An Introduction to the Work of Do-It-Yourself Brews and the Folks Who Ferment Them
Sarah Bridegroom of The HomeBrew Den displays a handful of hops, one of the essential ingredients for adding flavor in the beer-making process.
Along with mummification and the enigmatic pyramids, the ancient Egyptians left a legacy of innovation that has contributed to the betterment of humanity: literary works, irrigation and hieroglyphs, just to name a few. More important, however, these forward thinkers discovered that when grain is exposed to water and wild yeast, a fermentation process takes place, and one is left with the greatest invention of all … beer!
Fast-forward a few thousand years: People now are using modern methods to perform the same ancient process within the confines of their own homes.
Sarah Bridegroom, proprietor of the local business HomeBrew Den, has been making tasty homebrew concoctions for going on 15 years. Her repertoire includes beer, wine and that “Beowulf” favorite, mead.
“People homebrew for different reasons,” Bridegroom said. “Some for the economics of it, some for the scientific process, the tradition, the educational benefits, or for the artistic and creative form of expression it involves.”
The basic process for homebrewing beer is not as complicated as one might believe. A liquid solution known as “wort” first is brought to a boil, and then hops are added for flavor. The wort is quickly cooled and poured into a container called a carboy. An airlock device is placed on the carboy, allowing carbon dioxide to escape while preventing outside elements from entering the concoction. The sugars, obtained from wheat or grain, convert into alcohol. The fermentation is then catalyzed by yeast.
Top-fermenting yeasts, which thrive in warmer temperatures, are used to create ales, known for their sweet, full-bodied and fruity taste. Bottom-fermenting yeasts, which thrive at lower temperatures, are used to create lagers, which usually are served chilled and are known for their more mild and varied taste.
In about two weeks, the wort is ready to be kegged or bottled. (Flavoring and color extracts can be added at this step to create flavored beers.) A dextrose sugar then is combined with the brew, and a chemical reaction will carbonate the beer in two additional weeks. For those less patient, a CO2 cartridge can be used in a kegging system to avoid the two additional weeks required for the dextrose-sugar chemical reaction. Either way, in less than a month, either process will yield homebrewed goodness. This is the basic method, but more specific measures can be taken by the more advanced brewer.
Wine can be made with a store-bought kit or, for the more adventurous, with fruits and other ingredients found at the local grocery store. The mashed contents are combined with bentonite (a substance that absorbs proteins and makes the wine clear) in a carboy, and finally, wine yeast is added. The fermentation process is similar to that of beer.
“It’s as simple or involved as you’d like it to be,” Bridegroom said. She compares the homebrew process to baking a cake: “You can make all the ingredients from scratch or you can buy the premade cake mix.”
It also is more affordable than one might think. A simple starter kit for beer or wine could run as little as $60 to $80. An advanced kit could be purchased for about $140.
“The ingredients are quite affordable as well,” Bridegroom said. “A six-pack of beer would run about $2.75 and a bottle of wine would average $3.” Homebrewing also makes economic sense for someone who enjoys the taste of finer libations but doesn’t want to pay the higher prices.
Though homebrewing can be a very affordable endeavor for those who strive for a frugal lifestyle, the advanced homebrewer with extra time and cash may prefer to invest greater amounts of both into the hobby. Tallahasseean Ygnacio Tudor Toulon IV (or Nat, as he is known to his family and friends) is not only a Harley rider, scuba diver, world traveler and high-ranking official at the U.S. Treasury Department, but a home brewer as well. He is a member of the American Homebrewers Association and is part of that time-honored legacy dating back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
“I’ve been homebrewing my own beer for eight years now,” he said while sipping a pint of his newest creation. “Some people knit, some paint or cook; my hobby is homebrewing.”
For Toulon, it started at the turn of the 21st century inside a garage with a basic brewing kit from Sharper Image, three Igloo coolers and a propane stove. The apparatus was primitive, but the beer tasted good, he recalled. While some brewmeisters may have been tempted to rest on their laurels after finding success in their garage operation, Toulon works tirelessly to improve and perfect his craft.
His hobby has become such a passion, in fact, that he makes his own labels, customizes taps and, starting a few years ago, devotes an entire room in his house to brewing beer and wine. Toulon’s brew room in his home in the Hermitage neighborhood contains a bar, a mess sink, converted coolers, four taps, kegs, carboys, kettles, a custom-engineered “brew sculpture” contraption (with three strategically placed gas burners) and a drain in the tile floor for those occasions when brewing “mishaps” occur.
Not only does Toulon’s facility rival a commercial microbrewery, in some ways it also resembles Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Having an engineering inclination, the room is filled with devices he has designed and created to aid him with the homebrewing process. Contraptions he refers to as “counter-flow pressure fillers” and “airlock release valves” have simplified the process over the years, and indeed, MacGyver himself would be envious of Toulon’s ingenuity.
“I enjoy homebrewing because it’s a very social hobby,” Toulon said. Guests at his custom-built beer and wine brewing facility, known as “Tudor’s Tavern,” can choose between four beers currently on tap. A favorite is a homemade version of Fire Rock Pale Ale that he brewed with spicy paradise seeds to give a slight bite of Tabasco. Creatively named homebrews such as Mardigras Madness and Flat Tire (Toulon’s version of Fat Tire) also are house favorites. Connoisseurs can taste a citrus flavor in the Flat Tire brew, which is accomplished by incorporating sweet orange peel into the brewing process.
“It’s a subtle difference, but noticeable,” Toulon said.
How does his wife, Frances, feel about him having a brewery inside of the house?
“We’ve been married for 39 years,” he said with a smile. “She has her hobbies and I have mine. Honestly, though, she enjoys the fact that I have a hobby that allows us to spend time together at home.”
Homebrewing doesn’t come without its share of stories of misfortune, however. For instance, if specific attention is not given to the bottling process, too much carbonation can cause the caps on a case of homebrewed beer to shoot off the bottles, making one’s efforts resemble the dancing fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Over the years, Toulon has demonstrated devotion to the craft by persevering through a brewing accident that left him with burned hands – and even recently continuing to brew after undergoing knee surgery. Although friends and family enjoy the vast majority of his homebrews, Toulon does recall one mishap that didn’t end in a quality product.
“In the beginning, I used Clorox to sanitize everything,” he said. “I was making a Merlot wine, and the bottles weren’t completely rinsed out. The wine tasted terrible.”
Even Bridegroom admitted that she fell prey to what is known as the classic Brewer’s Demise.
“Sanitation is crucial for the homebrewing process,” she said. Any impurity not sterilized out can alter the taste of the brew. When a new brewer has early success with the process, he or she may gain a sense of false confidence.
“They begin to cut corners,” Bridegroom said.
As a result, their fifth or sixth home brew usually will be bad because of poor sanitization. Bridegroom admitted that this happened to her early in her career.
When asked what advice he has for a person just getting started with homebrewing, Toulon recommended that he or she “find someone who brews and watch them. See if it’s for you. Also, if you decide it is for you, it’s important to get connected with other homebrewers. There are meetings that take place in Tallahassee. Get involved and learn from the experience of other homebrewers.”
Bridegroom’s advice? In addition to recommending that new brewers “paint in broad strokes,” she encourages them not to get overwhelmed by the process and, above all else, “sanitize, sanitize, sanitize.”