Ask any craft brewer what led them to their career and the answer is likely to be a simple statement: “I started homebrewing.”
Most of the early pioneers of craft beer were homebrewers who took their hobby one step beyond, a progression that continues to this day. Homebrewing truly is the originator of today’s beer boom.
And the inspiration has come full circle. With the rise of commercially produced, full-flavored beer has come a corresponding rise in the interest in making full-flavored beer at home. The American Homebrewers Association estimates that there are currently 1.5 million homebrewers in the United States, two-thirds of whom picked up the hobby after 2005. They collectively produce more than 2 million barrels of beer annually — about 1 percent of the nation’s total beer production.
There is a library of books available to help at-home brewers hone their skills, with many new titles released this year. They range from basic how-to manuals to almost poetic treatises on exotic beers and brewing techniques. Here’s a taste of the new ones.
“Homebrew All-Stars,” by Drew Beechum and Denny Conn (Voyageur Press, 224 pages, $24.99) carries on a tradition among homebrewers of sharing and mentoring. Through brewer profiles, interviews and recipes, it offers insight into the practices of some of the hobby’s top practitioners that afford a valuable skill-building opportunity for beginners and longtime brewers.
Beechum and Conn divide homebrewers into four categories based on interests and methodology. “Old school masters” focus on reproducing classic styles and traditional brewing practices. “Scientists” wonk out on numbers, tweaking their brewing process for every possible efficiency. The “wild ones” are brewers who embrace bacteria and specialty yeast fermentations. “Recipe innovators” push the boundaries, incorporating exotic ingredients into their creations. Not surprisingly, I’ve noticed similar personalities among the many professional brewers I’ve interviewed.
These categories provide the structure of the book, with brewer profiles grouped into chapters accordingly. A short quiz helps readers identify their own brewing temperament, allowing them to focus their reading. Profiles include helpful process tips as well as the brewers’ favorite ingredients and pieces of equipment. Each all-star brewer provides at least one award-winning recipe from their archive.
Although the information is dense, the writing is brisk, whisking the reader along. Beechum and Conn’s humor and frequent self-deprecating jabs keep it entertaining.
All in the recipe
Brewing is a lot like cooking. Brewers combine ingredients in the hope of creating pleasing blends of tastes and smells. And just as every good cook loves a good cookbook, homebrewers seek inspiration from quality recipe collections.
“The Home Brew Recipe Bible” by Chris Colby (Page Street Publishing, 271 pages, $24.99) offers up 101 tested recipes developed over Colby’s 25 years as a brewer. As the former editor for 15 years of Brew Your Own magazine and current producer of the Beer and Wine Journal (beerandwinejournal.com), Colby has proven credibility.
There are two ways to make beer at home. All-grain brewing is akin to making a cake from scratch. Brewing with malt extract compares to baking from a box. “The Home Brew Recipe Bible” begins, as most homebrewers do, with a section devoted to extract recipes covering a wide range of styles from blond and brown ales to an American double IPA. Each recipe includes instructions for conversion to all-grain brewing.
The bulk of the recipes are written for all-grain brewers, but do include instructions for making them with extract. The recipes are divided into sections based on some basic sensory characteristics — dark and roasty, malty amber ales, pale ales and IPAs, pale lagers, dark and amber lagers, beers with specialty fermentations, and beers made with specialty ingredients.
“The Home Brew Recipe Bible” does assume some homebrewing experience. It eschews the standard “how-to-brew” introduction in favor of a brief chapter of potential pitfalls to avoid and tips for making the most of the recipes in the book. Each recipe includes a more detailed description of a process or ingredient particular to that recipe – such as using flaked grains – as well as simple options for recipe variations.
Water composition is extremely important to making good beer and one of the hardest things for homebrewers to master. Colby does a great job of simplifying mineral additions for every recipe to build the brewing water suited to each style of beer.
The world of botanicals
One of the more interesting minor trends emerging in craft brewing is the use of botanicals in beer, including herbs, roots, vegetables and even mushrooms. One of the best at this is Scratch Brewing, located on a 25-acre farm near the tiny southern Illinois town of Ava. The brewing trio of Marika Josephson, Aaron Kleidon, and Ryan Tockstein are masters at building beers around the flavors of wild ingredients, often foraged from their own land.
In their new book “The Homebrewer’s Almanac” (Countryman Press, 205 pages, $22.95), they share the expertise gleaned from four years of experimentation with botanicals, ranging from dandelion and sweet clover to burdock root and oak bark.
The book’s introduction lays down the basics of brewing with botanicals, with tips on foraging and experimenting with wild plants. It breaks down which parts of plants are usable — typically the whole thing, including leaves, stems, seeds, fruit, nuts and bark — and gives instructions on how to preserve them and when to use them in the brewing process for best effect.
Like a traditional farmer’s almanac, the book is arranged by seasons. Each section begins with a simple listing of things to look for during a particular season, such as tree bark, dead leaves, stalks and brambles in winter.
Each seasonal section goes on to look at a selection of those ingredients in more depth, explaining when to harvest, what parts of the plant to use, and how to prepare and incorporate them into the brewing process. There is at least one easy-to-follow recipe for each ingredient, allowing homebrewers to try their hand at botanical brewing.
Among the unusual offerings are recipes for arugula rye porter, wild grapevine wee heavy and chanterelle biére de garde. I had the opportunity to try the last one last month at the Great American Beer Festival. I can attest that it is sublime.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.