We started February off with what may fairly be called Arahant’s General Theory of Creativity:
Mostly it was knowing a few techniques, having the right tools, and having a love for building and creating whatever it was.
This theory certainly holds for home brewing, making your own beer. Why make your own beer? That answer has changed over my lifetime as we passed from BCE to CE—before craft era and craft era. So, what follows is a thumbnail sketch of American home brewing history.
Before Craft Era:
Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to rules of alternating proprietorships.
Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
Has a TTB Brewer’s Notice and makes beer.
There was a massive consolidation of breweries in the decades after the repeal of Prohibition. The loss of flavor in the rush to reenter the market with volume, while saving on ingredients, plus improved distribution and national advertising, helped extinguish many old local and regional brands.
After U.S. Prohibition ended with the enactment of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, only about 300 breweries emerged to continue brewing. More than 800 breweries died during Prohibition. Between 1933 and about 1982, about 700 breweries were reduced to close to 50. The prospect for local and regional breweries seemed dire and bleak, however, things were about to change. In 1982, there were about six newly-emerged microbrewers. A democratization of beer began in earnest during the late 1970s by homebrewers.
In the late 1970s, we had a neighbor in military housing, a battalion commander who brewed American beer which he drank, but also poured into saucers in the garden as slug bait. The slugs would crawl in, get drunk, and never crawl out.
Surely an Army officer wasn’t violating federal law in Army housing? While President Carter’s brother, Billy, became associated with a truly awful tasting beer, “Billy Beer,” Jimmy Carter signed legislation repealing the federal ban on home brewing of beer. So, our neighbor was an early adopter, hip in an Army high and tight kind of way.
A Brewers Association account of craft brewing links the loss of variety and flavor, during post Prohibition domestic beer industry consolidation, to hobbyist responses. Some of these hobbyists went beyond sharing with friends, and launched small businesses, variously described as microbreweries or craft breweries.
The homebrewing hobby began to thrive because the only way a person in the United States could experience the beer traditions and styles of other countries was to make the beer themselves. […] The number of craft brewers has gone from eight in 1980, to 537 in 1994, to over 6,000 in 2018.
Indeed, even Billy Beer is back, or rather, the name is back. Four decades after President Carter’s brother tried to cash in on the family name, four decades after President Carter did something right and signed the repeal of the federal ban on home brewing, a craft brewer is proudly touting a light beer, named Billy Beer as “America’s Light Craft Beer™.”
Making My Own Beer:
I began brewing my own beer in August of 1993. My taste in beer had been formed by my years in Bavaria, West Germany. While on active duty, I could easily stop by the Class VI store and buy a rack of real German beer. Now I was in graduate school in Tucson, Arizona. The one or two small breweries or brew pubs in Tucson did not brew German style beers in those days. So, I determined to try to make my own, as close to the good stuff I remembered.
In those days, at the dawn of the World Wide Web, the way to learn how to brew your own beer was to get a book. Specifically, The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing, by Charlie Papazian. He offered instruction in everything from the simplest tools, techniques, and ingredients, to the most advanced. I started and stuck with the basics, cheered on by Papazian’s motto:
Relax and have a home brew!
This photograph in the book perfectly summarizes the spirit of it. Simple tools in an ordinary kitchen with ordinary people having a blast. What you see on the countertop is a glass carboy. I have never bothered with one, in part because they are harder to clean than the seven gallon food grade pail, into which you see the beer being transferred by gravity syphoning action.
No, I stick with the seven gallon pail, sealed with a lid. The lid has a hole and gasket, securing a gas pressure relief air lock. I sanitize the whole set-up with a weak bleach solution and air dry it.
I take a large stock pot, add about 1.5 gallons of filtered water, then turn on the heat. If my recipe calls for adding flavor and color by steeping specialty grains, I add them to the pot in a reusable fine mesh bag, making their removal easier.
Once the steeping is done, out comes the steeping bag, and I bring the water to a boil. Then, I carefully add the barley or wheat malt. This is the big time and money saver. Instead of needing an elaborate system to break down the grain, releasing more sugars for the yeast to eat, I start with powder or syrup malt.
In the first year, I used lots of powdered malt, but it was such a pain to get into solution, clumping up into a caramel-looking glob, that I ended up going to all syrup malts. This point in the process is when some of the hops go in, the “boiling” hops. I make it easy for myself by putting these in another mesh bag, like the steeping grains.
From here, the clock runs to extract the right amount of flavor from the boiling hops, while keeping the pot from boiling over or caramelizing. This takes a big spoon. A very long handled plastic stirring spoon fits both the pot and the pail, simplifying the number of tools. Towards the end of the nearly one hour process, some additional “finishing” hops may go in—once again in an easy-to remove mesh bag.
In the early days, I then transferred the boiling liquid into the pail, adding enough filtered cold water to make up my desired volume. This technique resulted in lengthy waits for the wort, the hopped malt and water, to come down to the temperature at which you could safely pitch in the yeast. Losing patience, I changed to emptying a 10 pound bag of purified water ice into the pail, then pouring the hot wort over the ice and adding cold water to reach my desired volume (5 to 6 gallons).
Adding the ice triggers a memory of my father’s voice reciting: “a pint’s a pound/ the world around.” So, 10 pounds of ice is going to melt into 10 pints of liquid water. It is easy to run the rough math and have the desired number of gallon jugs ready at the start.
A sterilized, floating thermometer goes into the pail, and does not come out until the pail is emptied days later. This avoids the need to repeatedly sterilize at each temperature and specific gravity reading. Once the temperature is down to the yeast’s effective fermentation range, I pitch a starter batch of yeast and liquid malt. This had been running for about three hours, giving the yeast a running start.
Beyond the simple observation of the end of off-gassing, of CO2 venting through the air lock, you really want to know how effective the recipe has turned out. That is, how much alcohol by volume did you get? This metric, taken repeatedly, lets you know if the fermentation process is really finished, and if you got the style of beer you had planned.
How do you measure the percentage of alcohol by volume? Read the temperature, take a small sample, and pour the sample into a simple tube with a floating measuring tool called a hygrometer. The hygrometer has several different graduated markings on different sides. You read the desired scale at the level just touching the surface of the liquid.
Noting the hygrometer and the temperature readings, plug them into a formula, adjusting to a standard temperature, and you get a “specific gravity” value. When the adjusted value stops changing for a few days, the yeast is done working. Take a final measurement before bottling. Plug the initial and final measurements into another formula, and you get the approximate alcohol by volume, the percentage you read on beer bottles. You can also get approximations of calories per serving.
Wait! Those bottles have to be sterilized or we’ll have all sorts of unpleasantness. So, on the bottling day, submerge them in a tub full of weak bleach solution. Thoroughly rinse and air dry. The bottles are of thick enough glass to stand repeated use, a big cost savings.
Boil the bottle caps, setting them aside to cool. Boil a cup of water and dissolve a pre-packaged volume of priming sugar. Yes, you could just add in a volume of unfermented wort, but really, there is no noticeable flavor difference.
Cool the priming solution a bit, then stir it into the wort in the pail. Syphon into bottles and cap them. This is how you SAFELY bottle beer. The priming sugar gives the yeast just enough food to carbonate the beer in the bottle over a week or so, without generating such pressure that the bottles start exploding.
Those are the basics, and the results will be generally yummy. However, there are a few additional techniques and an extra piece of equipment or so to make things even better. Below is my first data sheet, capturing my first four brewing efforts.
You will notice the first one was a doozy. I wanted doppelbock. This takes a lot of malt and should yield between 8-10% ABV. On my first outing, I noted the specific gravity and temperature readings off the data sheet, something I corrected on my third outing. Once this monster got going, the fermentation was so rapid that the bubbles frothed up a think, sticky foam, or krausen, clogging the air lock.
I awoke in the middle of the night to a loud pop. The lid had blown off the pail, and bits of the sticky solution had blown all over the wall in the alcove where I had placed it. I cleared the air lock, resealed the lid, cleaned up the mess, and hoped for the best. Lesson learned: place a large trash bag loosely over the top of the pail to contain any krausen eruption.
As it turned out, the results were so good that I decided to try my other old favorite, a dark wheat beer, or dunkelweizen. This one was not so great. My note was that it came off more like a schwarzes pils, a black pilsner. This would be great, if it was what I had aimed for and if it was really on point. I think I ended up using most of that batch for cola-mix, a German beer cocktail of cola soda and regular beer.
But, that inspired me to meld together two recipes, to get the black pilsner I craved. I used the mash bill from Bavarian black beer and the hops for a Munich pilsner. It worked spectacularly.
Then I got tired of the small yeast sediment cake in the bottle of bottles. Remember the beer is alive, the yeast acting to carbonate in the bottles. By simply adding a second pail, and by transferring the beer when it seems to stop primary fermentation, I got a bit more fermentation and almost no sediment in the bottles. The extra week or so of slow secondary fermentation was worth it.
Brewing in Arizona either means you need to expend electricity keeping the fermenting beer cool enough, or you are limited to brewing in a narrow weather window. I eventually figured I could expand the brewing season by simple thermodynamics.
You start with about five gallons of liquid, so that is not going to change temperature rapidly. Now place the container in another larger container, a big rubber bucket, outside on the porch, out of direct sunlight. Fill the bucket with cold water. Now you have about 10 gallons of water, so the temperature of the liquid is going to vary only slightly around the median day and night temperature, at no extra charge on the monthly electric bill.
A few simple tools, a few techniques, and a love of making beer the way I want it, has yielded many batches of Bavarian wonderfulness.