Homebrewing is growing in popularity with every passing year as part of the greater self-sufficiency movement and among hardcore beer geeks and tinkerers. Now homebrewing is acquiring a certain hipness—a certain mason-jar-chic—that is moving it into the domain of retro-cool cocktails and small-batch whiskies. But whether you’re looking to impress your friends, put up a few gallons of harvest ale for the farmstead, or create the world’s first ever Dry Hopped Imperial Belgian Berlinerweiss, homebrewing is a hobby that can have some hurdles for the beginner. Here are some ideas for getting over those bumps so you cans start brewing in your own home.
1. Visit Your Local Homebrew Store
I’ll be honest, once upon a time, homebrew shops were dusty, maze-like, and filled with unlabeled boxes full of cryptic stoppers and tubes and wire-mesh thingies. The staff seemed to only want to talk to people who already knew how to brew—so how were you supposed to learn?
Well, as homebrewing has moved from its underground status to somewhere approaching the mainstream, there’s a new breed of shop out there that is friendly, engaging and ready to help beginners get started. Look for shops offering demo days or classes that can help you get started. My nearest homebrew shop does frequent classes, where you can see the latest multi-thousand-dollar piece of dream gear in action, and club presentation days, where a half dozen or more brew rigs set up so you can check out different styles of equipment and production.
2. Find A Homebrew Club
If you don’t have a friendly homebrew shop nearby, then perhaps you’ll have a good local homebrew club. Such clubs will also often host “demo days” or informal gatherings where members roll out their brew rigs and get together for a day of beverage production—and often consumption. Find out if these days are open to non-members, and then drop by, chat with folks, see the process in action, help out and actually get a feel for what is involved in brewing. At the very least you’ll have a chance to see if this really is for you before you slap down your credit card for a bunch of equipment. Connecting with a community of brewers also opens up the possibility of sharing equipment—things like bottle cappers that are easily leant out now and then.
3. Find A BOP
BOPs—”brew on premise” shops—aren’t as common as homebrew stores or clubs, but a great way to really get a feel for homebrewing. They let you brew your own beer without any of the hassle or equipment, taking care of the set up and clean up, providing you with the kettle you’ll need to mash and boil, and then holding the beer until it ferments and carbonates. All you need to do is show up a few weeks later with enough bottles to take it all home with you.
Typically a BOP brew session takes just a few hours—they’ve got the kinks worked out of their process and you don’t need to deal with any of the before or after work. There will be a selection of house recipes to try out and usually a few on tap to try out while you are brewing. A great BOP in my town has an avid following of folks who love this halfway solution to homebrewing. It’s also a great way to try out brewing with friends, host a casual event, or give a gift certificate gift to someone you think might be interested.
4. Start Small And Cheap
Let’s say you’ve checked out other homebrew rigs, like what you see, made a trial batch of beer with some friends, and decided that homebrewing is for you. Do you go online and order the latest in microcontroller-equipped turnkey homebrew systems? Of course not!
First, take an inventory of what you’ve already got at home. If you do a lot of canning or stock making, you might already have a pot big enough for getting started. Innovative brewing techniques like “Brew In A Bag” avoid the need for specialty mash tuns and additional sparge water containers, so you might be able to work with what you’ve got.
Brewing smaller batches than the customary 5 gallons can also help—not just reducing the cost of ingredients but making it easier to work with “normal size” containers. Many online retailers sell ingredient kits pre-scaled to 2- or 3-gallon batches.
Once you do start getting some gear, shop for values on Craigslist, in thrift stores or in restaurant-supply shops. Homebrewing isn’t about looking pretty—it’s about tasting good.