A few years ago, a friend and her husband came to Thailand for their honeymoon and passed through Bangkok. At that time, there weren’t a lot of foreign beer bars in town. My wife and I took them to a special limited-time only Belgian beer garden event near our place. We found out the husband Louis knew a lot about beer and was a homebrewer back in his native Phoenix. He had brewed all the beer for his recent wedding and promised me a taste of some of his home brews the next time I passed through.
Who knew when that would be, but as circumstances played out, I only had to wait 9 months before I returned to the USA on a rare visit. Louis kept his word. I tried several bottles of his latest batches. They all had one thing in common. They were terrible.
On one hand, should that be such a shocker? If you pick twenty people at random, all who say they enjoy cooking but none who do so professionally, and asked them to prepare you a home-cooked meal, how many of those meals would be something that could pass as decent for restaurant quality? One? Two? So why should more than 5% or 10% of homebrewers brew something that’s drinkable?
On the other hand, home brewing isn’t nearly as common as preparing a home cooked meal. According to a 2013 survey conducted in the United States, there are an estimated 1.2 million homebrewers in the USA. 800,000 of that 1.2m started brewing in 2005 or later. Homebrewing is more of a niche community. Anyone getting into it, you would think, has an appreciation for better quality beers and would, therefore, probably be able to brew beer that at least exceeded the quality of mainstream products.
Excepting Islamic nations, homebrewing is legal in most countries today. Some countries impose boundaries. The Czech Republic and Germany limit the brewing amount to 200 liters annually. Singapore sets a limit of 30 liters per household per month. Japan says homebrewed beer can’t exceed 1% ABV. In point of fact, no government is double- or triplechecking what anyone is homebrewing as long as the brews aren’t being sold commercially. In Thailand, homebrewing is officially illegal and so is having the equipment to do it, yet the maximum penalties are just $7 for making it and only $150 for selling it. Even the Thai government isn’t militantly keeping an eye on homebrewers if they don’t rock the boat.
There are levels to homebrewing. The novice enters the field by purchasing a homebrewing kit. The brewing kit contains all the ingredients in a simplified form to minimize the brewer’s chances to mess it up The malt extract included in these kits is essentially a concentrated wort with the hops already added. Knowing how much, what kind, and when to add hops is what separates the everyman from a brewmaster. You can think of these brewing kits as the equivalent of a cake or cookie mix. If you follow the instructions, you’ll get a finished product no one would be ashamed to ingest and at a significant discount per liter compared to store bought brews.
Plenty of homebrewers remain at this level. They have spare capacity in the garage and team up with two or three friends to share the costs and time. Part of the motivation is saving cash on beer purchases. A larger part is being able to say “I brewed it myself.” Somehow the final product seems to taste better when you feel you played a part in its creation. U.S. President Barack Obama’s homebrewed White House Honey Ale, Honey Blonde Ale, Honey Porter, and Honey Brown, it is safe to say, were brewed more for the achievement than the saving of cash.
An aspiring chef graduates from baking Betty Crocker brownie mixes to reverse engineering the recipes and improving them to create her own. So does the serious homebrewer. After he’s familiar with the basics of the homebrewing process, he’ll choose a beer he likes and try to recreate it, probably using the myriad of beer recipe web sites or brewing books as a guide post. Beer is made from malt, hops, water, and yeast. If a homebrewer does a bit of research, he can unearth that the beer style he’s after contains 80% pale malt, 15% caramel malt, and 5% chocolate malt and the particular brew within that style he’s trying to recreate contains some proportion of Citra and Simcoe hops. He’ll brew a small batch and discern by taste how much it varies from the beer he’s imitating. Maybe his hops or malts ratios are slightly off. He’ll make adjustments, re-brew, and re-sample. Between his initial research and several rounds of prototypes, with some aptitude he should eventually figure out how to brew an approximation of a commercially available beer.
At that stage, he can vary the recipe. How would the next batch taste if it were hoppier or if the hops type is altered? What if he introduced another type of malt? How would the beer change if organic fruit or fruit juice is added? Through this trial and error process, with meticulous note taking, the studious homebrewer can figure out for himself how to tweak and, hopefully, craft a delicious tasting recipe. Each of the learning batches is like a controlled experiment juxtaposed with the batch which came before.
Here’s the catch. Most of the people you’re ever likely to meet who remark to you “I am a homebrewer” take brewing as seriously as a dilettante takes any endeavor. You don’t expect the guy you met at your gym to be Jimi Hendrix reincarnated on the guitar. Or the actor at your community theater to be channeling Richard Burton or Laurence Olivier. Why should I have expected Louis’ homebrews to be on par with a Belgian Trappist brewery’s?
Homebrewing is an excellent way to take your understanding of beer to another level. That is, being the home brewer. Drinking home brews is another story. There, you learn the art of being understanding: you pretend to enjoy the dreck someone else joyously spent the time to produce.