“If you can boil water, you can make beer.”
So swears Jack Bradt, owner of the Hendersonville-based homebrewing shop, Assembly Required. “It’s unbelievable how easy it is.”
And then there’s the cost. “You can make it for around 50 cents a bottle,” he continues. “A lot of people who do try it end up saying, ‘I’ll never go back to canned beer.'”
Beer is a natural for slaking a fierce summer thirst. And home brewing seems a logical alternative to putting up with pallid commercial beers (or, indeed, even microbrews, for those with truly finicky palates). But many hang back, finding the idea of home brewing intimidating.
That attitude, says Asheville Brewers Supply proprietor Andy Dahm, is the unfortunate byproduct of a certain infamous dry spell.
“It’s a hangover, so to speak, from the Prohibition era,” he remarks with a smile, evincing the mild grace of one who’s made a living from a personal passion. “Back then, people were making beer with bread yeast, which can be highly toxic. … Some people still think that [homebrewing] is unclean, or that the bottles will explode.”
But the explosive spread of brew pubs in recent years has opened palates coast to coast to possibilities beyond the bullying trinity of Bud, Coors and Miller. Today, significant numbers of beer drinkers are rejecting those corporate behemoths — making business both better and worse for home-brew shops, depending on how you look at it. The widespread availability of quality, craft-brewed beers — which are generally produced in much smaller batches than the mega-brews, using higher-grade ingredients — leaves some beer aficionados less inclined to make their own. On the other hand, craft-beer converts of a creative bent often grow intoxicated by the wild spectrum of flavors it’s possible to cook up at home (chocolate stout or apricot ale, anyone?).
It’s an issue that’s received considerable debate in the industry over the past few years, says Dahm.
“Generally speaking, though, there are not a lot of people in either microbrewing or [the home-brew business] out to mess up anyone else. … My own feeling is, if you’re not on the side of Bud, Coors or Miller, you’re my friend,” he jokes, before continuing soberly, “Beer is not what those guys make.”
Further evidence that beer lovers tend to stick together can be found at Assembly Required: Bradt offers a unique exchange program through which customers can swap bottles of their own concoctions for those of fellow homebrewers.
“You get to show off your own brews and try someone else’s, at the same time,” explains the Hendersonville beermeister.
Jonas Rembert is the head brewer at Green Man Ales in Asheville, the source of Jack of the Wood’s signature house beers. But before he turned pro, Rembert was an avid home brewer — and he admits that the fermentation and sterilization processes essential to brewing can take a little getting used to.
“I ruined a lot of batches at first, but it happens to everyone,” he observes. “People give up too easily — one bad batch and they quit forever. I tell them to stick with it.”
“Patience is a big deal,” concurs sometime local home-brewer Ralph Schmitt. “The cost is not that much, but you have to be willing to put in the time. The brewing itself isn’t hard; you’ve got to be a fool to screw that up. It’s the bottling process, the [need] to keep everything clean and sterilized, [that’s more difficult].”
And bad home-brew, he notes, “is really bad. It tastes like rocket fuel.” But it isn’t the memory of curdled brews that’s kept him from his cauldron more recently — a new baby took care of that.
“I home-brewed for about a year, but right now, I don’t have the time,” he admits. Still, the siren song of fresh hops seems to be persistently tickling his consciousness.
“It’s like baking your own bread,” he muses philosophically. “If you do it in a factory, it’s not going to taste the same, even if you use the same recipe.”
The sweaty summer months may be the perfect time for drinking beer — but, perversely enough, some experts say it’s not the best time for crafting cold and lovely home-brews. That’s because warmer, more bacteria-friendly environments make sterilization an even greater challenge. But Dahm points out that some styles of beer — such as certain gutsy, Belgian ales that contain notes of clove and banana — are actually more agreeable when made at higher temperatures.
Above all, he believes, “What’s most important is that [brewing is] a lot of fun” — and educational, naturally. Summer school, anyone?
“It can be a good elementary microbiology course, cooking course and commercial-sanitation course, all rolled into one,” Dahm concludes.
Brewed by you
Got a hankering to brew your own? Here’s where you can go to get supplies, equipment — and some good advice.
• Asheville Brewers Supply, 2 Wall St., Suite 101, Asheville; 285-0515
• Assembly Required, 340 N. Main St., Hendersonville; (828) 692-9677.