled with ice, while Schmidt’s high-tech method looks something like an air conditioning condenser, with the beer piped through cold water.
Galea’s fermenter is a five-gallon plastic bucket with a tight-fitting lid and an airlock on top that allows the carbon dioxide to escape during fermentation without letting air in. Schmidt’s is a 10-barrel steel tank with a tube that lets the CO2 bubble vigorously into a bucket of water.
Both brewers allow their beers — ales, technically — to ferment at roughly room temperature for four to seven days; lagers would take much longer — at least a month — at much colder temperatures. When primary fermentation is complete, the finished product is strained from its yeast, and the beer rests for another week or two before bottling (in Galea’s case) or kegging (in Schmidt’s).
That’s when carbonation takes place — contrary to what the Three Stooges theorized when their beer exploded: “We all put the yeast in.” If bottling, you add corn sugar that causes a small amount of extra fermentation to take place; in the capped bottle, the CO2 has no place to escape but into the beer. If kegging, you typically inject the carbon dioxide via canister.
Galea, a 50-year-old engineer, says home brewing is “like anything else. You can take it as far as you want.” His brewing equipment is quite modest, and his methods are fairly simple. As with drinking, brewing is partly a social experience, and when everything goes smoothly, there’s time to relax, crack open a bottle or two and schmooze while the beer boils away.
He tells me he started drinking beer when he was 15 — New York’s drinking age was 18 back then, and “my Italian father believed in having beer and wine with dinner.” He graduated from Genny, Miller and Matt’s Beer Balls when he went to college (Clarkson): “We’d cash in all our empties, go up to Canada and buy some real beer — Guinness, Carlsberg, Labatt’s Extra Stock . . .”
He started brewing 23 years ago, when his college chums gave him a kit for a wedding present.
Schmidt, no relation to the workingman’s lager of a bygone era that bore his name, is a consummate professional: He has a degree in beer-making from the renowned (in brewing circles, anyway) Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, apprenticed at Zip City Brewing in New York and was the Albany Big House’s brewer from 1997 to 2003. For him, making beer is anything but relaxing. “It’s more than a full-time job,” he says, and he wouldn’t dream of imbibing while brewing.
Watching him work, I can understand why. When he’s not dumping 55-pound bags of grain into the kettle, he’s taking the water’s temperature, checking its pH or clarity, skimming extraneous grains, sanitizing his tanks, adding steam, measuring the beer’s specific gravity (from which its alcohol content can be determined) and taking notes.
He brews close to 400 31-gallon barrels a year. An economics major in a prior life, he does the math quickly and comes up with 99,000 pints.
As for equipment costs, you can spend a lot (the Van Dyck’s setup would run something like $250,000) or a little. Beginners’ kits start around $75, and you don’t even need all the stuff in one. What you do need is a brew pot (preferably at least five gallons, to minimize boil-overs), fermenting bucket, airlock, siphon tube and bottle capper.
Helpful, but not essential, are a strainer, carboy (second five-gallon container for optional secondary fermentation) and a separate filler bucket. Most kits also come with a hydrometer to measure the beer’s specific gravity — so you can tell when it’s done and determine the alcohol content — but there are other ways for checking the former, and as for the latter, all you have to do is drink a couple and you’ll know.
All the stuff for brewing (equipment and ingredients) can be purchased at local brew shops — there’s Hammersmith in Latham, Hennessy in Rensselaer and Zymurgist in Saratoga Springs — or online. Buying online might save a little money, but having someone local to walk you through your first batch or two is worth paying a slight premium. And shipping fees for heavy parcels aren’t cheap.
As Galea notes, “You can phone in your order one day and pick it up the next” when dealing with a local supplier.
Standard recipe kits, which typically come boxed with all the ingredients, are good for beginners and usually cheaper than buying the ingredients a la carte. Galea likes doing the latter — “You have to put your own signature on it” — but I gravitate toward kits, then tweak them with extra ingredients.
As for bottles, you can either buy new ones or re-use long-neck refillables, as long as they’ve been properly sanitized. Saranac and Sam Adams are ubiquitous in these parts, and empties can be scavenged at most beverage centers.
Keeping it clean
Sanitizing is, in fact, essential to all aspects of brewing, as bacteria and wild yeasts can infect your beer if you’re not careful. Cheap, no-rinse sanitizing solutions are available, though a quarter-cup of bleach in a five-gallon bucket of hot water also does the trick.
Keeping your kitchen clean while brewing is also a good idea, though a few drips and spills are inevitable. “It’s why my wife disappears for the day when I brew,” admits Galea sheepishly. Boil-overs are the biggest threat, which is why a large-capacity pot is recommended.
Another potential hazard is over-carbonation, which can create bottle bombs. “Only failure I’ve had in 23 years,” says Galea.
Nor is the smell of beer being brewed everyone’s cup of tea. “Either you love it or you hate it,” acknowledges Schmidt, and I didn’t need to ask him which side he falls on. You couldn’t possibly spend as much time around beer as he does and not love the smell.
Joe Slomka is the Gazette’s deputy opinion editor and a home brewer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.