Ask a Foodie: What should homebrewing beginners know about making their first few beers?

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By: Geoff Lesar
glesar@flavor574.com

Geoff Lesar / Flavor 574

As the craft beer movement booms, so too does the homebrewing hobby.

In fact, it may be easier now than ever to turn wort (liquid extracted during the mashing process) into wheat ale from behind the basement door.

Homebrew supply stores continue to crop up locally, like Goshen’s DIY Coffee and Ale Supply and Michiana Brewer’s Supply in South Bend, both of which opened in the last year. Elkhart’s Quality Wine and Ale Supply has been outfitting small-scale brewers since 2000. 

Websites like Beeradvocate and the American Homebrewers Association serve as informational hubs for homebrewers seeking to refine their skills and keep up on industry trends.

This week’s Ask a Foodie question: “What should homebrewing beginners know about making their first few beers?”

According to the American Homebrewers Association, its 2014 Learn to Homebrew Day attracted an estimated 5,595 participants at 317 different sites in 47 states and 4 different countries.

The interest and tools for brewing are out there, but a couple of botched batches can cool even the most enthusiastic hophead.

This week’s Ask a Foodie question asks, “What should homebrewing beginners know about making their first few beers?”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

An easy way to acquire all the equipment and ingredients necessary to brew beer at home is to buy a kit.

“If you’re looking to get started, it’s not that expensive,” said Aaron Goldstein, owner of Michiana Brewer’s Supply. “You’re looking at $250, really. If you come to me, you’re going to get out for less than $200.”

Equipment and ingredients are typically sold separately, with a basic 5-gallon equipment kit averaging around $160, according to Goldstein.That yields around 50 12-ounce bottles of beer.

Among the items included are a 5-gallon stainless steel pot, two 6½-gallon buckets (one with a spigot for bottling; the other for fermenting), a 5-gallon glass carboy, an air lock, thermometer, hydrometer, test jar for measurements, a tapper, paddle, brush, cleanser and sanitizer.

Depending on the beer style, Goldstein said 5-gallon ingredient kits cost between $30 and $50. They will usually include one or two canisters of liquid or dry malt extract, hops, specialty grains, yeast, priming sugar and bottlecaps.

Kits to brew pale ales, brown ales and amber ales are typically cheaper than styles like IPAs, which require more hops. 

Bottles are sold separately, too, and a case of 24 12-ounce bottles cost $12.50 at Michiana Brewer’s Supply.

KEEP IT CLEAN

Local homebrew experts agree that the most important tip is to keep a clean operation.

“The biggest thing with brewing beer is cleanliness,” said Chris Patterson, a former member of Michiana Extract and Grain Association (MEGA), an area homebrew club. “There’s nothing to look out for, but your equipment needs to be sanitized and clean — you cannot have dirty equipment.”

During his three and a half years in MEGA, Patterson won two association awards. His Russian imperial stout took first in a 2011 Best Stout competition, as did his English pale ale in a separate judging that year. Patterson also held a brief tenure as brewer at Evil Czech Brewery in Culver and South Bend’s now-defunct Four Horseman Brewery.

The four basic ingredients of beer:

  • Water
  • Malt
  • Yeast
  • Hops

“Equipment may be brand new, but it needs to be sanitized,” he said. “Even your hands. Take your sanitizer – it’s safe and all food-grade – sanitize your hands and anything that’s going to touch the beer. The spoon you’re stirring with, test equipment…everything needs to be sanitized.”

Goldstein warned against “mistaking cleansers for sanitizers” or using a cleanser as a “one-all fix.”

He said cleansers are designed to remove proteins and “gunk” from equipment, while sanitizers eliminate bacteria.

“I always recommend a two-part cleaner and sanitizer,” Goldstein said, suggesting his favorite brand, Star San. “It’s honestly the best thing on the market.”

Errors made when sanitizing can result in odd odors and flavor profiles.

“Bacteria will completely ruin a beer — over-carbonation, funny taste, diacetyl,” Patterson said. “The butter that you put on movie theater popcorn, that has diacetyl in it. It gives it that thick, buttery flavor. That’s what diacetyl is. If you can smell or taste that in your beer, it’s no good.”

WHAT’S YOUR STYLE?

After purchasing and sterilizing the gear, it’s time to choose which beer to brew.

According to the Beeradvocate, there are more than 100 different styles to choose from.

Goldstein recommends American amber-style cream ales or any style of brown ale, because are “typically the easiest to work with” and a bargain for beginners.

“Just to get people those flavor profiles and used to homebrewing process, those are usually the cheaper options,” he said.

Patterson said the best varieties to start off with would be a amber ale or a dry stout, a blonde ale and a pale ale. “If you just stick to the directions that come with the kit, you’ll end up with a really nice beer.”

For additional guidance, Patterson and Goldstein recommended a few resources including John Palmer’s free online book “How to Brew” and Jim Parker’s “Basic Homebrewing.”

“YouTube is also your friend when it comes to homebrewing,” Patterson said. “I learned a lot from YouTube.”

Goldstein somewhat disagreed with using sites like YouTube because “most of the time, you’ll get different views and conflicting information.” He suggests visiting a local supply store and speaking with an experienced brewer as the best way to troubleshoot issues.

“There are some good YouTube videos, don’t get me wrong,” Goldstein said. “CraigTube does a really good job.”

In the event of a ruined run of brew, Patterson said novices shouldn’t get too discouraged.   

“It happens to everybody,” he said.

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