Homebrewing During the Pandemic

I saw a video on YouTube early on the pandemic about homebrewing. The YouTuber made a one gallon batch of beer, and it looked pretty easy to do.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0s4cS_m5JM
One Gallon Beer – Glen and Friends

I wanted to give it a shot as well. I gathered very basic supplies in order to try it out myself, and the first beer that I developed changed my outlook on the process. It was magical when it was done – I created alcohol for the first time.

The History of Homebrewing

I’ve tried Coors Light at the Coors factory; it tastes the same as if you found it in Miami, which is still a testament to the efficiency of how Coors brews beer. Adolph Coors, a German immigrant, tried to re-create a style from his old country and pushed for a clear lager to the detriment of the character of the beer itself. European farmers brewing beer was a tradition for centuries, and the industrialist sought to produce this German style for the masses in his new home, and he succeeded.

The aggressive marketing of alcohol led to extremely high consumption rates in the United States. This effectively spawned the the temperance movement. It pushed for and got prohibition passed on a federal level from 1920 to 1933, completely banning alcohol over 0.5% ABV. Coors had a side gig that got them through prohibition, however. CoorsTek was founded to help the brewery make beer bottles, but it turned into a porcelain company to boost them when they couldn’t brew anymore. Now, the company still operates, developing specialty ceramics for a variety of industries, including for space shuttles.

The other four macro-breweries focused on things like non-alcoholic food and drinks to get them through those long 13 years of prohibition. When they reached the other side, they faced little competition in the beer market.

H.R. 1337 was signed into law by Jimmy Carter in 1978 to open up homebrewing at a federal level, giving states the ability to regulate it. It went into effect on February 1, 1979. An amendment in the bill:

  • Created a limit of 100-200 gallons of beer per household, depending on how many adults are living there, as long as it was not being sold.
  • Allowed for tax exemption on the production of beer in one’s home.
  • Created a distinction between a professional brewer and a homebrewer.

This law kick started the homebrew and craft beer markets – the ability for people to explore other beer types than that that typical American lager that they were so used to.

Despite the changes in the industry since that time, the macrobreweries have continued to dominate the industry decades later. They have acquired many microbreweries as well to expand their portfolios. Still, craft beer represents a quarter of all beer sold in the United States, and the category is continuing to grow at a steady rate.

Consumers are much more knowledgeable about beer nowadays; there was a time when my grandfather only drank Schlitz, and that was good enough for his palette. That’s not the case for many Americans anymore. Nearly 1/3rd of the country said that they wouldn’t drink 8 of the top domestic beers ever.

While H.R. 1337 was passed in 1978, the last state to legalize homebrewing was Mississippi on July 1st, 2013, 35 years later and 80 years after the end of prohibition.

My Experiences

I’ve gone down the YouTube rabbit hole, looking at every beer making video and channel that I could get my hands on. Now, about eight months into it, I have one full shelf of gear, and I treat the beer making process as if I am cooking. My brew day lasts about three hours where I am working by myself, and I order lunch right afterwards because my kitchen is usually a mess. 

The mess is worth it.

I’m not alone in homebrewing right now. Northern Brewer, a major homebrew equipment retailer in the US, has seen an uptick of 40-50% in sales during the pandemic. I bought much of my equipment through them early on, but since shifted to a local business.

I started out not knowing anything about beer making. I didn’t retain anything from brewery tours over the years, because I just couldn’t connect to the industrial-scaled equipment. If someone told me: “You’re making bread tea or maybe oatmeal water with dried flowers,” I’d get it. It is just something that you should get into with around $150-200, or the cost of a Mr. Beer Kit (around $50).

The most difficult thing about brewing is perfecting recipes. It takes a long time to ferment and bottle or keg. I’ll eventually get into A/B testing when I have the capacity to speed up this process, but I am taking a lot of notes and measurements whenever possible. I am also trying to learn the difference between the many grains and hop combinations. You really have no idea what will happen until after fermentation that the variety of what is out there is just staggering. I want to be guided by the beers and styles I have specifically enjoyed over the years and try to build off of what I like.

The country is having problems now, and I’d prefer to be indoors. We haven’t managed the pandemic as well as other nations, and I’m not interested in taking large risks. I don’t expect things to get back to normal until the end of 2021. Beer making keeps me focused on an activity where I can develop my own recipes and traditions, and remain relatively safe right now. When a vaccine comes out and things calm down, I think I’ll still be brewing.

In order for me to make suggestions and provide gear recommendations, you’ll really need to understand the brewing process. If you watch the video above in this post, you will have gained a general understanding of how it works, and can then figure out the essentials. The biggest question that someone who is just starting out in homebrewing is to see if you want to do extract or all-grain brewing, the difference being time and expense. I would suggest a leap into all-grain for most people who do want to brew for themselves.

Homebrewing Tips

  • Clean up as you go. You’re going to have some downtime in between steps, and if you have a small space, you’re going to want to keep up with it rather than let it all sit.
  • Start off with 1 gallon batches. It’s less costly if you mess something up, and can scale from there. It also requires less space.
  • Brew alone, or at least with someone who is willing to help you and not distract you.
  • Know your boiling point depending on your elevation. Here in Denver, it’s 202°F.
  • Start off with recipes that are designed to be successful to keep yourself motivated.
  • Consider buying a mini keg instead of bottling. It is much easier to control the carbonation on a keg than it is when you bottle, and is way easier to fill as well.
  • Take measurements. You’ll never know where you are or where you should be if you never record what you’re doing.
  • Shop local. You can avoid having to wait for supplies, and will be supporting your local community as well.

Gear Suggestions (Buy Local if You Can)

You don’t need all of this gear to start. In fact, I’ve tried to split it up between must-haves and nice-to-haves. With some discounts, I think I was around $150-200 to start, but as you keep brewing, you tend to want to find equipment that will make your experience more consistent and comfortable.

Must-Haves

Nice-to-Haves

Websites

  • Northern Brewer – If you don’t have a local home brew store, this is a great place to find just about anything brewing-related that Amazon may not have.
  • brewgr – If you don’t end up buying something like Beersmith to handle your recipes, this website is able to run calculations and contains a ton of other recipes that others have designed. There are a lot of ads, though.
  • Northern Brewer Refractometer Calculator – You need to correct for refractometer readings if you buy one. It might not be obvious to a lot of people at first, but other online calculators will be wildly off if you don’t use the right one.
  • Brix Conversion Calculator – For running some more numbers.
  • Hop Comparison Wizard – For assisting you in picking the correct hops for your recipe.
  • Keg Carbonation Calculator – If you go the keg route, this will tell you how to dial in your beer CO2 volume depending on the style.
  • Priming Sugar Calculator – If you decide not to force arb your beer, and want to let it keg or bottle condition over time, use this calculator to measure the corn sugar required to get to desired volumes of CO2.

YouTube Channels

Homebrew 4 Life

Self-proclaimed braj-lord CH focuses on budget-friendly DIY home-brew projects. This guy is awesome, and has far less views than he deserves.

Flora Brewing

Flora does long-form videos on beer brewing topics, covering the basics, performing tastings, trying new recipes, showing off gear, and a lot more.

Brew Dudes

I just got into this channel but these two hosts are usually just doing a ton of testing, then reacting and seeing what they like best. It seems to be pretty wholesome.

cuoredicioccolato

Anything to do with fermentation, this chef is trying it out. He has some incredible recipes, but his techniques are generally simple and he walks you through everything.

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