In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law an innocuous hodgepodge of legislation that amended the Internal Revenue Code. Inherently boring? Yes. Yet the bill was anything but dry. Quietly tucked into a few paragraphs, the measure also created a tax exemption for beer brewed at home for personal or family use, up to 200 gallons annually.
While the U.S. beer industry was flooding the market with mass-produced light lagers, an underground community of brewing enthusiasts soon emerged -- including Charlie Papazian, co-founder of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA), and Ken Grossman, who built Sierra Nevada Brewing on the strength of his own pale ale recipe. These pioneers passionately embraced an artistic appreciation, scientific interest and do-it-yourself attitude in brewing small batches of fresh, flavorful beer at home. And by estimates from the AHA, it's a sentiment that has fueled continued growth in the pursuit, with upwards of 750,000 amateur brewers nationwide today.
"The No. 1 reason for brewing cited by our members is that they like the creative aspects of homebrewing," said the AHA's Janis Gross. "There's a satisfaction and pride in creating a well-crafted beer at home, much like cooking a gourmet meal in your own kitchen."
Whether it's a nod to our northern European heritage or simply a desire for good beer, it's not a stretch to characterize the Twin Cities as one of the nation's more vibrant homebrewing scenes. There are more than 30 registered brewing clubs in Minnesota, including the award-winning Saint Paul Homebrewers Club. Two of the country's largest homebrew retailers -- Midwest Homebrewing and Winemaking Supplies in St. Louis Park and Northern Brewer in St. Paul -- just happen to be in our own back yard. And last June, the Twin Cities played host to the annual National Homebrewers Conference.
"The Twin Cities has a fantastic homebrewing culture," said California homebrewer and author Jamil Zainasheff. "Homebrewers there are lucky in that there's really a strong base of key people and great shops that have cultivated that local passion for brewing. If you homebrew in a vacuum, 99 percent of people will eventually drop out. But when others help them, and they experience the community aspect of the hobby, people tend to stick with it."
Homebrewing has also played a critical role in driving the growth of today's craft beer industry, according to Gross, with at least 90 percent of professional brewers learning their foundational skills in the garage or kitchen. It's a symbiotic relationship responsible for more than 1,600 craft breweries operating nationwide today, with local breweries such as Surly, Lift Bridge, Flat Earth, Fulton and Harriet all founded by avid homebrewers.
But while early homebrewers made beer to suit their own tastes in response to a lack of variety, the drivers have seemingly shifted, with many getting into the hobby now because of the mainstream availability of craft offerings and numerous styles.
"Every direction you turn today, people are constantly exposed to high-quality beer," said Dave Turbenson, owner of Midwest Supplies. "It cultivates enthusiasts at all angles. And at some point, people feel compelled to want to learn how beer is actually made, and maybe even give it a try themselves."
'Homebrew nirvana': A beginner's guide
At its most basic, a beer recipe has four ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. But that's where the similarities end. There are countless ways those ingredients can be combined to make dozens of beer styles, as well as aging techniques and additions that can turn what might be a classic northern English brown ale, akin to Newcastle, into something the world has never tasted. "Many people come into the shop looking to make a specific beer," said Michael Dawson, creative director at Northern Brewer in St. Paul. "But because everyone's environment at home is different and fermentation will vary, you will actually be making a beer that's unlike any other. It's truly your very own. I think you've kind of achieved homebrewing nirvana when you embrace that house character."
To make beer, you need only a kitchen stove, a pot that can hold at least 3.5 gallons of liquid, and about $100 for a basic equipment starter kit and ingredients. A kit includes two 6-gallon plastic buckets for fermentation and bottling, an air lock, a siphon, a hydrometer, a bottle capper and cleaning supplies. Most beginners opt for a prepackaged extract recipe kit, which uses either liquid or dry-malt extract as a short-cut method of adding sugar to create the base of the unfermented beer, called wort. It's simpler than "all-grain" brewing, which employs a hot water mash to convert starches from the grain into sugar.
"A common question we get is 'How long will it take before I can make a beer that's drinkable?'" says Chris Farley, owner of Northern Brewer. "It's very important for us to make sure we help people make good beer the first time around, and it's actually very easy to do that. You're much better off brewing today than even 10 years ago with all of the access to information, equipment and quality ingredients at our disposal."
Brewing involves boiling, fermentation and packaging. And it's often been said that if you enjoy cleaning, you'll make an excellent brewer. Proper sanitization of brewing equipment is paramount to avoiding bacteria and other bugs that can give beer unwanted flavors. A variety of cleaners or food-grade acids such as Star San will keep equipment microbe-free.
"If you can make soup from a can without help, you can make beer," said Dawson. "It's process-dependent, but it's inherently not a difficult process."
STEP 1: BOILING
To begin, add 2 1/2 gallons of drinking water to the brewing kettle and heat to about 150 degrees. Depending on the beer, you'll steep a variety of specialty grains in the water to provide extra color and flavor to the finished product. After the grains have soaked for about 20 minutes, remove them and stir in the malt extract. Once that's dissolved, bring the sugary liquid to a boil for 60 minutes, during which time you'll add hops, which provide a balance to the sweet malt base.
When boiling is complete, cool the wort to about room temperature -- the faster the better, to avoid potential bacterial growth. There are a number of ways to do this, including cooling the brewing kettle in an ice bath, or using an immersion chiller hooked up to a cold water source. Once the unfermented beer is cool, pour it into the plastic bucket and add water to top up the volume to 5 gallons, enough to produce about two cases of beer. For proper fermentation, yeast needs oxygen, so with the lid firmly secured, rock the bucket for a few minutes to stir and aerate the liquid.
At this point, it's important to take a gravity reading of the wort using a hydrometer, which measures density. This will tell you how much sugar is in your unfermented beer, and using a simple equation, you can quickly extrapolate the finished beer's alcohol content once the yeast has worked its magic.
STEP 2: FERMENTATION
Most extract recipe kits come equipped with a packet of dry yeast, perfectly suitable for most beers. For a few bucks more, many homebrewers choose to use liquid yeasts from Wyeast or White Labs that allow more customization of styles and flavor profiles in their beer, enabling them to more faithfully portray a specific style.
Once the wort is cooled and aerated, pitch yeast into the liquid, and fermentation begins. Most ales will ferment in about two weeks, with lagers taking a bit longer. Maintaining a steady and consistent fermentation temperature, depending on the type of beer you're aiming for, plays a critical role during this process. Wide swings in temperature can produce off flavors and even shock the yeast into dormancy. A steady temperature between 62 and 75 degrees for ales, and 46 to 58 degrees for lagers, is recommended.
STEP 3: PACKAGING
After the wort has fermented, package it in bottles or small 5-gallon kegs. For bottling, prime the fermented wort -- now properly called beer -- with a small dose of sugar and put it into bottles capped with a crown. The residual yeast in the beer will consume the extra sugar and naturally carbonate the beer within a week or two; this procedure is called bottle conditioning. To keg your beer, you'll need a little more equipment, including a carbon-dioxide tank and pressure regulator that allows you to force-carbonate your beer, reducing the waiting time to enjoy your perfectly crafted homebrew from weeks to days.
"[Charlie] Papazian had it right with his famous slogan, 'Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew,'" says writer Jamil Zainasheff. "Sanitation and temperature control during fermentation can help you make a great beer. But more important for people starting out is to not worry so much. No matter what you do, your beer will likely turn out just fine. And you'll be excited because you made it, and can share it with your family and friends."