Finding beer during the ongoing quarantine hasn’t been that hard, thanks to the local beer distributors, bottle shops, and breweries that have remained open as essential businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
But brewing your own doesn’t seem like a bad quarantine project right now, especially as we try to limit how often we leave home. If you’re a beer lover who hasn’t delved into home brewing before, now might be a good chance to try.
“Home brewing is a great hobby to pick up while locked down because it requires time, which we may have more of these days,” says Mike Herman, an award-winning home brewer and 2019 Brewvitational judge, says. “And it allows you to create something that brings you joy.”
Luckily for the Philadelphia area’s budding brewmeisters, that type of joy is still attainable. A number of local home-brew shops have moved to curbside pickup and delivery models. Among the area’s options are Philly Homebrew Outlet in West Philly and Oaklyn, N.J., Keystone Homebrew Supply in Montgomeryville, Brew Your Own Beer in Havertown, and Artisan Homebrew in Downingtown.
As with all new hobbies, the question is: Where do you start? It might seem daunting at first, but fresh, homemade beer is possible. Here is what you need to know:
Get beginner’s gear
First, you have to decide how you will make your first batch, and generally, that means choosing between extract or all-grain brewing. All-grain brewing is more in-depth and expensive, while extract brewing is cheaper and simplified because it uses a malt extract (hence the name). That’s why Home Sweet Homebrew co-owner Nancy Rigberg tends to steer newbies toward extract-based brews. You can always go for all-grain later on.
“Don’t run a marathon before you know how to crawl or run around the block,” she says. “Start easy, have success, and get comfortable before you get over your head with something that requires more equipment and knowledge. Make beer, don’t make trouble for yourself.”
With that in mind, many home-brew shops offer starter kits that come with most of the equipment you’ll need to do your first extract brew, including a fermenting bucket, hydrometer, bottle capper, and instructions. Kits typically run between $100 and $150, and you will still need additional items like a pot to boil your initial brew, and beer bottles for bottling.
While you may have homemade hazy IPAs and crispy, refreshing lagers in your future, you may want to start more simply for your first beer. Those types of beers often have more challenging processes and more costly ingredients lists that beginners may find overwhelming.
“Resist the temptation to brew a complex recipe your first time,” Herman says.
Instead, Keystone Homebrew Supply owner Jason Harris recommends going for an easier and quicker ale recipe for your first brew, like a German or American wheat beer. Rigberg, meanwhile, is partial to darker beers like stouts and porters (both of which are also ales).
“Ales ferment faster, mature faster, and you can drink them faster,” Harris says. “You want to get the process down on a $30 or $40 batch before you delve into more expensive hops and yeast types."
As with equipment kits, most home-brew shops also offer ingredient kits that come with a recipe and all the various elements that go into the beer, like malt extract, yeast, and hops. As a bonus, the ingredients are typically pre-measured, which can help eliminate guesswork for new brewers. Typically, those kits can be had for $30 to $60, depending on the style, and make several gallons of beer.
Cleanliness is key
Beer is made when yeast converts sugar into alcohol during fermentation, but the conditions that let yeast thrive are also good for unwanted bacteria and wild yeasts, which can affect the taste of your beer. So, with that in mind, pay special attention to cleanliness — which shouldn’t be a problem, given the current situation.
“Home brewing is a practice of sanitation,” Jimmy McMillan, co-owner of Philly Homebrew Outlet, says. “Now, everyone is in the practice of sanitation.”
Everything should be kept clean and sanitized throughout the brewing process from start to finish — that includes buckets, tubing, bottles, and caps. Look for a sanitizer from a home-brew shop, such as Star San and One Step. Even a bleach solution can be used to clean your equipment in a pinch.
“I know we are overly sanitizing everything these days, but just keep doing it,” Rigberg says. “But use a beverage sanitizer — don’t get the Lysol out.”
Like all good things, beer takes time. Often, an extract brew can take around three hours to complete, followed by a few weeks of waiting for it to ferment properly.
“Patience is the challenge when you’re home every day staring at it,” Harris says. So don’t try to rush it by bottling too soon — a misstep that can be avoided by using a hydrometer, which measures the density, or gravity, of liquid. A good recipe, Harris adds, will give you a target gravity, and once your nascent beer reaches that number, you can start bottling.
Likewise, be as patient with yourself as you are with your beer. You’re bound to make some mistakes on your first outing, but as with any hobby, this one is supposed to be fun. If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to ask your local home-brew shop or club for help.
“Not everything has to be a challenge — especially not now,” Rigberg says. “Don’t make yourself crazy about it. It’s only beer.”
Mike Herman, award-winning home brewer and 2019 Brewvitational judge.
Nancy Rigberg, co-owner of Home Sweet Homebrew.
Jason Harris, owner of Keystone Homebrew Supply.
Jimmy McMillan, co-owner of Philly Homebrew Outlet.