Home: Making Beer
Beer is big in Sonoma County. We now have at least 18 breweries. (These include giants like Russian River Brewery, which produces Pliny the Younger, one of the most sought-after limited-release beers in Sonoma County, and Lagunitas Brewing, the nation’s sixth largest craft brewer.) Not only is Sonoma County coming up in the world of craft beers, but many people brew their own. Home brewing helps one appreciate the fine beers of Sonoma County breweries even more.
The Elements of Beer
Beer is typically made with four ingredients, which are water, hops, barley, and yeast. Ales are popular to make with home brewers because they ferment at room temperature, in contrast to lagers, which must ferment under refrigeration. In the fermentation process, sugars from the barley are turned into alcohol by the addition of yeast. The variety of yeast used affects beer flavor.
It is not difficult to brew your own beer. Anyone with a gardening proclivity can grow the hops needed for beer. There are many varieties of hops to choose from, and they are easy to grow. Using fresh hops is commonly referred to as using wet hops, and the flavor is different from the hops you can buy, which are typically freeze dried pellets. Hops add flavor to beer and also act as a preservative because they have antiseptic properties.
Many novice home brewers use barley malt extracts, which are the sugars of the barley that are already processed into a powder or liquid, because it is easier to work with than cooking down the actual barley to release the sugars. This means extracts take a step out of the equation. Brewers that have been making beer for a while take the time and invest in the equipment necessary for using the barely grains. This is called all-grain brewing, and it takes more time and more expensive equipment than using extracts. One can also do what is called a partial mash, in which the brewer uses both grain and extract.
Keep It Clean!
Sanitation is a prime part of beer making and the beer, beer-making equipment, and hands must stay sterile so that microbes that could ruin your beer are kept out. If your final beverage product tastes bad or off, it is probably an issue of contamination. Bad beer won’t harm you, but it will taste undrinkable and will need to be dumped. Cleanliness is key.
Once you have your ingredients, you basically combine the barley malt and hops, and boil them into a beer tea. After cooling the beer, the yeast is added to begin the fermentation process. In about two weeks you have a batch of your very own beer!! The beer can then either be bottled or put into a keg for your consumption.
If it is bottled, you can have fun designing your own labels.
A great resource for home brewing is The Beverage People in Santa Rosa. They carry beer-making supplies and kits, and give expert advice on brewing. The Beverage People also teaches classes on how to make beer, which I recommend for the novice beer maker. Another source of information and beer commradery is the Beerocrats Club of Sonoma County that is associated with The Beverage People. Sharing an appreciation and passion for good beer is contagious, and you may make friends along the way by participating in clubs like the Beerocrats. The average home brewer is usually happy to share their knowledge and their home-crafted beer. Lastly, there are magazines dedicated to home brewing, such as Zymurgy, which are often chock-full of recipes and advice.
Brewing beer can be a fun social affair during which you must, of course, drink beer. Once the growing and brewing is done it’s time to relax and enjoy a pint of the best house ale. Cheers!
Text by Lyn Cessna, pictures by Nadja Masura
Ms. Cessna’s article makes me thirsty for a “cold one”. The recommendation to learn from local experienced beer makers is a good one since I know friends who found it more difficult than they thought to produce a top quality brew.