Without fail, our obsessions dive deeper the longer we hold on to them. If you love cheese, you learn more about cheese. Then, you research the history of cheese. You visit rare cheese caves. Then: you learn to make cheese.
The same can be said for any craft. People teach themselves to make their own axes, clothing, electronics, dairy products and wine. People write their own books and make their own movies. And, naturally, people make their own beer.
Like cooking and baking, homebrewing has been around as long as beer itself has been around. The rise of homebrewing isn’t some hipster-slash-hippie fad - all beer, at some point, has been considered a homebrew. Major breweries didn’t just sprout from the ground complete with horse-drawn carriages and Super Bowl ads - they were built from the relics of a former homebrew recipe.
In terms of its modern history, though, today’s modern homebrew revolution owes its legs to two historical dates: January 16, 1919 - the date the 18th Amendment was ratified, bringing on Prohibition - and October 14, 1978 - the date that homebrewing became exempt from taxation if consumed by family and friends, thus ushering in “legal” homebrewing. The first ensured that people would begin learning the beer craft on their own (after all, Drinkers Gonna Drink) and the second ensured that the practice could be commercialized and mass promoted.
From here, the history of homebrewing takes a path through associations and books - from Charlie Papazian’s American Homebrewers Association to publication of his book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. Much as Julia Child brought French cooking into the American kitchen with a hearty “Bon Appetit!,” Papazian introduced thousands to the joys of homebrewing with the zen motto of zymurgy: “Relax, Have a Homebrew.”
The rise of craft beers has contributed heavily to the rise in homebrewing. As we experience new flavors and new combinations, we’re drawn to recreate them on our own. Because brewing is a complicated alchemy, it’s only natural for beer drinkers to become curious about the process.
But homebrewing can seem daunting. All of that copper tubing! All of those glass bottles! The krausen, the cloudy yeast, the incredible dedication to cleanliness - these are all both equally important and equally unfamiliar. Which is why the American Homebrewers Association developed Learn to Homebrew Day.
This past Sunday was Sioux Falls’ first Learn to Homebrew Day, hosted at new brew equipment shop Steins and Vines. When I arrived, two pots were boiling with wort, a handful of kegs of homebrew courtesy of area brewers were on hand, and everyone was rapt with learning the details of making beer from the most basic of ingredients. (It is worth noting that Taylor’s Pantry/GoodSpirits also carries a good supply of homebrew equipment in addition to their best-in-Sioux-Falls beer selection.)
At heart, brewing seems simple - boil some things, let it sit, carbonate and drink! In practice, it can be that easy - but it can also be much more difficult. Each step toward better homebrew involves an extra level of patience and skill. Of course, there’s an easy place to start: grab a starter kit and an ingredient kit and begin learning from your mistakes.
Easier said than done. Maybe we should just drink the beer.
Drinking homebrew is an entirely different beast, though. It involves one part situation, one part suspension of belief, and one part actual tasting. Ask anyone who’s had a friend give them “One of the best batches ever made” - only to force it down with a plugged nose and a prayer - what goes into a successful homebrew. If you’re in the right place, any homebrew is great. If you’re the one who made it, you’re either super critical or super proud that you made SOMETHING.
Personally, I’ve become uber-sensitive to certain tastes in our own homebrewed beers. Whether or not these tastes are actually distinctive or simply a case of an overactive sense of recency effect. For us, it’s a constant hint of bananas (a sign of overworked yeast), but for others its sulfur or floral off-ness or the myth that every homebrew made is the best homebrew ever.
That being said, it’s different for everyone. Everyone homebrews in a different way, and that’s how the four basic ingredients in beer can be reconstituted into thousands of different styles and tastes.
If you’re interested in tasting good homebrew - or in learning more about the art and craft - your goal should be to find someone who is really invested in homebrewing - as in, has purchased the equipment, learned the craft and is constantly pushing forward - you’ve found someone who is willing to put money where their taste is. People don’t buy or create homebrew equipment to make simple kits - they do so to develop more complex tastes, try more difficult beers, or experiment at a level that you can’t get with a plastic bucket and a few jugs of extract.
You’ll learn what temperatures produce the best beers, which techniques give your yeast the best chance, and which steps are crucial (and which are easily skipped). Best of all, you’ll learn which beers are easiest to start with. You’ll get a firsthand look into the process. You’ll try tons of beer. And, in the end, you’ll realize that there’s no such thing as a bad homebrew, just as there’s really no such thing as a bad beer - it’s all a matter of taste, circumstance, and passion.