Beer Scout: Homebrewing 101

THE BREWING BUG: "It's rare to see brewers who only homebrew once a year," says Hops & Vines owner Alex Buerkholtz. "Usually people that homebrew do it once every couple of weeks or once a month — they're actively doing it because they enjoy the hobby." Photo by Jesse Farthing

Brewing your own beer can be intimidating. There’s a wealth of knowledge available in the form of countless books, podcasts and Internet forums — and it can be overwhelming for a beginner to sort through.

Not to mention, Western North Carolina has such a high concentration of craft breweries, it’s fairly simple to just go buy something you know you’ll like. So why even bother with homebrew?

“There’s no reason not to get into it if you like craft beer,” says Tedd Clevenger, owner of Asheville Brewers Supply. “It’s far easier than you’d think. Brewing is very simple. It’s very creative and very scientific, so it doesn’t really matter what kind of personality you have — it enables you to combine both of those aspects, both sides of your brain, if you will. It’s really cool having something unique to be able to share with people.”

At the basic level, all that’s needed is a kettle, a bucket to ferment your wort (unfermented beer) and another to bottle from.

“Everyone can start differently,” says Hops & Vines owner Alex Buerckholtz. He recommends starting with a basic kit, which includes everything you need with the exception of a kettle and ingredients.

“[Homebrewing is] nice because it’s scalable to the degree that you want it to be,” Clevenger says. “You can spend thousands of dollars and create your own nanobrewery in your garage if you want to, but you don’t have to. You can be wherever you want to be in your craft. You can build any kind of system that you want.” And no matter how far you want to go, the equipment from a starter kit will remain useful.

“Oh, and you definitely need a sanitizer,” Buerckholtz adds. Buerckholtz and Clevenger both stress the importance of carefully disinfecting everything that touches the wort post-boil.

“The biggest mistake [new brewers make] is sanitization,” Clevenger says. “When people get lax with that [it can lead to contamination].” And contamination by undesirable organisms leads to the pain of throwing out 5 gallons of beer.

Hops & Vines and Asheville Brewers Supply both offer dozens of ingredient kits ranging from simple pale ales to much more complex brews. Kits include all necessary ingredients and step-by-step directions from steeping grains at the start, to boiling time, malt and hops additions, cooling the wort and pitching yeast.

Cooling the wort from boiling to pitching temperature can be as easy as putting smaller kettles in an ice bath or implementing a more brute-force option like a copper coil chiller, which circulates water through the wort for rapid cooling.

After pitching the yeast and aerating the wort — simply shaking the fermenting container — fermentation will begin quickly and sometimes violently. It’s important to ferment in a container with ample headroom.

I personally made the mistake of filling a 5-gallon container with 5 gallons of wort, resulting in a messy explosion of yeast. Don’t make my mistake.

“That one doesn’t happen all that often,” Clevenger laughs.

The hardest part of homebrewing comes after fermentation — bottling your beer. A 5-gallon batch will fill around 50 12-ounce bottles (which can be purchased new or collected by drinking local beers).

“Bottling is cute at first,” Clevenger says, “but that wears off.”

Buerkholtz recommends upgrading to a kegging system as soon as possible. “One of the most tedious parts about homebrewing is the bottling,” he says, “slowly filling 50 12-ounce bottles one by one. … If you can afford it, go to kegs.”

A kegging setup does come with a price, of course, and a person should brew a few times before investing in one to be sure homebrewing is a good fit as a hobby.

“Some people do it and get the bug,” Buerckholtz says. “But some people try it and find out it’s not really their thing, and they’d rather just buy beers.

“I don’t think homebrewing is a thing that’s going to really save you a lot of money,” he continues. “Some brewers do … but in general, it’s more of a passion and a hobby than a money-saver.”

Patience is nearly as important as sanitation when it comes to brewing. Fermentation can take weeks — longer if the recipe calls for dry-hopping or other additions — and bottle conditioning takes around two weeks before the beer is properly carbonated.

“A lot of people are too eager, and they’re going to bottle too early or break into that beer before it’s ready,” Clevenger says. “It’s cool to taste one here and there before it’s ready — to see it evolving, but I think patience is one of those things that new brewers have to learn. It usually takes a while.”

Both shops offer monthly classes for those who want to learn before doing or improve their techniques. Class schedules can be found in-store or on the respective websites.

The Mountain Ale and Lager Tasters, a local, nonprofit homebrewing club, is another great resource for beginning brewers. The $30 annual membership fee includes discounts for homebrew stores and other local businesses, educational resources, tasting events and more.

If you get the homebrew bug, it can become an addictive hobby, and Clevenger says he usually warns new brewers that he’ll be seeing them often.

“At the end of the day, when someone drinks your beer, they are drinking something that’s wholly you in every way — and that’s really cool.” Clevenger says.

Asheville Brewers Supply is at 712 Merrimon Ave. (ashevillebrewers.com). Hops & Vines is at 797 Haywood Road. (hopsandvines.net). For details on the Mountain Ale and Lager Tasters, visit maltsters.org.

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About Jesse Farthing
Jesse Farthing can be reached at beer@mountainx.com.

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