Homebrewing taps into creativity
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, email@example.com
If you’ve checked out the beer cooler at your neighborhood grocery store, convenience store, or ABC market lately, you’ve probably noticed the growing array of craft beers – often independent brewers or small offshoot brands specializing in flavors ranging from peach to root beer to holiday spice blends. But the trend toward peculiar potables isn’t confined to the professional brewing circuit; men and women all across America are discovering that making beer in one’s own kitchen is a fairly easy and fun activity, with plenty of room for experimentation.
“Beer is actually a simple recipe; you have malt to get the sugar, hops bring a bitterness to counterbalance that sweetness, then yeast converts the sugars to alcohol, and there’s water. So beer is really only four ingredients, but it’s how you play around with all those ratios that give a beer its unique flavor,” says Henry Curry, a Hartsville homebrewer who now brings his culinary skills to bear on beer.
Mixing traditional southern dishes with flair from his Philippine heritage, Curry says he’s always enjoyed cooking, and his inventive nature has allowed him to branch out from food to homebrewing with some interesting results. But first, like most newbies, he had to learn the basics of manipulating those four key beer ingredients.
Malt is toasted barley that is allowed to germinate until sugar is released in the seed. Roasting kills the germination process and halts the sweetening process. Malt is available in powder, liquid, and grain form and the strength can be adjusted by how much you add or – in the case of grains – how long you allow them to steep. As with tea, a longer steep in hot water (about 180 degrees Fahrenheit) will yield a stronger malt flavor.
“Depending on how dark you toast the malt, that dictates the color and flavor of the beer. The darker the malt, the darker the beer will be. Most dark malts will either have a chocolate or coffee flavor,” says Curry.
The malt-steeped water is then mixed with hops and cooked for about an hour. Those bittering hops add a character all their own, with flavor profiles and aromas – ranging from citrus to floral to black pepper – specific to each hop varietal. Beer drinkers fond of deep, layered bitterness often enjoy brews that go heavy on the hops, like an IPA (India Pale Ale).
American beers are generally either lagers or ales, with lagers brewed over several weeks at steady cold temps and ales made at room temperature, fermenting gently with the addition of brewer’s yeast. Most homebrewed beers are ales, because the brewing process is considerably simpler and requires less equipment.
“For ales, you just boil the ingredients into a mix called wort, and let the wort sit in a carboy (a glass jug holding from one to six gallons) at room temperature and ferment. A three-gallon batch usually takes from three to seven days to ferment,” says Curry.
Ambient temperature plays a part in the speed of fermentation; warmer temps rush the process along, while cool weather drags it out a few more days. As the yeast works its magic, the wort mixture bubbles and burps out carbon dioxide through an airlock tube in the bottleneck, which also serves to prevent bacterial intrusion.
“If you have a beer with a high bitter or sour flavor, either it’s bad or you may have some bacteria. And beer and bacteria don’t mix,” says Curry.
Sanitizing agents and good cleaning practices are a must for homebrewers since live cultures are involved in the fermentation process. Lax cleanliness can lead to yucky beer and unhappy returns for all those who consume it.
After waiting perhaps a week for the beer to fully ferment, homebrewers have a choice: to keg or to bottle? If they invest in a kegging system, they can decant their brew into a CO-2 pressurized beer keg and enjoy the foamy fruits of their labors immediately. Curry says he prefers to funnel his brews into bottles and add a little more sugar, either malt or unflavored corn sugar, then cap them and let the residual yeast introduce natural bubbles.
Though he has the ratios down to a science these days, Curry admits there were a few trial-and-error bottling miscues early on, when that natural effervescence turned explosive and his ceilings were splashed with renegade springs of beer.
Those tragic losses notwithstanding, Curry believes in maximizing yield from quality ingredients, so after the steeping process the leftover malted grain is repurposed as garden fertilizer or baked into dog biscuits. Yeast that lives through the brewing process can also be harvested and given new life in bread or pizza dough.
Normally, Curry says he makes standard ales in three-gallon batches, but he will occasionally prepare a one-gallon carboy just as a gastronomic experiment, mixing in fruits and spices to find flavor combinations that please the palate.
“Sometimes I’ll just start throwing things together and see what I can come up with. It’s usually not more than about five bucks worth of ingredients in the wort, so it’s not that big a deal if it doesn’t work,” he says.
Successful combos have included a sunny orange/coriander brew, and a dessert-themed German chocolate cake concoction achieved by blending a chocolaty stout with sweet cherry flavor. Curry has also experimented with hop substitutes by using other bittering agents, like home-grown collard greens, to balance out a brew’s malty sweetness.
“Back when there were rumors of a hop shortage…I started thinking about things we grow locally that could be used instead, and I came up with green persimmons, collard greens, and bitter melon,” says Curry, noting that the first boil of fresh collards gives up enough bitter pot liquor to make a pretty decent beer. “I’ve made a couple of batches of collard beer… I’ve let about twenty people try it and they really like it.”
Though most aspiring homebrewers might not be ready for the leap to collard beer, the initial investment for a brewing setup can be quite modest. All the basic ingredients and equipment for homebrewing are available through the Internet as starter kits costing as little as $50. Curry suggests buying one of these kits and playing around with it a bit before investing in larger, more costly rigs.
But don’t be surprised if the beer brewing bug bites and you find yourself mixing fruits and herbs into your wort, aiming for that singular, delicious brew that might become the next big trend.
“I still hope that one of my experiments will be that perfect combination that makes me a million dollars,” Curry says, laughing. “It hasn’t happened yet… but it might.”
Grow your own beer garden
Dedicated homebrewers and owners of small craft breweries can be obsessive about ingredient quality, even to the point of growing their own hops, grains, fruits, and herbs to be used in brewing – call it a “farm to bottle” movement.
Hops grow really well in the sunny southeast. In fact, some of the earliest American colonists in the Virginia region grew their own hops and malt for ale. Hop plants, or Humulus lupulus, are hardy climbing vines that can grow up to one foot per day, with large plants sometimes topping twenty-five feet. They grow well on trellises or poles, and can easily cover the side of a house if given a simple support grid.
The best sites for hop growing provide upwards of fifteen hours of sunlight during the summer growing season, offer well-drained soil and good air circulation. Hops are hungry plants, requiring lots of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to stay healthy. Harvesting season is mid-August through September, depending on location, and freshly picked hop cones must be thoroughly dried and packaged in airtight containers to preserve their best flavor.
Hop plants are perennial and live from 10 to 25 years, with crowns dying back each fall. Commercially available hops are all female, and are usually established by planting cuttings or rhizomes. Hop cones have oil glands that contain alpha and beta acids, and essential oils that were once used as a mild sedative.
Grains are a pretty ambitious project for a homebrewer’s garden, but small patches of sorghum or amaranth can provide the necessary malt while adding visual appeal with their colorful seed heads. About 800 square feet of grain can yield a bushel, which is enough to brew at least 25 gallons of beer.
Herb gardens require minimal investment and space, and can provide brewers with fresh flavors to spice up their brews. Fruit trees and berry bushes are also popular garden additions that broaden a brewer’s potential output, with crisp citrus beers and sweet berry flavors gaining popularity among beer drinkers.