In our Summer Issue, Homebrewer editor, Chris Thomas, gives readers the lowdown on how to start homebrewing. So if you’ve ever thought about having a go at brewing your own beer at home but haven’t because you weren’t sure what you need or how to do it, have a read of this, pick your method and get into it! Here is an excerpt from that feature…
Homebrewing has changed a lot in the past few years. In fact, it’s changed a lot in the last 12 months and will continue to do so into 2017. There are some new gadgets out there, which will make it easier for you to make better beer. Homebrewing is no longer a hobby banished to the back shed, in fact, some of these newer machines demand space in the kitchen.
Homebrewing is a challenging, fun, social, rewarding and sometimes heartbreaking pursuit. Creating an awesome beer that is even better than you expected is a great feeling. Sharing it with some friends who are equally impressed is the ultimate compliment. Some people like to brew alone for some time out, others brew with friends over social drinks, while others are members of brewing clubs.
Back when homebrewing first became legal in Australia (yep that’s right it used to be illegal!) it gained a reputation amongst hobbyists as being a cheap alternative to buying commercial products. People used to make a point of how cheap one could brew a longneck. Even now you could knock up a pretty generic, and kind of nasty, lager for about 20c a stubbie.
But that’s not why newcomers are keen to get into the game. Homebrewing has been inspired by the craft beer revolution as well as the general push for homemade over mass produced, commercial products. Like baking your own bread or curing your own meat, homebrew is an artisan pursuit. It’s about creating a beer yourself in you favoured craft beer style.
EASY DOES IT
During 2016-17 there are going to be some new machines hitting the market allowing you to make beer at home with varying levels of involvement and complexity. All of these machines are very attractive and would be more at home in your kitchen or butler’s pantry than they would in your man cave.
These brewing machines are a perfect option for anyone who is space poor, wants to brew consistent beers easily or has a few dollars to splash out on a machine to impress friends with their own beer when they come over. Some in the industry suggest that these machines could do for brewing what Nespresso has done for coffee-making.
SodaStream Beer Bar: Yep you read right. That fizzy awesomeness you had when you were a kid has now been taken to the next level and is appealing to your adult sensibilities. This is exactly what you’re thinking it will be. Add the syrup and water, give it a blast in the Beer Bar, then voila! You’ve got a refreshing, freshly carbonated, alcoholic beer! At this stage SodaStream is only offering one flavour, Blonde, and there is no adapting the flavour or getting creative with it.
SodaStream Beer Bar has the added bonus that it can be used to carbonate your regular homebrew straight from the fermenter.
Availability: The Beer Bar is currently available in Switzerland and Germany and will launch in other markets late-2016 and throughout 2017.
Cost: At this stage, the cost in Australia is still being decided. In Germany, the pack with the machine retails for €49.90 (just over AU$72).
BrewArt: This one launched a few months ago and is very much aimed at a different market than traditional homebrewers. It pretty much removes any mess, cleaning or sanitising. There are two models – BeerDroid and BrewFlo, which really go hand-in-hand but are sold separately. The BeerDroid is what you make the beer in. It is a fully-automated 10 litre fermenting unit, which can be controlled from your phone. It will also send push notifications with updates on your brew. You can bottle directly from the BeerDroid, but BrewArt’s real aim is for users to dispense directly into custom 5 litre kegs specific to the BrewFlo. The BrewFlo is essentially a mini kegerator and you can swap over kegs easily whenever you like. These 5 litre kegs are secondary fermented using primer pouches, meaning that there are no CO₂ cartridges. Keeping in line with ease of use and no cleaning, the kegs are lined with a disposable foil pouch and the beer line is also disposable.
To brew on the BeerDroid you need to buy ‘Beer Prints’. These are 40-plus recipes available online for all styles of beer, including nine from the Coopers range. Beer Prints are made up of hopped and unhopped dry malt extracts, liquid hop extracts and yeast.
BrewArt is not brewing for cost saving (which is just as well given the price of the devices), but it is a classy, quick and easy way to make your own beer.
Availability: Harvey Norman stores and online.
Cost: BrewArt BeerDroid $799, BrewArt BrewFlo $699.
Brew Prints range from $28-$44.
Pico Brew: At a glance Pico Brew is amazing. Look a little deeper and it’s still amazing. Pico Brew has been labelled Nespresso brewing by some. Essentially, it involves inserting a container of grains and hops and pushing a button – just like your Nespresso coffee machine. They have partnered with more than 100 breweries from around the world including Rogue, Rooftop and New Helvetia from the US. Basically you select the recipe online and the ingredients arrive in a Pico Pak ingredient kit. Pop this in the Pico Brew machine and it automatically recognises the beer recipe and brews accordingly. The brew cycle is about two hours and fermentation is done in less than a week. The beer can then be bottled or put into 5 litre transportable kegs.
Availability: Pico Brew is currently available in the US; no mention of Australia yet.
IS THIS REALLY BREWING?
Given the ease of these new brewing devices, one has to ask is any of this really brewing? And to be honest, I’m not sure. I can’t call the SodaStream option homebrewing. Rather you’re carbonating and mixing. You’re no more making the beer than you are the SodaStream lemonade. The BrewArt is a highly-automated machine, which essentially involves opening a series of measured pouches and pushing a button. It does give brewers the option of designing their own recipe, though this is within the constraints of the ingredients available in the pouches. Pico Brew is an all grain machine so will most likely provide the best results, but you’re just selecting a style, inserting it and pushing a button. While the beer should be awesome, there’s no room for creativity or designing your own beer. To surmise, I guess you’re brewing and I’d be happy to experience making beer with these machines and then of course tasting it, but I wouldn’t be happy with one of my mates entering this in our annual Golden Longneck homebrew competition! But if any of these methods introduce more people to brewing and enjoying better beer then that is a good result.
It will be interesting to see which of these are embraced by the public. In theory, Tap King was a good idea – fresh beer on tap anytime you want it. It even had Lionel Richie on the ad. But it didn’t capture the beer drinking audience and has been discontinued.
Concentrate brewing is what you probably first think about with homebrew. And it can be a lot of fun. Making your first beers is an exciting time.
At its most basic, more traditional homebrewing is where you take the top off a can of concentrate from the likes of Black Rock or Coopers, and add a kilo of brewing sugar, 23 litres of water, stir it up and add some yeast in a (thoroughly cleaned and sanitised) fermenter. Wait about 10 days, then bottle. Wait a few more weeks, then enjoy! It’s really that easy.
To know if your beer is ready, you fill a test tube and measure the specific gravity with your hydrometer (test tube and hydrometer come with your starter kit). This sounds pretty technical and scientific but you’re just measuring the amount of sugar in your beer – as it ferments the sugars get eaten up by the yeast and leave behind alcohol and carbon dioxide. For ales and lagers, a low gravity reading of 1.008-1.012 (these numbers are on the side of your hydrometer) on consecutive days means it’s time to bottle.
To bottle, first you need to sanitise all of your bottles and then give them another quick rinse. Then add a carbonation drop per stubby, or two for a longneck. Dispense the beer into the bottles from the fermenter then put your cap on – if using crown seals you’ll need a capper but this should come as part of your start-up kit. Coopers DIY starter kits come with 750ml PET bottles with screw on lids so if using these you don’t need the capper.
If you’re looking for something a little more serious equipment-wise, Newera Brewing is the official Australian distributor for Ss Brewtech products. They stock fermenters, brew kettles, mash tuns and mini keg systems, as well as a range of temperature control kits, optional add-ons and accessories to suit your shiny new brewing kit.
WOW THAT WAS EASY, BUT HOW DO I MAKE BETTER BEER?
Making beer is easy but making good beer is hard. Once you start brewing, making better beer each time becomes the constant challenge. You’ll have some hits and some misses, but don’t let these false starts banish your homebrew kit to the shed!
So beyond popping the top off a can of concentrate, how do you make better beer?
Hops: If you like your craft beer no doubt you’ve heard a lot about hops and you’ve probably got a good understanding of what they do. Essentially, they add bitterness and aroma. The longer you boil hops the more bitter and less aromatic your beer. If you’re after aroma just boil for a couple of minutes in about 200ml of water, then let sit for 10 minutes before adding the (strained) hop liquid to your brew. If you’re using a can of concentrate with a beer style on the front (lager, pale ale, stout, etc.) it’s pre-hopped. That means there is already bitterness in the can, so you might just want to add aroma hops.
Malt: You can add specialty malts to your brew to give it more complexity, flavour and colour. If you’re making a red ale some Shepherds Delight malt will add some beautiful colour and flavour. In an IPA, crystal malt is a staple. Adding some wheat malt will give your beer a dryer finish and better head retention. Right now, I’m getting some good results from a little bit of Munich and Vienna malt. About 200g of any of the aforementioned is a good start, but be careful with others as they can be overpowering and if you go all cavalier you could end up with an unbalanced beer, which tastes like a cup of grain. To use grain, it needs to be cracked. Try to buy cracked grain from your homebrew shop, but if you end up with uncracked grain you can crack it with your rolling pin – just remember you don’t need to smash the grain, just crack it open. Then you can steep (soak) it in a couple of litres of 67-70°C water for half an hour, before straining it and then bringing it to the boil before adding it to your fermenter with the other ingredients. Using a small grain bag is a good idea.
Yeast: I’d hazard a guess that our Homebrewer technical editor Jake Brandish would say that yeast selection and fermentation have the biggest impact on the beer you’re making. Think about the last Belgian ale you had. The yeast is what gives it those flavours. Same with a wheat beer. Those banana and clove characteristics are from the yeast. The yeast used in an English or American pale ale is different again. As is the yeast in a lager compared to an ale.
The yeast you get with your can of homebrew concentrate is not the best yeast going around. Your beer will be better if you throw that yeast away and buy a different one for about $6. A safe bet for me is Safale-04 (UK) or Safale-05 (US). Both are really reliable and not overpowering yeasts.
If you’re starting out brewing my advice is to steer clear of lagers – they’re hard to get right and if you’re trying to make craft beer you might as well make ale, especially early on. Also try to stay within the recommended fermentation temperatures on your yeast pack!
While you can buy the very basic ingredients for homebrewing from your local supermarket, Big W or Kmart you will be doing yourself (and small business) a favour by visiting your local homebrew shop. The number one thing that the person behind the counter at your homebrew shop can give you is advice and experience. And of course, they can also sell you the stuff you need to make better beer because they’ve got more ingredients! Grain & Grape, Country Brewer and Home Make It, all have impressive stores, with extensive home brew products and knowledgeable staff who can point you in the right direction. Turn to page 80 for a full list of our preferred homebrew shops.
Safety: A last word on safety when brewing. Thongs aren’t a great idea as they’re slippery and if you’re using boiling ingredients it’ll hurt when they splash on your toes. Be careful with glass and don’t over-carbonate your beer as this is when bottles can explode. Adding more carbonation drops than recommended or bottling your beer before it has finished fermenting can cause this over-carbonation. You can buy glass carboys (fermenters) but there are some horror stories of people dropping these and cutting themselves badly – it’s safest just to stick to the plastic…or you could buy a stainless fermenter for some bling! Also it’s a good idea to limit your lifting of a full fermenter to look after you back.
That should be enough to get you started. So if you’ve never given it a try and have always wondered what it would be like, treat yourself to a basic homebrew kit and get your hands dirty. Well sort of. You won’t really get them that dirty.
For the full article with recipes, tips, links to resources and additional information, pick up the latest issue of Beer & Brewer at newsagencies and Dan Murphys stores, or subscribe here.