A Homebrewer's Odyssey

About a year ago, my husband suggested we start brewing our own beer. He promised we could make good beer for less than it cost to buy, and with his chemistry degree, he’d have no problem making it. I was all for it.

Neither of his arguments turned out to be completely true. With a little practice anyone can make good home-brew (brewing is really just cooking with a lot of water, right?). But let me dispel the money myth right now. Saving is a compelling argument when you're paying a couple bucks for every beer and can't get yourself to drink the cheap lagers anymore. But the reality of home brewing, at least in our household, is not less expensive. It may be, 10 years from now, when we have acquired every imaginable piece of brewing equipment, in every possible size, and we have the hops farm up and running, and the yeast refrigerator is productive, and the basement has been converted for aging lagers … But for now, suffice to say it is expensive to brew beer.

So after an initial outlay of too much money, the selection of a couple of beer kits and a free afternoon, we were brewing beer. I suggested we keep a notebook, something to look back on. Eric agreed. Then the brewing began. We gathered the grains, malt, hops and yeast. We ran the water and waited while it boiled, adding hops at the appropriate times (for the most part). A few hours later, we waited for the wort to cool. We put the wort and yeast in the carboy – the type of large glass jug people often collect coins in – and waited a couple weeks for the fermentation to finish.

We waited. And waited. And waited. Home-brew, from raw material to drinking, takes a minimum of two months. I could have been back from the liquor store in 10 minutes. Tops.

The early entries in Eric's home-brew notebook end with such gems as, "Would have gone better if Anne helped more." Well, Anne doesn't have that kind of patience, it turns out. I tried. I know Eric thinks all I did was sit on a kitchen stool reading magazines, but I swear, I tried to at least be a good cheerleader. I helped pick beers to brew (admittedly, a self-serving sort of help no home brewer really needs). I tried to not focus so much on the bottom line. I drank our beer.

Of course, I wasn't the only problem. Eric's favorite home-brew author writes, "Relax and have a home-brew," but we have now established beyond a doubt that he didn't mean, "Get so drunk on the last batch of brew that you start the siphon on this one with your mouth," an act which led to an entire batch lost to poor sanitation. Then there was flat beer due to fear of exploding bottles, beer we didn't like, beer we didn't wait long enough to drink (you'll need to brew frequently, if your brewing partner is anything like me).

We did manage to speed up the process by purchasing more equipment, but when it looked like brewing was going to put us into debt, I brought an end to free spending on beer supplies. We would not be roasting our own grain any time soon or switching from 5-gallon batches to 15. We would find a way to make do with the carboys we had and continue to reuse the bottles on hand, no matter how difficult it was to get the labels off.

Gradually, Eric has become not only self-sufficient in brewing, but proficient. I would be shocked by a bad batch now. On any given weekend, we have enough home-brew to ensure we won't need to buy beer, but we still seek out unusual, and unusually good, beers to try (and to try to emulate). We're in what I suspect we'll come to call the "imitation phase," in which we try to make everything we already like. This follows the “anything phase,” in which we made anything. I imagine next will be a “creation phase,” when we'll create our own recipes. Then perhaps will come the “miracle phase,” when we're actually saving money.

I like to think that if we somehow managed to create the perfect beer, we would stop there, but I know we won't. After all, we are not all that far along the home-brew road. If nothing else, it will be a couple more years before the hops Eric planted around the house and garage really produce. And there's still whole grain brewing and larger batches, the yeast issue and that pepper stout I am determined Eric will make.

In the meantime, I make labels for the bottles and drink beer. But the most helpful thing I do for our home-brew operation is keep quiet about what our household accountant (me) knows: This "inexpensive" ale I'm enjoying cost about five dollars a bottle. But it’s OK, because I’ve realized that while the price of home-brew is exorbitant, the value of a content husband is priceless.

Anne Earney lives and writes in South City, where opportunities to enjoy a good beer abound.