D.I.Y. Beer Making Can Become a Passion
by Erik Wollschlager
Home Sweet Homebrew
Those who find themselves madly in love with the amazing selection of craft beers available may be surprised to find that they can brew it themselves, and they can do it relatively easily.
The American Homebrewers Association’s “state of brewing” statistics [spring 2014] are impressive. There was a 24 percent increase in sales of beginner kits, and overall revenue grew by 10.5 percent. The Association has been in existence since 1978, and has grown to over 43,000 members. This is significant because in the last year alone, the sale of craft beer rose 17.2%, and the importation of craft beer fell 0.6%. America is brewing its own craft beer, and Western New York is an important market in this regard. Local craft breweries such as Flying Bison, Community Beer Works, and Resurgence Brewing were all started after their respective owners developed their beer passion on a much smaller level. Homebrewing sparked the fire that has grown to be one of the largest catalysts in the recent growth of the city—an industry that continues to expand as several more breweries are slated to open in 2015. It is a fair assumption that these brewers also spent plenty of time perfecting their beers in small basement batches before making the jump to 150 gallons of mash.
The history of Buffalo’s homebrewing tradition is well documented. As the city enjoyed exponential growth with the completion of the Erie Canal, easy access to the ingredients required to make beer helped to define Buffalo as a city built on brewing. In this era, refrigeration was hard to come bay, and there was no real bottling industry—beer was brewed and distributed to taverns in barrels. Beer could also be sold directly to customers in what was then known as a growler, but unlike today’s prized method of beer transport, the growlers were basically buckets. At that time, local grocers would brew a few gallons in their back rooms, and distribute pails to their customers. This homebrewing tradition carried through prohibition in Buffalo—the small amounts brewed and distributed would rarely catch the attention of the squads of temperance officers, who were casting for bigger fish. It wasn’t until prohibition ended and the time following WWII that beer would be mass-produced, bottled, stored in refrigeration units and sold in grocery stores.
The tradition of homebrewing in Buffalo stalled during this era. Industrious men, exhausted from hours spent at local steel mills or shipping docks found it easier to belly up to the local bar and knock back a couple bottles of whatever was available—lightly colored, low flavor beers. Soon the dark and tasteful beers that were once the drink of choice in WNY were a distant memory. We’ve come a long way since those dismal days.
Our region and our nation have found their tastebuds again and are pursuing beers with flavor—beer crafted with careful consideration of ingredients, and intense study of the processes involved. Decades of trial and error have resulted in great recipes pridefully shared in garages and basements with fellow homebrewers. Buffalo itself is home to a few homebrewing clubs: The Sultans of Swig, and the Niagara Association of Homebrewers, and Junkshow Brewing. These groups vary from formally scheduled meetings to informal seasonal gatherings, but a love of great beer is what they have in common. They share their stories and their beer. They offer feedback on each other’s recipes, honing their craft until it’s perfectly prepared for the next competition. Some of the groups offer classes on homebrewing, so you can experience the process firsthand before you decide to invest your time and money.
You may be looking at your pint glass and thinking that you could never master the complicated processes to make beer; but though homebrewing is complex, it’s also simple. There are a few requirements—time and proper equipment are necessary. The advantage of homebrewing equipment is that it is reusable, and easily borrowed. Chances are you’ve got a friend or family member that is a homebrewer willing to share their equipment, as well as their experiences, tips, and some of their own homebrew. The next step is to decide on the style to brew—ales are generally the easiest because brewing a lager requires specific temperature control, whereas ales ferment best at around room temperature. The range of ales covers a very broad spectrum—from the lightest pale ale or wheat beer to the smokiest porter or darkest stout, and everything in between. Once a style has been chosen, the homebrewer must decide whether to use one of the many ‘kits’ that are available—kits come with a set of measured ingredients, as well as step-by-step instructions, and are great for your first time. If you’re feeling adventurous, you may choose to find a recipe for the style you’ve chosen. The internet is a great tool for a homebrewer, as there is an infinite well of information available, including good recipes. There are many books on the topic of homebrewing, and these often contain recipes for different styles of beer—recipes can easily be amended to better suit your personal taste.
Once a recipe is chosen, there are several places in WNY one can go to for the necessary ingredients. Niagara Tradition is located on Sheridan Drive in Tonawanda and they’ve been helping homebrewers since 1992. At Niagara Tradition, you’ll find everything you need for brewing, from the best ingredients to the most reliable equipment. The staff is incredibly knowledgeable, and is ready to offer advice for any problems you may run into.
Newcomer to the Buffalo homebrew scene is Kegworks. Its Military Drive location is a veritable warehouse of all things mancave. Aside from their homebrewing equipment, KegWorks has an extensive selection of drinkware, everything one would need to design their basement bar, and more flavored cocktail bitters than you could possibly imagine.
Servicing the southtowns is Buffalo Brew Shop, located on Transit Road in Depew. Brew Shop has a complete selection of equipment and ingredients for brewing beer or cider, as well as winemaking. Representatives of the shop can be seen at events all over WNY with their mobile “brew in a bag” demonstrations. Each of these shops has online retail as well, however, I highly recommend visiting the stores. The passion and knowledge these people have is as important to the hombrewing process as any book or website. The retail stores frequently hold events that help to educate the new homebrewer, as well as enhance the experience of the veteran brewer.
The most important aspect of homebrewing is sanitation. One little bacterial cell can ruin an entire batch of beer, so meticulous sanitation of all of the equipement involved is supremely necessary. Sanitizing powders are available at all of the homebrewing stores and they are a homebrewer’s best friend.
Brewing itself is an incredibly meditative experience. There is a certain peace of mind that comes as malts steep in warm water to make wort boiled with hops. Scents change during the brew from sweet malt to aromatic hops. This blankets the brewer in a quiet calm of sweet steaming malts followed by assertive hop aromas. Once the wort is finished boiling, it is cooled and the yeast is added. As fermentation begins, the air circulates through the air-lock and produces a bubbling sound, which is fun to listen for—it is an audible signal that your beer is being made! Fermentation takes place over several weeks, giving the brewer time to decide—bottling or kegging? Each has its benefits and will depend of the equipment available to the homebrewer. Kegging requires kegs, a proper refrigeration unit (a kegerator,) CO2, and the correct attachments for the tanks. Bottling requires bottles, caps, and a capper, and priming sugar for carbonation. Once the beer is bottled or kegged, the brewer has to wait just a little while longer for carbonation to take place, and then, it’s time to drink. The delicious concoction you’ve worked to create for weeks is now ready to be shared with family and friends, and now you have your own stories to tell as you enjoy your homebrew.
As beer drinkers continue to develop a taste for good craft beer, it stands to reason that homebrewing will also continue to grow. Homebrewers are a welcoming group of people who love what they do and love to share it. For the individual, each batch is an opportunity for a new experience, and so creativity is one of the best characteristics of homebrewing. For these reasons, as well as many others, brewing is a hobby that can easily become a passion.
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