You may not have realized it, but Prohibition didn’t entirely end in 1933: Brewing your own beer also became illegal under the constitutional ban, but the practice wasn’t made legal when commercial sales of alcohol resumed. Actually, you can thank Jimmy Carter for your homebrew, and, in turn, the craft brewing industry.
California Sen. Alan Cranston worked homemade beer into a transportation bill in 1978, and when President Carter signed HR 1337—and when the law went into effect Feb. 1, 1979—it was game on for homebrewers. (Well, legally, anyway, and according to the Feds. On the state level, Mississippi and Alabama didn’t sign on with the idea until 2013.)
Homebrewing Goes Mainstream
Learning to brew while in college in 1970, a young Charlie Papazian would go on to become an icon in the brewing world. He founded Zymurgy magazine, the American Homebrewers Association, and the Great American Beer Festival, and eventually published “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing” in 1984 (now in its 4th edition), often considered the bible of homebrewing.
I’ve written brewery travel guidebooks to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, featuring every brewery in each state (at the moment it was published; often one or two behind the count 10 minutes later). And the origin stories of these brewing superheroes were almost always “a hobby gone out of control.”
Here’s generally how the story goes: It starts on the kitchen stove, then moves to the garage and a turkey-fryer burner, usually at the behest of an annoyed housemate or spouse (who likely purchased the starter brew-kit as a Christmas gift). Let this be a warning to you if you choose to accept this mission.
Join the Club
Find a homebrewers’ club near you. Having support from fellow hobbyists increases the fun, and you may end up exchanging final products with new friends. In Madison, the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild actually founded one of the best and oldest craft beer festivals in North America: Great Taste of the Midwest.
The American Homebrewers Association hosts an annual Big Brew for National Homebrew Day, held on the first Saturday of May, and in 2020, the pledged 31,300 brewing gallons were triple those of the highest recorded year. Homebrewing does well in bad economic times, and being stuck at home only increased the ambitions.
Wisconsinite Dean Danner has been retired just over two years, and when the lockdown came in 2020, he needed something to do. An avid birder and photographer, he lamented, “You can only take so many pictures of birds in your yard.” He’d talked about homebrewing for a long time, and so his son got him a two-gallon BrewDemon system. His first brew was the Arizona-based Demon Brewing Co.’s Prophecy Ale: “Really, I was actually surprised how good it was.”
The kit came with his first recipe, but he’s since purchased others, including the ingredients for a recent batch of doppelbock. “They come in two cans,” he said, referring to malt extract, a concentrated wort—just add water. “Following directions, it was pretty easy. I may invest in better equipment. I’m just happy getting something I can drink.”
The process is straightforward: Boil water, add the malt extract, move it all to the fermenter, and add the yeast. Then follow seven days in an airtight container, then conditioning in bottles for at least seven more days. “I can’t usually wait. After the minimum time, I’m drinking it,” said Danner.
“The hardest part is getting the equipment sterilized,” he added. But even that is made easier by using the included no-rinse sterilizing powder in water. So after an initial kit investment of about $90, each new batch costs $20 to $30 and produces two gallons, the equivalent of about 21 standard cans of beer.
This is stage one of the out-of-control part. You can change malt extracts for actual grain and grind your own, using a portable grain mill that sits atop a five-gallon bucket. Upgrade to a glass carboy instead of plastic; larger vessels; that turkey-fryer burner out in the backyard for the boil. After all, Larry Bell of the massively successful Bell’s Brewery started with a homebrew shop in 1983 and opened the brewery two years later.
Consult your local homebrew supply store about options. If you don’t have a shop in town, any not-so-local store likely ships. (A popular one is Northern Brewer.)
As Long As We’re Having a Good Time
Even professional brewers, who in many cases slowed down or stopped entirely, returned to homebrewing last year, and some never quit at all. Joe Walts, a professional brewer now working in the lab and as process improvement specialist for Octopi Brewing in Waunakee, Wisconsin, says he continued with the hobby, making at least a batch for Thanksgiving each year and perhaps two or three more besides.
“For the first eight-ish years after going pro, it was because I loved creating recipes and rarely got to do it at work,” he said.
Walts recommends “How To Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Great Beer Every Time” by John J. Palmer. The first edition is free on Palmer’s website, and a greatly expanded and updated 4th edition came out in 2017. “It’s a great start for broadly understanding the processes of brewing.”
“My advice would be to focus on, one, whatever you find fun, and two, fermentation,” said Walts. Certain beers can’t be made with extracts—“anything that requires Munich malt has starch that needs to be enzymatically converted”—but that doesn’t mean you have to go beyond the basics.
“You can make equally good beer with extracts, plus steeped bags of specialty grain versus all-grain,” Walts said, “but you may want to switch to all-grain at some point because it’s fun.” You can even culture your own yeast. Temperature control, another important aspect of the process, may incline you to upgrade equipment, but “a used fridge or chest freezer with a temperature controller is as good as anything.”
So, aspiring homebrewers, you have options: starting from basic stovetop boiling with malt extracts. That’s how they hook you. When you start buying stainless-steel multi-barrel tanks, you might want to think about moving out of the kitchen. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com