During the first quarantine rush, as everyone rushed to supermarkets to stock up on flour and yeast for homemade breads, my older brother and I had another thought: to fill up on malted barley.
For the past seven years, we’ve gathered every Saturday in its shady driveway to hang out with our dogs, barbecue and boil a batch of cold beer. We have gradually progressed from novice brewers to relatively experienced brewers, and have recently explored fresh local ingredients (most recently Oregon malted rye in an English stout). But we would both be lying if we said we did it for the regular foam supply.
Much like barbecuing or gardening, making your own booze at home is more than just an opportunity to hang out with your quarantine bubble. It also connects you directly to the culinary and scientific stories of humanity. Did you know, for example, that we may have gone from hunter-gatherers to farmers because of our love of beer? And how Louis Pasteur discovers pasteurization while studying the spoiled wine – and that he hated german beer?
One of the things I love is how easy it is to progress with this hobby; you can probably make something drinkable on your first try. This mainly requires the ability to read instructions. When you are done, it can help you relax after a long day of unhappiness, and it offers a little sense of accomplishment. Do you want to try? You don’t need to spend too much money. Here’s what you need to know to make beer, wine, cider, and mead.
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Update December 2020: We updated the links and prices and added a small section on gin, nocino and other infused liquors.
Making alcohol is easy. Take a sweet liquid, add sugar-eating yeast and wait. When yeast eats sugar, it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wait long enough (a few weeks) and you will have a fully fermented drink that is (probably) drinkable. It may be safe, but your drink may not taste very good. Here are some general tips to keep in mind when fermenting your own alcohol, for the sake of quality:
Sanitation is perhaps the most important part of any fermentation process. You want to make sure that everything that touches your liquid before and after fermentation has been fully sterilized with a leave-in disinfectant (see the section on Star San below). This prevents bad tasting yeasts and other contaminants and ensures shelf stability.
There is a saying in the brewing community that brewers are really just glorified janitors: Yeast is what makes beer. It couldn’t be more true. Keeping your organic little friends happy is of the utmost importance for an alcoholic drink that tastes great. Make sure you plant a healthy amount of yeast cells and keep your fermentation within the recommended temperature range for the specific yeast you are using.
“Relax, don’t worry, do a homebrew,” is the most popular saying in the home fermentation world for a reason. Drinking alcohol can be time consuming, and it’s important not to rush things.
Tools you’ll need for everything
If you live in a city, there’s a good chance you have a homebrew supply store in your area. I highly recommend that you purchase as much of this equipment locally as possible, as the experts in the store are invaluable resources. If you’re a bit further out, or don’t want to walk into a store right now (for obvious reasons), we’ve included links to purchase this gear online.