To most of us, brewing beer is something like witchcraft. You put barley, water, hops and yeast into a container, and a few weeks later, you’ve somehow conjured a potion that not only tastes fantastic, but has the ability to bring people together in joyful celebration. But it’s not magic. It’s something anyone can do, if they are intrepid enough to try.
WHY TACKLE IT?
It does take time, commitment, patience, creativity, a methodical and meticulous temperament, and—most importantly—a willingness to experiment. Brewing is not difficult, but it is technical and complex. It requires a certain level of precision and involves many different variables, so I won’t attempt to detail the process here. Instead, I hope to provide resources and encouragement for anyone who is curious about making the leap into home brewing.
The idea of making your own alcohol may evoke images of backwoods stills and moonshine-swilling hillbillies, but in reality, home brewing appeals to people from many different backgrounds for many different reasons. Some relish the ability to preserve local ingredients and put an abundant harvest to good use. Santa Fe Brewing Company Barrel Artist Leif Rotsaert discloses, “I will go out to nature to harvest, climb trees, dig around in bushes, as well as grow my own herbs and flowers. It is the perfect hobby for the farmer/hunter-gatherer in all of us.”
For others, it’s about creativity, personalization and independence. As Jami Nordby, owner of Santa Fe Homebrew Supply explains, “It has the appeal of science, sometimes the necessity of engineering, and always the freedom of art and cuisine. I can tailor the product to my own taste or make something no one has ever tried before. I just had a customer tell me he made a mango red-chili cider that was fantastic.” He continues, “I think many people are intrigued by the novelty of making their own beer, and many are surprised by early success. After that, they can brew whatever type of beer they can dream of, both flavor-wise and strength-wise.” Members of the Sangre de Cristo Craft Brewers club agree, saying, “Home brewing allows for lots of creativity. Once you get the basics figured out, you can pretty much brew with any kind of ingredient you can imagine. It also allows you to take your favorite style of beer and tweak in ways that make it your own, and if all goes well, it becomes even better.”
AM I GEEKY ENOUGH?
Many home brewers have scientific or engineering backgrounds, and enjoy the union of chemistry and artistry. Jens Deichmann, owner of Victor’s Home Brew speculates on the appeal, saying, “They get to work with their hands, cobble together often ingenious pieces of equipment, learn the basics of chemistry and biology, or apply their advanced degrees and experience to the enjoyable task of making an ever better product.”
It’s definitely a hobby people like to “geek out” on. As Kevin Fleming, from The Dukes of Ale home-brewing club, says, “Home brewing is kind of Zen. I can’t explain it, but is very soothing to make a beer, cider or mead.” He continues, “Some brewers, like me, love the engineering, science and processes involved in making beer. I love the processes, controlling those processes, fermentation science and recipe formulation.”
For nearly everyone, there’s a social component to it as well, both during the brewing process and afterward. For a lot of home brewers, brewing is a fun way to spend time with friends. They enjoy what Leif Rotsaert calls the “spirit of adventurous brewing and camaraderie.” And afterward, you get to share the fruits of your labors with friends and family. Or, you can share it with professional brewers, club members and more experienced home brewers to get feedback and improve your process.
Brewing is not without its challenges though, especially for beginners. Brewing good beer takes practice, money for ingredients and materials, and time spent perfecting your recipes. Not to mention, a lot of time spent cleaning and sanitizing your equipment. As the Sangre de Cristo Craft Brewers say, “Cleanliness is paramount.” There’s a danger of exploding fermentations, which can be messy. Attention to the technical details like temperature, water quality and sanitation is critical. A change of only a few degrees during fermentation can make all the difference, while impurities in the water can create odd flavor; and unwanted microorganisms like lactobacillus, wild yeast or acetobacter can ruin your beer by turning it into vinegar! It’s important to be careful, fastidious, precise.
WHO ELSE IS CRAZY ENOUGH TO DO THIS?
Well, for those willing to take on the challenges, the rewards are many. You’ll be welcomed into a wonderful and supportive community where cooperation and collaboration are key. Like most things beer-related, the home-brewing crowd is a quirky, laid-back bunch who are passionate and discerning but approachable. You’ll find your fellow home brewers friendly and helpful, and constructive with their criticism. Even more exciting is the fact that many hobbyists work closely with the commercial industry and many even go on to become professional brewers. Jason Kirkman of Bathtub Row in Los Alamos, Todd Yocham and Trent Edwards from Duel Brewing, Alexander Pertusini from the newly opened Chili Line Brewing all got their starts in home brewing. Sangre de Cristo Craft Brewers members explain the relationship: “Home brewing is intrinsically tied to the professional brewing business. Home brewers are also some of the best customers, as they tend to know and appreciate more about craft beer than the average American adjunct lager drinker. Home brewing helps develop palates and helps people appreciate craft beer. Brewing your own helps you appreciate craft beer and the intricacies of the brewing process.”
Commercial breweries value the informed consumers as well as the experimental nature of home brewing that supports craft-beer culture. They embrace home brewers as an important source of new ideas. Leif Rotsaert says, “Santa Fe Brewing Company has always had a strong connection with home brewing as an avenue to recipe development. Our most award-winning beers have been created 2-6 gallons at a time.” He adds, “Thanks to home brewing, the consumer these days is more educated and willing to try some of our more adventurous offerings. Almost all successful commercial brewers have a strong background in home brewing and recipe development.”
OKAY, WHERE DO I START?
So, you’re ready to join the wild and wacky world of home brewing. Where do you begin? We asked local home brewers for their recommendations on getting started, and here’s what they had to say:
“My advice for the novice home brewer is to ask for help and go to your local home-brew shop. It is possible to go to most brewers and brew pubs and befriend a brewer. I’ve had people call the brewery in the middle of a mash-in and ask for help. Brewers are by nature a very nerdy group. Also, don’t buy expensive ingredients or equipment. Start small; start cheap. Food-grade plastic buckets are a good way to start. Heck, if you don’t mind brewing half gallons at a time, I’ve seen people brew beer in their coffee machine. Keep it simple and have a good time.” –Leif Rotsaert, barrel artist, Santa Fe Brewing Company
“Take a class at a local home brew shop (there are several in town); read about brewing or winemaking; ask a friend who is brewing; join a club such as Dukes of Ale or New Mexico Vine and Wine Society; buy some starter equipment; and dive in!”–Jens Deichmann, owner, Victor’s Home Brew
“Join our [Sangre de Cristo Home Brewers] Yahoo list (groups.yahoo.com/sdccb) and start attending meetings. There is no cost to do so. We do have annual dues, but these are only if you can afford to pay, and it is a suggested donation of $10 to $20. If you can’t pay, we won’t ask you to. There are a lot of home brewers who are more than willing to help beginners out, and you can connect with them at our meetings. It’s a great way to improve your brewing, as the group has lots of experienced brewers and can easily pick out flaws and can suggest what can be done to fix these faults in the future. We are fortunate to have some of the best brewers in the state in our club.” –Sangre de Cristo Craft Brewers
“A little online research can yield a lot of results, but the best way is to stop by your local home-brew supply store and ask some questions. You can start playing with one-gallon batches for as little as $40, or go for a standard five-gallon kit for around $150. That’ll make two cases of home-crafted brew, and it’s easy to make beer as good as you can find on store shelves. The main thing to keep in mind is enjoyment of the process. Mistakes do happen during the brew day, but most of the time, you still end up with a drinkable beer.” –Jami Nordby, Santa Fe Homebrew Supply
“Of course, I think the best way is to join a homebrew club and glean information from other seasoned brewers, and not have to make the same stumbles they did while learning. And it’s legal in New Mexico to share beer at a meeting for ‘tasting and evaluation.’ The samples are small, but you can try a plethora of beers that may or may not be good (you can sometimes learn more from an ‘off beer’ than a perfect one).” –Kevin Fleming, The Dukes of Ale
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re interested in home brewing, you’ll find no shortage of advice, resources and encouragement. The most important thing is to fearlessly jump in, get started and have some fun. And, of course, to proudly share those finished brews as often as you can!
In addition to talking with local brewers at breweries, the following publications, websites and resources can be valuable to a beginner home brewer:
Santa Fe Homebrew Supply opened in 2007. They carry equipment and ingredients for crafting great beer and wine, everything from basic stock pots and carboys (large glass bottles) to yeast, hops and malt. They also have starter cheese-making kits and ingredients, and food-grade additives and sanitizers.
Victor’s Home Brew
2436 San Mateo Pl NE
Victor’s has been in Albuquerque for 42 years. They sell home-brewing and wine-making supplies and equipment, and some supplies for cheesemaking, mead and soda pop. They also offer monthly free classes in wine making, brewing and occasional classes in making mead or kombucha.
Sangre de Cristo Craft Brewers
The club has grown from mainly a sampling club, to one that hosts a national annual competition (The Santa Fe Open Brewing Competition), and is active in beer education and community outreach. They currently meet three days a month, two of those for a style class where they discuss and sample all the beers in the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines. santafeopen.org.
Dukes of Ale
The Dukes of Ale is the oldest homebrew club in the state, and has been continually active since its creation in 1989. They host two home-brewing competitions per year; Enchanted Brewing Challenge and New Mexico’s biggest, the ProAm. dukesofale.com.
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian
How to Brew by John Palmer is available online for free at howtobrew.com
Websites and Events
American Homebrewers Association, homebrewersassociation.org. It also has a monthly magazine called Zymurgy that is worth it alone for the yearly membership fee.
National Homebrew Day and Learn to Homebrew Day. homebrewersassociation.org. homebrewersassociation.org
Central New Mexico Community College now offers a Brewing & Beverage Management program. cnm.edu.
Santa Fe Brewing Company previously held “Small Batch Saturdays” which are on hold during the construction of their new facilities. However, they remain committed to supporting home brewing in New Mexico and still offer tours and advice to interested parties.
Story by Melyssa Holik