During the initial quarantine rush, as everyone scrambled to supermarkets to stock up on flour and yeast for homemade loaves, my older brother and I had another thought: stock up on malted barley.
For the past seven years, we’ve met up every Saturday in his shaded driveway to hang out with our dogs, barbecue lunch, and boil up a fresh batch of beer. We’ve steadily progressed from newbies to relatively experienced brewers, and have lately been exploring fresh local ingredients (most recently, Oregon-malted rye in an English-style stout). But we’d both be lying if we said we did it for the steady supply of suds.
Like barbecuing or gardening, making your own booze at home is more than just an opportunity to spend time with your quarantine bubble. It also directly connects you with humanity’s culinary and scientific histories. Did you know, for example, that we may have gone from hunter-gatherers to farmers because of our love of beer? What about how Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization while studying spoiled wine—and that he hated German beer?
One of the things I love is how easy it is to progress with this hobby; you can probably make something drinkable on your first try. It mostly requires the ability to read instructions. When you’re done, it can help you relax after a long day of doomscrolling, and it offers a small sense of accomplishment. Want to give it a shot? You don’t need to spend too much cash. Here’s what you need to know to make beer, wine, cider, and mead.
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Updated December 2020: We’ve updated links and pricing and added a small section on gin, nocino, and other infused liquors.
Making alcohol is easy. Take a sugary liquid, add sugar-eating yeast, and wait. As the yeast eats the sugar, it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wait long enough (a few weeks), and you’ll have yourself a fully fermented beverage that’s (probably) safe to drink. It might be safe, but your beverage might not taste very good. The following are a few general tips to keep in mind when fermenting your own booze, for quality’s sake:
Sanitation is perhaps the most important part of any fermentation process. You want to make sure everything that touches your liquid pre- and post-ferment has been fully sterilized with a no-rinse sanitizer (see the section on Star San below). This keeps poor-tasting yeasts and other contaminants out, and ensures shelf stability.
There’s a saying in the brewing community that brewers are really just glorified janitors: yeast is what actually makes the beer. This couldn’t be more true. Keeping your little biological buddies happy is of the utmost importance for booze that tastes good. Be sure to pitch a healthy amount of yeast cells, and keep your fermentation within the recommended temperature range for the specific yeast you’re using.
“Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew,” is the most popular saying in the home fermentation world for a reason. Making good booze can take time, and it’s important not to rush things.
Tools You’ll Need for Everything
If you live in a city, there’s a good chance you have a homebrew supply store in your area. I highly recommend you buy as much of this gear locally as you can, as the experts at the shop are invaluable resources. If you’re a bit more remote, or don’t want to go inside a shop right now (for obvious reasons), we’ve included links to buy this gear online.