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Is there anything more manly than homebrewing your own beer? Well, sort of. You see, brewing beer requires various ingredients that are hard to come by, and equipment that is unwieldy and doesn’t fit in your average three-meter-square apartment kitchen nook, no matter how manly its occupant. If you don't know how to homebrew beer, remember that it takes a pretty serious investment of time and resources, which is why it is the realm of an incredibly passionate small minority, a sort of international guild of people with expansive basements, free time, and sufficient space for grain storage. I have none of the above, living in a modest apartment (no extra space) and with infant daughters (no time, extra or otherwise, when I’m not trying desperately to catch up on sleep). But I don’t want such little details to stand in my way. I am a man and, as a man’s man, I must not only consume, but also brew beer.
It wasn’t always that easy. Humans have brewed beer since the olden days (at least since the Neolithic, which is as old as it gets), but at least in the US, where I’m from, it was illegal until President Jimmy Carter signed off on making it acceptable to brew at home for personal consumption in the 1970s.
This home brewing thing can actually be quite lucrative. Within a five minute walk of my home, in Slovenia, there are two new microbreweries that started as home affairs, create incredible beers, and manage to sell out of all they can produce. To solve the space and equipment issue, Pivovarna Mali Grad made the investment and converted what was once a miniature house into a miniature brewery. Maister Brewery, on the other hand, collaborates with another nearby microbrewery which was already up and running, and brews and bottles the product there, based on the recipe of the brew master. Neither one can make beer fast enough to keep up with the demand. This seems like a good business to get into, and not only for the whole manliness thing.
First step: the homebrew kit
I need to start somewhere, and without wanting to invest in elaborate equipment, I decided to turn to a homebrew kit. There are many options, as a quick google search will demonstrate. They range from simple (white plastic buckets, boutique-sized bags of grain) to elegant sets (have a look at the one launched by Scottish company Brewdog). You can buy the raw materials, like a range of hops, and do it properly, designing your own recipe. But that requires things like, you know, knowledge, of which I have, alas, almost none. I’d gladly enroll in a beer making course, but none are available anytime soon.
So I opt for Plan B: ordering pre-made recipes along with my beer kit. After much searching and reading of reviews, I settled on Homebrewtique, a UK-based company that combines elegant equipment, user-friendly instructions, and intriguing pre-measured recipes. A week later, I get a starter kit in the post: there is a white plastic bucket (with a spigot), but also a nice extra-long thermometer, ingredients for a recipe of my choice (there are many options, but I went for Southpaw Milk Stout), and even an extremely fancy, extra-large boiling pot (which will feature in my pasta boiling future after the beer is done), all packaged in nice burlap sacks.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’m not really brewing beer per se. If I were more hardcore, I could buy the equipment and order an all-grain kit (which is essentially recipe packs), or design my own. I could buy a pre-hopped malt kit, which simplify the recipe by making it so you don’t have to add hops at a particular moment in the cooking process. Instead, I got for brew in a bag (BIAB), the easiest of all. The grains (which turn to mash when boiled) are contained in a special bag, and can be removed en masse when required, so you can do everything in a single container.
How to use the homebrew kit
I’m ready for action, when I finally turn to the instructions. I read them once, twice, but my eyes glaze over each time. It’s not that complicated, but it requires timing and temperature control, and I’m the sort of cook (as readers of my Cooking the Classics column will know) who is an imperfectionist, and this brewing leaves no room for error. I’m also aware that, even with a recipe and pre-packaged ingredients, the end result will vary. My neighbors at Pivovarna Mali Grad made a stout at home that they loved, but couldn’t get a pale ale to taste right. Then they moved a few kilometers away, to their mini-brewery, and all of a sudden the pale ale was awesome (by far their best-seller) but they didn’t like the stout. The only difference was the water—just a few kilometers away, it was different enough to change the taste completely, improving one, downgrading the other beer so much that they decided not to produce it. So who knows what the Southpaw Milk Stout is supposed to taste like?
Well, mine tasted good in the end. After boiling, measuring, removing mash, fermenting, bottling and letting sit for a good four weeks (that’s the hard part), I ended up with a highly-drinkable stout that I (sort of) brewed myself (mostly). I can’t really call it my own beer. Some nice people sent me a box of stuff and I put the stuff together the way they told me to, and it tasted good. But I’m one step closer to being a homebrewer. And I feel at least 0.37% more manly.