Brew on It

With so many stellar microbreweries sprouting up around town, why bother to brew your own brew?

July 1, 2014

BuzzIssue 7: July/August 2014

The report-a loud pop, not dissimilar to gunfire from a distance—seemed to come from the guest room. Running in, I found my cat, Toulouse, the normally unflappable one, the tank, the beast, stunned, huddled in a ball on the floor, covered in chunks of brown glass and blinking furiously at me. I knew immediately that my batch of homebrew beer had exploded.

If you’ve brewed your own beer before, this scene may be familiar. The dismayed spouse. The stunned pet. The popping sound of an exploding bottle. It is the sound of failure and of knowledge.

After following a recipe successfully on the first go-round, this time I had decided to see what would happen when I doubled the sugar in some of the bottles. Would it be sweeter and richer, double the deliciousness? No. Now I knew. As the yeast converted the sugars into carbonation, these oversugared bottles overcarbonated and then blew, leading to this mess of glass and half-brewed beer and matted cat. My wife looked at me skeptically. Helpfully I reminded her that she got me started on this hobby.

I reassured, then cleaned, the cat as best I could, the glass having penetrated deep into his carapace of fur. I stripped the bed, Shop-Vac-ed up the beer and the debris, wiped the walls, mopped the floor, lit a candle, put the remaining bottles in a big rubber tub with a lid to contain the results of my poor judgment, and cracked open a beer, one of my own from the previous batch, just to remind myself that sometimes I am not an idiot.

If you’ve brewed your own beer before, this scene may be familiar. The dismayed spouse. The stunned pet. The popping sound of an exploding bottle. It is the sound of failure and of knowledge.


Illustration by Catherine Eyde.

Before I brewed, I didn’t think about the beer I drank as a living thing. Sure, theoretically I knew, but only when I began to brew my own did its life become obvious and unavoidable. When the yeasty wort—which seemed before to be inert—began to warm and bubble up and come alive, I knew I had brought a thing to life. This was living beer. And this was how beer blew up my guest room—soon to be the baby’s room, my wife reminded me, the exploding beer room no longer. Why exactly was I doing this again?

There are a lot of us who homebrew in town, and there are many reasons why we are doing this again and again. For Jeremiah Johnson, who works at Brewers Connection, one of two Tucson homebrew supply stores, it’s about the art of it, how you can create something lovely and individual—not mass-produced, not even produced on the microbrew scale—and then drink it or share it with friends. He’s been brewing for 12 years and gets visibly excited talking about technologies: how to modify your refrigerator with a thermostat to control the temperature of the fermentation, for instance, or how to control the acidity of a batch of prickly pear wine.

For Kenny, clean-cut and slightly geeky, looking to be in his early 30s, and if I had to guess, an engineer, homebrewing is the second most rewarding thing he’s ever done, the first being playing online role-playing games. Though both are time-consuming and primarily solo hobbies, he’s attracted to the tinkering aspect in both, the challenge of figuring out how the system works and how to work it. He’s only been doing this for a year, but he thinks his beer is good, and so he wanted to meet others who did this too.

As with online role-playing games, the social aspect of homebrewing is one of its major appeals. I met Kenny at a recent meeting of the Tucson Homebrew Club, which meets at Dragoon Brewing Co. on the first Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. Everyone’s welcome: no experience required. Here you can meet other enthusiasts and homebrewers, share recipes and bottles of whatever you’ve made, get feedback on your brew, drink homebrews or whatever’s on tap at Dragoon. You can learn about various styles of beers (this night we try a homebrew, Michael’s Maibock, and the microbrew Magic Hat No. 9 and discuss their flavor profiles and sensory qualities). You can find out about future homebrew competitions (competition is a big part of the experience for many homebrewers), learn how to identify and correct for off-flavors in your beers, and discuss techniques and tips.

Each meeting begins with a brief craft lecture. This one focuses on controlling the temperature of your fermentation. Most ales prefer to ferment between 68 and 73 degrees, which is tricky in the Tucson summer unless you like your electricity bill high. Lager yeasts need to ferment at a lower temperature, in the 30s and 40s, which is even more difficult to maintain without specialized equipment. Gavin Quigley, who directs the “education arm” of the homebrew club, clicks through a slideshow of increasingly complicated and expensive solutions. You could try, for instance, something as simple, if imprecise, as a tub filled with water. Or you could upgrade to a slightly more complicated evaporative cooling option (wet towels applied to the exterior of your fermenter, with which you can effectively cool 30 degrees below room temperature, at least until the monsoon). For the serious and technical, Quigley talks about several increasingly elaborate ways to hack a refrigerator or deep freeze to maintain whatever temperature you need. Most of the serious homebrewers I know go this route in one way or another, though I can’t justify (yet) adding a third refrigerator on top of my main fridge and beer fridge/Walking J Farms grass-fed beef quarter-share freezer.

A discussion arises about how to control for humidity and mold in your modified refrigerator and where to get cheap refrigerators, and the merits of the deep freeze versus the fridge (a 6-gallon jug filled with fermenting beer is a heavy thing). As Quigley explains, which choice you make depends in part on the tolerance of your spouse, partner, or roommate.

I’m not a particularly serious homebrewer, but I do have a tolerant spouse. Like many brewers, I started with a gift of a Mr. Beer, a cheapie kit that makes a gallon and a half of (pretty bad) beer. I learned quickly that if you just buy better ingredients than the stale stuff the kit comes with, you can do OK, but it still doesn’t make much beer and it looks spectacularly lame. For my third batch, I upgraded to a bigger system featuring a couple of carboys (five or six gallon glass jugs) to use as primary and secondary fermenters. For about $200 you can get this system, with a bottling bucket, all the tubing and funnels, cleaning supplies, and a starter set of extract and hops to brew from, and make a batch of what your spouse can charitably recognize as beer.


Illustration by Catherine Eyde.

If you brew primarily from malt extracts, which is what I do, you can brew a couple of cases of beer in three or four hours for $40 or so. It takes a few weeks to ferment and condition in the bottle, or more if you’re making more complicated beers like a Belgian Tripel. Most of the home brewers I met at the Tucson Homebrewers Club fall into the More Serious Than Me category, meaning that they brew with all grain and mash it themselves, giving them a great deal more control over the final product. Quigley tells me that it takes twice as long but costs about half as much, once you invest in the gear. This way you can experiment with every step of the process if you want to. And trust me, you will want to.

Both my father and father-in-law homebrewed in the 70s and 80s, mainly out of necessity, since it was likely the only way to find beer then that didn’t taste like stale and fizzy yellow water. Unless you lived close to a specialty market, attended a Renaissance Faire (weirdly the Faire was where many Americans were first exposed to English or other imported beers or cask-conditioned ales), or traveled to Canada or Europe, you might not even have known that good beers existed.

Fast-forward to now. We live in a world where we can buy hundreds of craft beers and imports in nearly every state. Just last month my favorite brewery, Founders, from Grand Rapids, Mich., began distributing in Arizona. So now I can get most of the beers I’ve long loved the best in bottles at Plaza Liquors or on tap at 1702. So why homebrew?

One reason is to try ideas out and experiment with the process. What would it taste like to brew with the grapefruits from your neighbor’s yard? Or what might it be like to brew a hefeweizen with white Sonora wheat? Or using Dr. Pepper instead of corn sugar? Let’s find out. The Tucson Homebrew Club is populated with people trying things out and eager to tell you all about it, and to let you taste the results.

Sitting with Kenny and a couple of other guys (it is unsurprisingly a predominantly—though not exclusively—male crowd), another homebrewer named Dane sidles up to my table with a growler in hand and asks if we’d like to try his Rosemary IPA. He tells me it’s called Rosemary Falcon. Of course we would, and so we do. It’s made, he tells us, using rosemary from his yard and featuring Falconer’s Flight hops.

Falconer’s Flight is a proprietary hop mix named for Glen Hay Falconer, an Oregon brewing legend who died in 2002 when his Volkswagen accidentally started and crushed him while he was repairing it. One is reminded that there can be risks to doing some things yourself.

Dane doesn’t know the backstory of his chosen hop, and doesn’t seem fazed by the lesson, but his beer is good. He’s from Bend, Ore., (the home of the Deschutes Brewery and “one brewery for every 4,500 people,” as the Bend website chirps; another Bend brewery also offers “Dawg Grog, beer brewed especially for your dog.”). When he moved to Tucson seven years ago he says he couldn’t get good beer here, so he started making his own.

This is a story I hear frequently from homebrewers in Tucson. Our adopted state has a relatively young craft beer scene, though it has increased exponentially in the last few years. Possibly this youth is on account of the climate—unhospitable to growing hops (at least until last year, when Arizona Hops & Vines became the first to grow hops in the state)—and the water, which is hard and requires filtering and then the addition of salts and minerals on top of that to make good beer. Water has been the problem with a couple of my batches. You brew a batch. You taste it. You learn, adjust, and make another.

There’s a ton to learn, and a long history to draw from. After all, homebrewing on this continent predates America, and homebrewing in Arizona predates Arizona as a state. I ask Shelby Meyer, a member of the now-defunct Old Pueblo Homebrewers Club, the first of its kind in Arizona, established in 1982, about the history of homebrewing in Arizona. Meyer started brewing in 1972, and he knows his state’s brewing history. According to Meyer, ”the native peoples of the Southwest were brewing a variety of alcoholic beverages long before the Pilgrims arrived.” They included corn beer known as tiswin among Apaches and tesguino among the Tarahumaras in Mexico, who brewed pulque from agave. The Tohono O’odham brewed wine from saguaro fruit that was consumed ceremonially in summer to bring on monsoon rains. It’s no surprise that where we find human agriculture, we find brewing and distilling and making merry, and this is the tradition that you join with when you start to homebrew.

In the age of the Internet, you’ll find no end of sources on homebrewing. But the best way to get involved is to talk to someone who does it. Stop in to Brewers Connection or Brew Your Own Brew, or attend a meeting of the Tucson Homebrew Club. Or just buy a Mr. Beer for your partner, and let her try it out and fall in love with it and how it changes her understanding of and appreciation for what she drinks. Soon she’ll want a bigger kit and you can benefit from her obsession. She’ll be brewing with stuff in your yard and bringing yeast back to life like a necromancer. Just don’t double-sugar your bottles. And apologize to your cat in advance.

Ander Monson is the author of six books, most recently Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, and an enthusiastic if not particularly competent homebrewer.

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