I’ve discovered that a lot of friends found home-brew kits under their Christmas trees.
Well, it seems they got a gift that will keep on giving.
Winter is a great time to get started with a home-brewing hobby — especially because the cooler indoor temperatures make some common mistakes easy to avoid.
Even so, there are a few simple things every new home-brewer can do to make that first beer come out even better and encourage one to continue brewing.
To help brainstorm ideas and solutions to common pitfalls in brewing, I visited Barry’s Homebrew at 1447 N. American St. — and online at www.barryshomebrew.com — and spoke to owners Nick Less and Jimmy McMillan.
“It’s easy to make good beer, and hard to make really horrible beer,” said Less, providing a bit of encouragement for first-time home-brewers.
The most important thing to remember is to take very seriously everything you’ve heard about cleaning and sanitizing your bottles, buckets and other instruments.
Why? Because why would you want to spend hours brewing a batch and then weeks waiting to sample it, only to have to dump the batch of beer down the drain because of infection?
But as long as you are diligent, this should rarely, if ever, occur.
Another point McMillan made was that the brewer should read all of the documentation with the kit before starting to brew. He has received many calls and questions about kits he has put together — and the answers already were spelled out. He emphasized that he doesn’t mind taking questions from new brewers, but the process will go smoother if you don’t panic halfway through, he said.
Both owners recommend reaching out to the community of brewers around you, whether it is through a home-brew store or club, online forums — a site like www.homebrewtalk.com is a great place to start — or simply through friends who brew.
The book How to Brew, by John Palmer, is an excellent resource and can be found online for free. There also are books and Web sites to teach you how to clone your favorite beers, which can be a good way to have something to compare to your home-brewed batch. Less said brewers who bring a bottle of beer to the shop can get advice on what to improve.
Also, a few simple upgrades in equipment and ingredients in a premade kit can have a dramatic effect on your beer. In my experience, switching from the liquid extract that comes with some kits to the dry-malt extract will rid much of the “home-brew aftertaste,” as well as be much easier to manage.
The liquid extract is like maple syrup and can become quite a mess. This goes double if you have a Mr. Beer kit, in which the extract is derived from corn and not barley malt.
Conversely, switching from the dry-yeast packets that are often included in these kits to liquid yeast can improve the quality of the beer and also open up styles that you cannot brew with dry yeast.
The dry yeast is suitable for an American IPA or brown ale, but for a Belgian ale or a German Hefeweizen, the yeast matters as much as the ingredients.
Also, try to take advantage of the season when you brew. If your basement is cold, try brewing a Kolsch beer. When the weather gets warm, brew a Belgian Triple or Saison. These will end up better than a Double IPA. These styles work better in the various seasons because the different yeasts are very sensitive to temperature.
McMillan, at the home-brew shop, also suggested upgrading to a larger bucket than the ones supplied with many kits. If you are trying to brew two gallons of beer in a two-gallon bucket, there will be overflow as the yeast ferments.
For less than $10, you can get a three- or five-gallon bucket and you will not lose any beer.
Finally, the biggest threat to any home-brewer’s career is discouragement.
But even if your first batch (or first few) doesn’t seem very good, keep on trying. You’ll soon figure out how to brew a batch to suit your taste.
For more information: Barry’s Homebrew hosts its Homebrew Club, which meets at 7 p.m. on the first and third Fridays of the month at the shop, 1447 N. American St. Batch tastings, brew talks and, of course, socializing will ensue.
Calling all homebrewers – Philly Beer Scene is sponsoring a two-stage “Battle of the Homebrew Shops” with eight area homebrew shops, including Barry’s Home Brew and Homesweet Homebrew (2008 Sansom St.). Two winners will be picked from each shop. The first stage is all session beers (beers 4.5% ABV or under). The second is coffee beer, but the beer can not be a porter or a stout. More details at phillybeerscene.com ••
Tim Patton is a Fishtown resident, beer aficionado and brewer. His column is dedicated to showcasing everything that is great about enjoying beer in the riverwards. He can be contacted at: email@example.com