Homebrewing on the Cheap

Meeting my hero Charlie Papazian at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon

Meeting the hero of homebrewers, Charlie Papazian, at the Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon, April, 2015

Three years ago, when I told Hugo, my commercial brewer husband, that we should start homebrewing, he mumbled something like, “No thanks,” and went back to doing whatever it was I had interrupted. I could kind of understand how, after overseeing highly automated 600-barrel brews (18,600 gallons) for years, he might not get real excited about making five gallons on the kitchen stove. But, like a weed in a hopyard, I was annoyingly persistent.

A year later, when I announced that I was going to start homebrewing, Hugo shook his head and said, “Good luck. I suggest you read this first.” The thick book he dropped in my hand was John Palmer’s hard-core scientific How to Brew. I diligently poured over Palmer for several weeks and asked Hugo hundreds of questions.

Buying equipment from Duane Shimabukuro at Bottoms Up

Buying equipment from Duane Shimabukuro at Bottoms Up, December, 2014

Shortly before Thanksgiving, I made my first-ever visit to a homebrew store. To be honest, I expected to be talked down to because 1) I knew so little and 2) I was an older female. To my surprise and relief, Duane Shimabukuro, the owner of Bottoms Up, answered my questions seriously and I started to relax.

It helped that Hugo had come along, even though he still had no intention of brewing. He only wanted to make sure I spent as little as possible on this soon-to-be short-lived adventure. That day, we pinned down the basic equipment, keeping the tab under $200 and I walked out with a copy of Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. After a holiday trip out of town, I was back at Bottoms Up. Then, on December 2, 2014, with my shiny new, cheap equipment spread all over our kitchen, I brewed my first beer.

With brewing class instructor Nicole Todd at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, January, 2015

With brewing class instructor Nicole Todd at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, January, 2015

In the two years since, I’ve gone to brewing classes and conferences, regularly read magazines and more books, done thirteen more brews on my own and joined other homebrewers on their brew days. And Hugo, the chemical engineer who spent his childhood summer vacations playing with chemistry sets, calls himself my assistant brewer.

So much of brewing is about cleaning and sanitizing and waiting for certain things to happen. When it’s time for those fun things, Hugo can’t stay away. And I’m happy to have him there at critical moments like pitching the yeast. There have been early mornings after a brew day when we’ve stood in hushed awe before the carboy on the kitchen island. We peel back the beach towel that covers the carboy, turn on a cell phone flashlight and simply watch the wonder of fermentation. If you’ve never observed this phenomenal process, you’ve missed out on a truly beautiful thing, one of the marvels of the world.

Mashing in with a pot instead of a mash tun

Partial mash in a pot on the stove instead of in an all-grain mash in a mash tun

The first step in brewing beer is to mash (steep) malt, most often from barley. This process transforms unfermented sugars into fermentable sugars (dextrose, maltose and sucrose). This step can be eliminated by using dry or liquid extract, thus simplifying and speeding up the hours-long brewing process.

For the quantity of beer homebrewers make, the higher cost of using extracts is not terribly significant. Commercial breweries, though, mash their own grains, and many homebrewers like the challenges of working with all-grain brews, much like baking a cake from scratch as opposed to using a boxed mix. Then, there’s the in-between partial mash, which is what I’ve been doing for nearly a year and a half, part extract, part all-grain.

Cheap aluminum pot that had been all the same color before I boiled water and let it cool over night

Cheap aluminum pot that had been all the same color before I boiled water and let it cool over night

Working with my simple system has taken some inventiveness, and I’ve learned a few lessons the hard way. For example, when you need a second 5-gallon pot, do not buy a cheap aluminum one at the grocery store. (That particular lesson involved a refund trip back to the grocery store the next day, then a trip to the homebrew store for a stainless-steel pot, and filtering, boiling and cooling several gallons of fresh water anew.)

A second lesson came during sparging. I’ve used the common partial mash method of putting the grains in a bag. Afterwards, the mash is sparged by slowly pouring warm water over the bag to extract as much of the fermentable sugars as possible. I came up with the clever idea of putting the grain bag in the kitchen colander and having my strong assistant press down as hard as he could with the largest cooking spoon in the kitchen. It was working well—until Hugo pushed hard to one side of the colander, which slammed the other side down into the liquid in eight-quart pasta pot underneath. It was truly amazing 1) how much hot, sugary liquid splashed all over the kitchen counter, floor, cabinets and freshly washed windows and 2) that unlike me, Hugo didn’t shout any four-letter words. That was the moment when I knew my days of homebrewing on the cheap were numbered.

Trying to decide what to replace the cheap system with, however, was the start of my journey to the next level of homebrewing. Check back next week to see what I finally decided on. Teaser: I can tell you that there’s equipment out there for homebrewers today that would have left the young Palmer and Papazian drooling in their mash—but it’s not cheap.

More photos below:

One early brew, before the start of fermentation, Febraury, 2015

An early brew before the start of fermentation, Febraury, 2015

 

The joy of a spot-on final gravity reading! October, 2016

The joy of a spot-on final gravity reading! October, 2016

 

Learning in the Ruhstaller hopyard near Dixon, California, July, 2015

Learning in the Ruhstaller hopyard near Dixon, California, July, 2015

 

Weighing my home hop harvest, September, 2016 (Yep, the entire harvest was 18 cones.)

Weighing my home hop harvest, September, 2016 (Yep, the entire harvest was 18 cones.)

 

At HomebrewCon, Baltimore, Maryland, June, 2016

At HomebrewCon, Baltimore, Maryland, June, 2016

 

The work pays off

The rewards of homebrewing

 

Comments

  1. Hi Leslie. I love how you write. Keeps me reading every word. If I wasn’t allergic to beer, I would love try your brew. It must be delicious! Blessings, Clarissa

    • Leslie Patino says:

      Thanks for your nice words, Clarissa. Next time we see each other, let’s figure out if there’s a beer you could maybe drink.

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