Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Homebrewing - Part 1: Why make your own beer? Guest Post

Boaz with Sam Adams Award
I am honored to introduce Boaz Harel, the first place winner for Pale Ale in the 2012 Sam Adams Longshot home brew competition in Israel, and author of the Three Cats Brewery Blog. Boaz is also married to  Maya, the author of the hilarious and informative blog How to Be Israeli. I first met Boaz and Maya when we were college students in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This October we both welcomed our first "Made in Israel" babies into the world. Congratulation Boaz and Maya!

Let's try a simple exercise. Go get yourself a glass of cola. Now look at the glass and ask yourself what's in it. Chances are you couldn't answer the question, and with soft drink companies being so cagey about their products (and for a reason - if you knew what was in it you'd probably never drink it) you'll probably never know. Now go get a glass of beer and the same question. What's in this? The answer to that question is just four words: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. What's more, all the wonderful variety of beers in the world, from the black roasty Guinness, to the pale crisp Bud Light, is made from those same basic four ingredients. Water, Malted Barley, Hops, Yeast (and magic :) ).
Beers from Three Cats Brewery

In fact, beer is such a simple, easy, and natural beverage, that you can actually make it at home. In the second part of this post I'll show you how, but before we get into that, let's talk a little about what beer is, and why you should make it. 

Where Does Beer Come From?
Pictographs Recording the Allocation of Beer
Beer started out in ancient Mesopotamia. I won't bore you with the (really interesting) history of the oldest man-made beverage, but throughout the ages it was treated with respect and reverence. It was a source of nutrition, a safe way to drink water, it made you feel good, and was considered in many ancient cultures to be a gift from the gods. In fact, beer was so important that the Egyptians used it as a way to pay their workers and artisans when they built the pyramids. And when the Mayflower ran out of beer on it's way to the Virgina colony, the colonists decided to turn west and make landfall at Plymouth right away. It was THAT crucial. 

The importance and history of beer allude to its simplicity. To make beer all you need is some grain, some water, and some yeast. It's really not much different than making bread. In fact in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs the word for beer is nothing more than a combination of the words for "bread" and "water." Just like when we make bread, we mill the grain and soak it in water to get the sugar out, and then add yeast to it. (Well, there's a little more to it than that, but if you've ever made a yeast slurry for baking you'll find the general process very familiar.) It's so simple that up until modern times, every household that made its own bread usually also made its own beer, and everyone (including children!) drank it.

Why Home Brew?
So why should you make your own beer instead of going out for a six pack? Here are five reasons:

1. It tastes better.

Let's face it, buying a loaf of prepackaged, industrial bread is not as good as making your own straight from the oven. In the same way, making your own beer tastes a lot better than drinking the prepackaged industrial stuff. Beer companies invest a lot of research into their beer, but not in the areas you'd think: beer research in big companies is about how to make the beer cheaper and give it a longer shelf life. Big companies use cheaper ingredients, like rice and corn, to try to stretch their batch size and save money. It's a legitimate concern for a company that makes millions of bottles a year, but it comes at the expense of flavor. Similarly, beer companies try to get their beer out to market as fast as they can, so they try any trick they can find to "rush" the beer through its process, and that too impacts the flavor. And finally, the companies try to make sure the beer doesn't spoil by filtering and pasteurizing the beer, which also kills flavor.

But the biggest thing to realize is that a commercial company generally doesn't WANT it's beer to have much flavor. They want a beer that appeals to as many people as possible and that you can drink a lot of (because then they can sell you more). Commercial beer is often described as "smooth", "crisp", "goes down easy", and "refreshing". These are the qualities the big guys are going for. Not flavor. In fact, the big companies spend a lot more money in advertising that talks up their beer than in anything else. I guess that's what happens when your beer doesn't speak for itself.

There's one thing that I hear over and over when people try a home-brewed beer for the first time is "WOW, this doesn't taste at all like beer." In my mind, this statement is exactly opposite: nothing you've drunk up till now actually tasted like beer. This is the first time in your life you've actually tasted beer the way it was meant to taste. 

2. You can make it your own.

I tasted a beer once that had chile peppers in it. The guy who made it liked spicy food and he wanted something he could drink with his nachos, so he made a chile-pepper beer. He wasn't trying to appeal to a mass market, just to his own palate.

When you make your own beer, you have total control over what it tastes like. Want a dark, smooth, silky, coffee-flavored beer? You can make that. Want something that tastes like fruit? You can make that. Want something that has nutmeg and cinnamon, and 10% alcohol? Well, you can make that as well. It's up to YOU.

I have friends who make beers that only their wives like. I have friends who make smoked beer that to me tastes like cigarettes, but that's what they like. I have friends who won't drink a beer if it has less than 8% alcohol, and friends who won't drink a beer if it has more than 5%. Everyone makes their own beer, because that's what they like.

Brewing is an infinitely creative process. Once you've discovered that beer is meant to have flavor, it's time to ask yourself "What kind of flavor do I like?"
 (I also have friends  who like tasteless industrial-flavor beer. And so they make that, because that's what they like.)

3. It's cheap.

Photo of grains and water by Jonca Chare
In these days of lackluster economies a beer or two every evening can really stack up. Even if you're not big drinkers (I drink one or two a week, at most) it's still hard to beat having a quality beer at a fifth to a tenth of the price of cheap crappy beer in the supermarket. I did a calculation once, and discovered that whereas my first batch of beer (with the cost of equipment factored in) was roughly half the price of the equivalent amount of beer bought in the super, my second batch was a fifth of that the price of bought. That's right. I make 20 liters (60 bottles) of beer for the same price as it would cost me to buy a couple of six packs. Can't beat it.

 Incidentally, the equipment itself is not expensive. You can brew your own beer with a decent size pot, a couple of plastic buckets, and a length of rubber tubing. Really.

4. It's a great way to make friends.

Boaz with his homebrews
For one thing, everyone wants to be friends with the "beer guy". You'll discover that when you start giving people good beer, they'll tent to start calling you up more and ask to hang out. Preferably at your house. By the beer fridge.

But aside from the general public and friendly moochers, quality beer and beer making come with their own world-wide community.  I was in Rome not to long ago, and was sitting in a bar next to an Italian guy who didn't speak a lick of English, but that didn't matter, because he spoke beer. We both got a taste of a new beer the bartender started pouring. We both did the same thing: we smelled it, we paused, we smelled again, we tasted, we made the same face. The beer smelled great but didn't have much flavor. I told the bartender that, and the Italian guy muttered something to him in Italian. I asked the bartender what he said and he replied "he says it's all nose". We were to guys who never met before, didn't speak each other's language, and had no way of communicating. But it didn't matter. We were part of the same community. We were beer people.

Beer is a great way to discover new places, too. Craft beer tends to be brewed locally from local ingredients and with local influences. Belgian beers, German Beers, English, American, and even Israeli beers all taste different. The history of brewing beer in a certain place is a mirror of the history and culture of that place. Belgian monastery beer, for example, evolved because the monks who brewed it needed a heavy nourishing drink during lent when they didn't eat (at all, they actually lived on beer). English low-alcohol beer reflects that country's tax system that taxed beer by the alcohol content - a natural cause of an island state that has to import its grain. German beer purity laws decree that beer can only be made from barley, not wheat, because of fears that brewing with wheat (which was more lucrative) would bring the country to a bread shortage. Even relatively new brewing countries like Italy and France show their heritage in the way the wine culture in those countries influences the beer. A local beer is a piece of local culture.
And finally there's the local community. The guys and girls in your beer club, the local competitions and beer events, the tasting evenings at someone's house, the joined brewing sessions with people that you might have never met if it weren't for the beer. A lot of us tend to fall into a routine of home-work-home, and never really meet new people, so a community that's always growing and changing is a welcome social outlet.

5. It's fun for the whole family.

My nine month old daughter loves my beer. She doesn't get to taste it, of course, but she loves the smell of it and always tries to grab the cup from my hand. She also loves it when I bottle the beer and leave a couple of crates full of beer in the corner of the living-room until I get a chance to take them downstairs. When that happens, she happily crawls to the cases, rocks them, and reaches inside to try and pull a bottle out (so far without success, but her mother and I are keeping close tabs on that). Of course, you can't blame the girl, she's practically been raised on beer: 

(yup, that's a beer bottles and coasters mobile...)
Her mother, too, is fond of my brewing. She's not a big beer drinker, and probably doesn't appreciate being exiled from the kitchen and given the stink eye when she comes on to make a sandwich (can't help it, I hate having someone walk through "my" area when I cook, let alone when I brew), but she's a good sport about it and the fact that I leave a spotless kitchen behind me probably helps.
Besides which, I think they both appreciate having me home during that time. I have many hobbies that take place outside the home: Diving, motorcycle riding, martial arts, etc. It's nice to have a hobby that I can do while watching a baby. 

And as she gets older I expect that my daughter will also take a more active part on the brewing experience. I know a lot of brewers with kids, and they're generally very excited to help daddy (or mommy) "make beer". I know of one seven year old who has been made the official "quality inspector" of her father's brewery - nothing goes into the beer unless she smells it first! Kids love being included, and brewing offers many opportunities to include them.
Photo by Anders Adermark

But aside from that, there's also a deeper issue: I have a friend who has an eighteen year old daughter (the legal drinking age in Israel). She's not much of a beer drinker, but her friends are, and at least once a week (more now that it's summer) they congregate on his porch and drink his beer. And he's totally fine with that. He says that he rather that they drink quality beer on his porch quietly and safely, than sit on the street corner with a bunch of cheap vodka just to get drunk. And he's right. I'd rather my daughter grows up exposed to alcohol, and learns from a young age that it is something to be enjoyed moderately and slowly, rather than just something to mess you up. I drink beer in front of my daughter, and when she's old enough I'll drink beer with her. Because I want her to grow up with the notion that beer is something to be savored. Brewing is part of that mentality: when a child, or a young adult, sees how much care and respect goes into making the beer, and if they are included in the process and put in their time and effort to make it, they are much more likely to treat it with respect and moderation. In fact, studies show that children who grow up in households where parents modeled moderate, responsible drinking were much less likely to exhibit behaviors such as binge drinking and alcoholism later in life. In other words, making and drinking quality beer is good not only for you, but also for your children.

After this whole list, you're probably sitting going "OK, you convinced me! I HAVE to brew! but I don't know how?" But fear not! In the second part of this post we'll cover the what and how of brewing, and get you started on the path to great beer. 
Until then, go drink something. :)

Can't wait to learn more? Visit Boaz's Three Cats Brewery Blog. And follow my blog on Facebook, Twitter, or email subscription so you don't miss Part 2 - Getting Started with Home Brewing.


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