Homebrewing 101
Photos: Courtesy of Sara Bondioli

Homebrewing 101: Crafting Fermentables at Home

How it begins differs. Some picked up at-home fermentation creation in college because it was cheaper than buying beer, others as an adult hobby after getting a “Mr. Brew Kit” as a present. According to data collected by the Brewers Association in 2013, America has an estimated 1.2 million homebrewers; two-thirds of them only started brewing in the last 10 years.

The commonality among homebrewers is their commitment to taking up personal space and time to make their own beer. Thousands from all over gather this month in Baltimore at the 38th Annual National Homebrewers Conference/Homebrew Con 2016 (open only to American Homebrewers Association or Brewers Association members) for seminars, a trade show and events. Homebrews will be shared and recipes swapped. Regional beer clubs will have made special brews just for the Homebrew Con, like the Baltimore Beer Babes ( www.facebook.com/BaltimoreBeerBabes/) who paired up with Baltimore’s Brewer’s Art for a dry-hopped saison.

“The most enjoyable aspect of homebrewing is the social aspect of making something you enjoy to drink with those you enjoy,” says Christian Layke, head brewer at Gordon Biersch in Rockville, Md. Layke is a long-time homebrewer and member of the DMV’s homebrew club Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP).

Northeast DC’s Hellbender Brewing Company Co-Founders Patrick Mullane and Ben Evans homebrewed together for four years before making business plans. Mullane, a former political operative, has three tips for hopeful homebrewers.

1. Don’t be intimidated. There’s so much information out there, especially websites that are hard to navigate. So, Mullane recommends finding a local homebrew store who will tailor your setup based on your needs and space.

2. Embrace your failures. “My first batch of beer turned out great,” Mullane says. “My next one was an unmitigated disaster, and I threw it out before I even finished. Out of your first four of five batches, one of them is going to be undrinkable. Your friends are going to humor you and be really nice in helping drink those cases that you made.”

3. Start with the classics. “There are different perspectives, but I am a firm believer in mastering red ales, browns, hefeweizens [and] wits. One of these longtime classics done really well means you have a good base and can move on to IPAs, where you’re putting in more hops.”

Other perspectives include starting with IPAs, because then if you mess up your homebrew, you can throw in additional hops to cover up any mistakes.

Arlington’s new homebrew store, The Brew Shop on Wilson Boulevard, which opened in February and also has a bottle shop, caters to experienced homebrewers looking for parts for their DIY setups or newbies who get sent out with either an extract or an all-grain, one-gallon ingredient kit. Co-owner Julie Drews says that the one-gallon versus five-gallon kits take up so much less space and work well for apartment or townhouse dwellers. She also points customers toward reference resources, like websites Brewtoad, HomeBrewTalk or BeerSmith Home Brewing. The Brew Shop has its own Android app for recipe guidance and several books in the shop.

“I like to recommend really great and classic [books] that are perfect for taking you from your very first brew and beyond, specifically either John Palmer’s How to Brew or [Brewers Association founder] Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.”

BURP members since 1993, couples Pat and Janet Crowe and Tom and Colleen Cannon scoured and followed The Complete Joy of Homebrewing to a tee when they first started homebrewing, almost always as a team, 25 years ago. They keg and give away most of the beer they make. In May, the foursome won the BURP’s annual chili cook-off with their maibock. Competitions among regional beer clubs occur frequently. Occasionally, breweries in the area, like Atlas Brew Works in Northeast DC, will host homebrew contests. And, the number of homebrews entered into the national competition at Homebrew Con 2016 have more than doubled since 2008.

“Don’t think you’re going to make cheaper beer than you can buy,” Janet Crowe says. “Do it because it’s social [and] fun, and start simple, like with a stout or pale ale. I caution new brewers to be sensitive to keeping it clean, because yeast will eat anything, and more than likely, it will eat the wrong things. Also, be careful [of] jumping on the sour bandwagon right away. You easily can end up making a sour beer by doing something wrong in the process. Or, you can contaminate your equipment, and you’ll never get out of doing sours.”

The theme of cleanliness is big, whether brewing at home or professionally. Layke suggests replacing all hoses once a year to avoid getting a hose infection in your equipment.

“They don’t cost that much and it’s worth not having a batch of pale ale taste like a batch of Orval because of the brettanomyces,” says Layke, who fell in love with brewing because of the process and the social sharing of the crafted product. He welcomes homebrewers to hit him up at the brew pub if they need any yeast, or to bring a beer by to talk about it. Then, he points them in the direction of his homebrew club, because “the best way to learn is to talk and see what they brought to share.”

Vice president of the DC Homebrewers Club, Sara Bondioli, says, “Once I started going to homebrew club meetings, I got helpful feedback. They could taste it and say, ‘This is pretty good, but maybe next time you could tweak the recipe this way. It might be that you’re keeping the beer too warm, so next time…’ Non-beer friends tend to say the beer is always good because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. So bring beer to people who also brew, and they will be honest and helpful.”

Bondioli’s biggest tip to those starting out is to buy an auto-siphon. It costs $6 and she swears it will save many headaches and hours of annoyance.

Check out the American Homebrewers Association for recipes, and to find clubs and competitions in the DC area.

DC Area Homebrew Clubs
– Brewers and Drinkers Around Silver Spring (BADASS) in Silver Spring, MD:www.badass-beer.com
– Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP) in Rockville, MD: www.burp.org
– DC Homebrewers Club in homes/public establishments around the District:www.dchomebrewers.com
– GRiST Arlington Home Brew Club in Arlington, VA: www.gristhomebrew.com
– NoVA HomeBrew in Sterling, VA: www.novahomebrew.com
– Prince William Brewers Guild in Woodbridge, VA: www.pwbg.org
– Stafford Brewer’s Club in Stafford, VA: www.staffordbrewersclub.com
– The WortHogs Brew Club in Herndon and Reston, VA: www.worthogs.com

Photos: Courtesy of Sara Bondioli