Brew It Yourself
(Originally printed in The Tap Time News in 1997.)

There's something about beer - probably drinking a lot of it - that makes you think, "You know, I bet I could make this stuff." After all, you can make spaghetti sauce, right? And beer only has four ingredients: malt, hops, yeast, and water. Can't be much tougher than brewing coffee, you think. Just boil it up, let it sit, and drink it down. Nothin' to it.

And there's nothing more to skydiving than remembering to open the parachute.

Okay, so brewing up a batch of Dave's Ineeda Pale Ale isn't all that tough. If it were, I wouldn't do it. And it IS fun, especially the drinking part at the end of the brewing process. And it's a great way to impress girls who drink a lot of beer. (Or so I'm told.) So what the hell. Give it a try. It's not like you have anything else to do, right?

Starting up your homebrewing operation doesn't take a huge investment of time, space, or money. You probably already have a stove, and you can buy everything else you need at your local (or on-line) homebrew supply store for under $150. That may not sound cheap, but it's pretty much a one-time investment, so don't freak out. Relax and have another beer. Basically, you need a five-gallon, stainless steel brewpot; a six-gallon plastic tub with a lid for fermentation; a thermometer and hydrometer for measurements; an airlock to let the fermentation gases escape; some plastic tubing for siphoning the beer into the bottles; a few cases of empty bottles (not screw-top); and a bottle capper and 75 or so bottle caps. You'll need some unscented bleach, too. That's it for equipment. Then you'll need some malt extract, some hop pellets, some yeast, and some water and you're ready to brew.

For the step-by-step, invest in Charlie Papazian's book, The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or if you're a full-on computer geek, Papazian's CD-ROM The Interactive Complete Joy of Homebrewing. They're far and away the two best things on the market for new brewers, so I'm not going to try to compete with them here.

I will, however, tell you that Papazian's mantra - Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew. - is worth repeating, because for every successful homebrewer, there's at least one tale of disaster, and it's usually pretty funny if it didn't happen to you. And with every disaster, there's a lesson to be learned.

Lesson one - keep an eye on your brewpot. Making beer is as easy as boiling milk, and it can be just as messy. While boiling the wort for a batch of dopplebock one night, I got a call from a girl I had a bit of a crush on. Midway through the conversation, the unmistakable stench of burning wort reminded me that I was brewing. Welcome to boilover hell. I lost the beer, the brewpot, and the range top. I did, however, get the girl.

Lesson two - keep an eye on your fermenter. Me again. In order to get a batch of pale ale fermenting, I shook the living daylights out of the ferment bucket. The airlock was bubbling like mad. I put it in a dark closet and went away for the weekend. What I didn't know was that all that vigorous shaking managed to put enough foam into the airlock to clog the vents, basically sealing the fermenter completely. The only good thing that happened while I was gone was that the closet managed to contain most of the debris from the fermenter explosion. Always, always, always make sure the airlock is clear so it can do its job of releasing gas and pressure.

Lesson three - hose clamps are your friend. This didn't happen to me, but I know the guy in the story. He used an in-line water filter to ensure pure water for brewing, only he didn't use hose clamps on the line going into and out of the filter. "The tube came out from the outlet side of the filter and a looong stream of water shot across the kitchen and began making a puddle near the living room." Then he was sending just-boiled wort to a counterflow chiller (to cool the wort enough to pitch the yeast) without hose clamps, "and one of those hoses came out of the brass barb," sending a stream of 150-degree-plus wort onto the floor. Later, while cleaning the mess from the counterflow chiller mishap, he "used a setup to attach a 1/4" tube from the faucet to run hot water through." Again, no hose clamps. Again, a floor covered in hot water. And he did all this in one day.

Lesson four - have patience. I know one guy who, on his first batch of homebrew, decided it would be great to bring the beer to a friend's wedding reception to toast the newlyweds. Only he didn't have but a few days to carbonate the beer. "No problem," he thought. "I'll just put a little extra priming sugar in the beer when I bottle it. That oughtta get it bubbling." As he was driving through Georgia in July, he heard "what sounded like gunshots in the trunk of my car." The beer carbonated all right - all over his trunk, his luggage, his suit, and his golf clubs.

Same song, different verse, different guy. "A friend gave me a couple of bottles of his fresh homebrew. The bottles were at room temperature, so I put two of them immediately in the freezer. An hour later I drank bottle #1 and it was great. When I got home from work the next afternoon, I looked in the fridge and wondered where bottle #2 was. I opened the freezer. It opens with a CRUNCH, and a piece of something cold drops on my toes. To my dismay, I look straight at a HUGE pile of fluffy, amber-colored ice, and big-long-sharp-pointy shards of 22-oz. bottle."

Like I said, for every homebrewer there's a disaster story, but there are a lot more successes. That's why I'm brewing a batch right now.


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