Homebrewing a rewarding exercise for beer aficionados

By Sklyar Wilcox

Some people are looking to make cuts to their beer budget without switching to Natty Lite…. Some people are looking to make cuts to their beer budget without switching to Natty Lite. Others are seeking the ultimate cocktail of malted grains and hops. Still others hope to find a way to bond with friends while creating a delicious brew. Whatever the reason, many people at Pitt, from students to professors, are making their own beer at home.

“Ultimately, it’s a big science project,” said Robert Parker, an associate professor of chemical engineering who has been a homebrewer for more than a decade. “But it can be as science-y or unscience-y as you choose.”

As one of the world’s oldest beverages, beer is simple to prepare and offers many opportunities for experimentation. The four main ingredients are water, yeast, flower clusters called hops and ground grains. Most brewers buy these items pre-prepared so that they don’t need to purchase extra equipment to grind the grain and hops.

The water is boiled, and the grains and hops are added. The mixture is cooled, yeast is added and the concoction is transferred to a container to ferment. There, the yeast consumes the sugar from the grain to produce alcohol and flavor-creating esters. After four weeks, the brew is bottled to be sold and consumed.

There are two main types of beers: ales and lagers. Most homebrewers stick to ales, which ferment at room temperature. Lagers require special equipment and take more effort and time to prepare.

Many homebrewers make their first batch from kits, which are sold online for as little as $40 and supply all the ingredients and equipment needed to make four gallons of brew in three to four weeks.

“Most homebrewers get a kit and find out how [homebrewing is] done. You get creative later,” said Scott Perkins, a 22-year-old Pitt senior and homebrewer.

The kits often come with pre-hopped grain extracts, which give brewers little control over flavor. Coupled with low-quality corn syrup for fermentation, many homebrew kits offer a very limited canvas for experimentation. For those who want to experiment with different combinations of hops, extracts and yeast, however, there are a huge number of resources available.

Many brewers have their personal “brew bible,” whether it’s “Radical Brewing” by Randy Mosher or “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing” by Charlie Papazian. But by all accounts the Internet has made brewing much more accessible. Ingredients, equipment, recipes and advice are all easily accessible to beer-brewing newbies.

Perkins says he frequents homebrewtalk.com, a forum from which a community of brew aficionados answers “any possible quandary, problem or question” about the craft, he said.

But that doesn’t mean that the offline world is any less helpful than it was 10 years ago. Parker and Perkins still buy their ingredients locally at specialty stores like South Hills Brewing Supply on Noblestown Road.

Brewers try to have as much fun brewing their beer as they do drinking it. Perkins and Jake McGlashon, also a 22-year-old senior and neuroscience major, have been brewing once a month since they started the hobby last September. The two began their last batch, an India Pale Ale, on April 6. The brew “should be done in time for graduation. It’ll give us something to show our parents,” Perkins said.

Parker brews with several of his colleagues and does special brews for hockey season. Last year, he made an “Elimination Ale” to cope with the Penguins’ troubled Stanley Cup bid.

The online brewing community prides itself on its openness, with many sites dedicated to sharing brewing techniques and recipes. These sites allow fellow brewers to critique and tweak recipes. Parker said that although he has favorite recipes that he likes to make occasionally, the homebrewing process rewards creativity and experimentation.

By changing the combinations of hops and yeast and even adding in extra ingredients, brewers can create their own recipes. Even in experiments gone wrong, one man’s dregs can be another man’s new favorite beer. Last winter, Perkins and McGlashon made a Christmas brew heavy in orange rinds and forgot to take them out. While Perkins considered the batch a failure, McGlashon said he enjoyed the citrus overload.

For those who want to accurately recreate commercial beers or fine-tune their own, there are a wide variety of advanced tools to measure and adjust characteristics like the color and carbonation of the beer and even the ion concentration of the water.

Parker shies away from these involved techniques, though he says several other brewing engineering faculty members spend hours on computer programs like ProMash, which allows them to predict and adjust the properties of their brew to perfection.

For most homebrewers, the craft is much more casual.

“If I could make a batch every month or so to have around and drink with friends, I’d be happy,” McGlashon said.

Parker concurs that new brewers should “relax. It’s for fun.” But he insists that every brewer should at least “be kind to their drinkers, let them know how much alcohol they’re drinking.”

Above all, the homebrewers insist that brewing is an enjoyable, creative experience. Perkins compared it to other home projects: “It’s like baking a cake — a cake that takes four weeks to bake.”