As this Horseman of the Apocalypse continues his world tour, some of us are handling isolation poorly. Well, I’m here with a helpful suggestion if you have some time on your hands and have a little extra money lying around: Make your own beer.
If your first reaction to this suggestion is to scoff, please read on—and see that the prospect of brewing beer at home is not as difficult as you might think.
I’ve been interested in beer for decades and learned how it was made early on in my readings about the subject (Beer for Dummies was really a great introduction), but I didn’t feel the urge to brew my own until a little more than a decade ago. At the time, I was doing a podcast on beer with my cousin Josh, and it just seemed silly to not try our hand at brewing. We ordered the basics we needed to do this at Josh’s home—a 6-gallon kettle; a glass carboy to hold the wort as it ferments into beer; a stirring spoon; some grain and hop bags; and a bunch of 22-ounce bottles for when it was finished.
At the time, my sister lived in San Clemente; when I would visit, I’d usually stop by O’Shea Beer Co. in neighboring Laguna Niguel to collect beers I couldn’t get my hands on here in the desert. The store carries supplies for homebrewers as well as a wide array of recipe kits. This is where I purchased the Hop Mothra IPA partial-mash kit—I will get into the terminology in a bit—which we brewed and made a flawed, but successfully drinkable beer.
I was hooked.
My cousin’s schedule was not as flexible as mine, so I wound up going at it alone. As I do with everything I love, I did some heavy research. The first edition of How to Brew by John Palmer (still available for free at www.howtobrew.com) was my go-to resource, and I would highly recommend it (or the not-as-free fourth edition, if you want to throw the man some financial love).
In homebrewing, you can go one of three ways: You can go all in and do all-grain; do partial mash (as I did throughout my time as a homebrewer); or use extract. All-grain brewing is as it sounds: No extracts are involved. This is the most-involved option; it requires some more equipment, but to many “gatekeeping” homebrewers, this is the only real option. For those who don’t want to throw their entire lives into the hobby, however, there are the other two options. Extract brewing utilizes only malt extracts, while partial mash uses milled specialty grains (varying by recipe, of course) to enhance the extracts.
From there, I searched online and was happily surprised to find the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club. I reached out via their Yahoo! Group page; the club’s founder and then-president, Micah Stark, invited me to a homebrew competition award ceremony being held at the late, lamented Schmidy’s Tavern. Micah and another very capable brewer we called Sarge were there; I sampled an American red and an eisbock collaboration between Sarge and Chris Anderson. Both were impressive. I paid the dues and started sitting in with the brewers with whom I was most impressed. It was pretty easy; at the time, there were only eight members, at the most. This allowed me to tighten up my processes—and I’m happy to say that I pumped out some pretty solid beers as a result.
But that’s just my story. There are many paths that lead to brewing at home.
Current CVHBC president Josh Kunkle got started when his local homebrew supply shop threw in a free beer kit along with the equipment he’d bought to make cider.
“On a whim, I followed their directions to the letter and was pleasantly surprised with the results,” Kunkle said. “I would later find that the beer was much more diverse and easy to make by comparison (to cider), and so I stuck with that, although I’ve since dabbled in more of the fermented arts.” He also went with a bare-bones partial-mash setup at first.
The aforementioned Chris Anderson—a former president of the CVHBC, the founding brewer of the Coachella Valley Brewing Company, and an all-around encyclopedia of beer knowledge—found himself intrigued after reading his friend’s copy of homebrewing icon Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing.
“A local homebrew shop sold homebrewing supplies and never cared that I was underage,” Anderson said. “After all, they weren’t selling alcohol, but rather barley, hops and yeast. I started with a carboy, a bottle bucket and a stainless-steel pot. I won a slew of medals with this simple setup. I had the opportunity to get a three-tiered 15-gallon keggle (a keg repurposed as a brew kettle) system a few years later.” From there, he was off to the races, with stints in his home state at Midnight Sun Brewing and Alaskan Brewing, before bringing his expertise to the Coachella Valley.
I’m happy to say that the club still exists today; I’d heartily recommend it and/or the Mojave Desert Brewers Guild even if you haven’t brewed a single batch yet.
As for your starting setup: The most convenient options are going to be found online. Kunkle recently guest-authored a post on Andrew Smith’s Coachella Valley Beer Scene site discussing more of what you can do to get started. While the physical location is closed at the moment, MoreBeer Riverside is a fine homebrew shop that has helped me and many others out of a pinch when our yeast was dead or something broke just before we were attempting a brew. Fortunately, MoreBeer has an online store that should suit your needs. Northern Brewer and Austin Homebrew Supply are other fine online alternatives.
Anderson recommends simple starting equipment: “I suggest reading up on the basics and starting with a (BIAB) brew-in-a-bag setup. More Beer Riverside has all that is needed,” he said. “It’s not very expensive to buy a pot with a thermometer and valve. I always encourage folks to go straight to kegging, which will add a couple hundred bucks. It is just so much easier than bottling.
“There has never been a better time to learn to homebrew since we are all stuck at home with time on our hands. The technology and ingredient availability is pretty incredible. Mostly anything can be mail-ordered.”
The one thing I will add to all of this is to be open to constructive criticism. Never expect to be endlessly lauded for your homebrewed beer and have your mistakes covered up for you. Find out why whatever went wrong with your beer happened so that it will never happen again. Yes, this is a hobby, but one whose labors result in beverages for you and your friends—and friends don’t let friends drink bad beer, even if it was made at home.
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.