What is homebrewing? Simply, it is the practice of brewing your favorite alcoholic beverage on your own terms. The term homebrewing is most commonly used to refer to the brewing of beer, but can also include cider, mead, wine and other beverages. Why do people homebrew? The reasons are naturally as varied as the people behind them. Some people simply enjoy the act of brewing, much as others enjoy cooking. Others want more control over what they drink, or they have a fetish for a more obscure style of beer. Many are curious and like to experiment with different ideas and ingredients (a fair number of the homebrewers I know are chemists or microbiologists). As for me, I just live for the moment when a friend of mine takes a sip, closes his eyes and says, "God damn if that isn't a good beer."
Whatever your reason for getting into it, homebrewing can be approached in a variety of ways. It's important for beginning homebrewers to realize this, and to keep in mind that there is no single "right way" of doing things. Like many people, I thought homebrewing might be fun, so I did some reading up on it. I was intimidated - all the talk of strict temperature ranges and sanitation and daily specific gravity readings - and I abandoned the idea. I am rather absent-minded and a bit of a procrastinator to boot, and didn't think I could adhere to all those rules. Maybe two years later, I was visiting a friend of mine who lived with his divorced father. His father offered me a beer, which was truly delicious. I asked him what brand it was, and he responded, "I made it." Now, this man had a laid-back attitude and was a complete slob, and I found it difficult to picture him in a sterile lab coat. He revealed to me the knowledge that anybody can brew beer, and more importantly, anybody can brew good beer.
Armed with this revelation, I went to a local homebrew supply store, and the rest is history. I've been brewing for several years now, very casually, and have yet to wind up with a batch of Down The Drain Ale. I have never taken a gravity reading, and I've brewed fine beers at temperatures significantly out of the suggested range. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with doing these things, simply that the homebrewing process can be accomplished without them if you prefer.
So how do you get started? Most homebrew supply shops sell a "starter kit" for around $100 US. The following items should be included:
In addition, your kit may or may not include a brewing thermometer, a hydrometer and a "bottle tree". The thermometer will be helpful, but not necessary, for your first batch. It will become necessary before long, so you may as well buy it now. The hydrometer will be necessary for anyone taking a scientific approach to brewing, or keeping strict records. It can also be used to deduce the percentage of alcohol in your beer. It's up to you whether or not to buy one - I have one, and have never used it. Finally, the bottle tree is a stack of plastic racks where you dry your bottles after cleaning them. Handy, but not strictly necessary.
Your starter kit should also come with a copy of "The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing" by Charlie Papazian. This is widely regarded as the homebrewer's Bible, and is an excellent reference work. It also utilizes the more scientific approach to brewing beer, so take it with a grain of salt and keep in mind that it's really not as hard as it might sound at first.
Now that you've got all the tools you need, let's start putting them to good use. In the next installment, Homebrewing 102: The First Batch, we will (as you may have surmised) walk through the steps of brewing a simple batch of beer.