DIY brewers bring the craft beer revolution home

BeerLeft

By Paul Schiavone
Photos By Adam Detour

I often tell people that the reason I brew beer at home is so I can drink my favorite beer styles, which aren’t commercially available—seems the only rational explanation for spending eight hours of my Saturday cleaning, sanitizing and waiting for water to boil. But how could that be true? We’re in the midst of a craft beer revolution. Long mocked for brewing beers that only pair well with lawn mowers, America is now at the forefront of beer innovation, evolution and preservation. And Boston is not a bad place to watch the craft beer revolution progress.

Working in Cambridge and living in Charlestown, I can walk home by way of two full-fledged beer bars, a brew pub and any number of bars and restaurants with admirable selections. Taking Windsor Street to Hampshire, I can stop in at Lord Hobo to enjoy a pint from its exceptionally well curated and maintained lineup of drafts. Heading a few blocks down Hampshire towards Boston and I can hit up Cambridge Brewing Company for a pint of beer brewed in-house. Continuing in that same direction, Hampshire runs into Broadway which intersects with Ames and that’s where you’ll find Meadhall, the newest beer bar in the city, with around 100 beers on tap.

Cambridge isn’t the only place to find great beer bars. The Publick House in Brookline and Deep Ellum in Alston are two establishments that frequently find their way onto lists of the best beer bars in America. Bukowski’s and The Other Side Cafe in Back Bay also have great lists ... and grungy decors. Every great beer city has to fill its quota of divey craft beer bars.

The draft lists at all these bars are incredibly diverse, filled with beers that span the style spectrum and hail from all major beer-brewing nations. But at any given time you’ll notice that there’s always a respectable percentage of draft lines fed by beers from local breweries. Boston proper is the home of two of the Commonwealth’s best-known craft breweries: Harpoon and Samuel Adams. While they both have ubiquitous flagship beers—for Harpoon it’s IPA; for Sam Adams it’s Boston Lager—they also have a slew of seasonal, small batch and specialty brews that celebrate the creativity and innovation at the heart of the craft beer movement.

These “big guys”—relatively speaking—produce some great beers, but as a home brewer I gravitate toward the smaller breweries. I feel a certain kinship with brewers who are making beer on a scale that I can comprehend. Brewers who have the luxury of taking big risks by trying something new, different and a little crazy with the safety net of small batch sizes and an adventurous following loyal enough to try anything they concoct ... at least once.

Hop back across the river from Boston and you’ll find a couple of my favorite small-scale brewers. Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square has been the home of Brewmaster Will Meyers for almost two decades, an eternity in the brewpub world. Brewing an incredible variety of beers, Will both pushes the envelope when it comes to brewing innovative beer styles and preserves centuries-old traditions with his Belgian-style sour beers. Just down the road in Somerville are Dann and Martha Paquette of Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project. This dynamic pair of gypsy brewers has taken the local beer scene by storm and shown just how fun beer can be with their fanciful interpretation of classic British and Belgian beer styles and lore.

The world of craft beer wasn’t nearly this robust or diverse when I started home brewing back in the mid 1990s. At that time I was a high-school senior. Though I started off the year with an interest in beer just as juvenile as the rest of my classmates’, by the time the year was over, I was a genuine home brewing beer geek. For this, I have my father to blame.

My father isn’t, and never really was, a big beer drinker. That’s why I always found it curious when he’d return from business trips to San Francisco with a six-pack of beer from the Anchor Brewery. Most of the time he’d bring back Anchor’s Steam Beer, which to my adolescent palate wasn’t anything exceptional or particularly out of the ordinary. But this particular December, he returned with Anchor’s Christmas Ale—my gateway craft beer. Tasting this beer for the first time was a magical experience. It pairs perfectly with the season for which it is brewed; every sip transports the drinker to a mildly roasty and slightly chocolatey evergreen forest. The first time I tried it, I remember thinking: This is the most unique thing I have ever tasted ... I need to find more beers like this.

The problem was, my ability to expand my taste for beer was somewhat limited due to the fact that I was only 18. While my parents were very supportive of all my interests, this was one they had a hard time getting behind. And since my father wasn’t in the habit of bringing beer home, I thought it would be some time before I’d be learning all that much more about it.

Thankfully, I was wrong. My eyes opened to the world of craft beer, I noticed it in places I had never seen it before; like in the parking lots at Phish concerts. All of a sudden, every show I went to was inundated with hippies selling clear bottles of an incredibly dark stout out of the back of their Volkswagen buses. And so, my passion for good beer was further fueled by $5 bottles of black market Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout.

Like any good son, after trying Samuel Smith’s for the first time, I ran right home and encouraged my father to pick some up and give it a try. He was surprisingly receptive to my suggestion. We headed to the store to find it.

Our journey was successful in more ways than I could have ever expected. Not only did we find the beer we were looking for, we also picked up a copy of Yankee Brew News, the beeriodical that put the idea of home brewing in my head. I’m pretty sure there was only one page about home brewing in that edition, but the mere introduction to the concept was enough to get a DIY freak who loves to cook obsessed with the idea that you could make a beverage at home that was both alcoholic and carbonated.

I managed to convince my parents that, in spite of my age, it was legal and morally on the up and up for me to brew beer at home. So I found a questionable liquor store a couple towns away that also sold home brewing equipment—a couple buckets and some tubing—and the necessary ingredients, which for this batch came conveniently in a single two-quart can with a packet of yeast taped to the top.

“Brewing” my first beer was easy. Dissolve the molasses-like syrup contained in the can in a couple gallons of water; bring it to a boil; wait 30 minutes; then cool the boiling liquid by adding it to a bucket with 3 gallons of cold water. In a few hours, the concoction cooled to around 80 degrees, at which point I added the packet of yeast.

Then began the waiting ... two weeks of waiting ... an interminable two weeks exceeded in frustration only by the two weeks of waiting following this initial period. Turned out that making beer takes patience.

During the first two weeks, the beer was just sitting in a five gallon bucket, not particularly enticing or easy to sample. The second two-week wait was after I had added a little sugar to the beer so that it would carbonate, moved it into bottles and capped it. From the outside, the beer looked done to me, so there was no way I could wait another 14 days to try it.

Five days in, I cracked one open. There was a hint of carbonation—totally magical—and a hint of sweetness, but it really didn’t taste like something I recognized as beer. Ten days in, still more bubbles, so now it felt like you were drinking a beer, but the taste wasn’t quite there. Day 14, not much different than day 10. And it never really changed much from that point on.

While the end product was of questionable quality, I considered this brewing experience a success to the extent that I followed through with it and had my first brew under my belt. It took a few more years, a lot of reading, many more failed attempts, a brewing internship at Harpoon Brewery and a partner in crime before I was really making beer I was proud of.

By that point the craft beer revolution was underway, but distribution was limited. It seemed like the most interesting beers on the market were the ones you could only read about. This is why much of my brewing energy was focused on brewing beers I couldn’t get my hands on. I brewed a Maple Nut Brown Ale in an attempt to recreate a beer I tasted while on vacation in Colorado. I tried my hand at an Espresso Sambuca Porter because you certainly couldn’t find that anywhere. Then I developed an obsession with high-alcohol beers like barley wines, old ales and imperial stouts: big, syrupy alcoholic brews that are perfect for winter.

Ten years ago, big boozy beers were rarely brewed commercially because they were too expensive to make since people couldn’t bring themselves to pay a few dollars for a single bottle of beer or eight $8 for a 10-ounce pour. But times have changed. While I have outgrown my fascination with big beers, the market seems to have acquired one. It’s actually a challenge to find a beer with an ABV (alcohol by volume) below 6.5 percent on most draft lists these days. And consumers are no longer frugal when it comes to buying craft beer: $12 six-packs and $10 21-ounce bottles are now the norm.

Since it’s a challenge to find beers that you can drink more than one of in a sitting and still muster the wherewithal to stand, my brewing partner Jeff and I haven’t brewed a beer with an ABV above 5 percent in a number of years. Our regular lineup consists primarily of traditional, and low in alcohol, British styles and small versions of American pales, porters and stouts. We enjoy approaching our brewing with purpose. The challenge of making truly quaffable beers adds to our enjoyment of the hobby. But approaching home brewing with this purpose is by no means necessary. Home brewing is a rewarding and magical hobby on its own. And there’s never been a better time to get involved.

The basic ingredients in beer—water, malted barley, hops and yeast—are readily available to the home brewer in as great a variety as they are to the pros. More importantly, support and information for new home brewers is readily available. Just Google “how to make beer at home” and you’ll find countless websites, videos and message boards dedicated to the topic. But don’t get bogged down by information overload. I encourage first-time home brewers to pay a visit to their local home brew store and chat with the employees and other home brewers. Home brewers are never shy to offer up advice and opinions. On any given day at Modern Brewer in Somerville, my local home brew store, you can walk in and tell them that you are a first-time brewer looking to brew a batch of beer and there’ll be any number of people eager to help. They’ll give you an overview of the process, point you in the direction of the basic equipment you’ll need, recommend a recipe that’s likely to work out well for you and send you off with instructions for how to brew your first batch.

Brewing is a hobby that you should just jump into. It will only take a couple hours to brew your first batch and the quality of ingredients and information available ensure that it will turn out a lot better than mine. Once your first beer is in the fermenter, you’ll have some time on your hands. That’s when you should hit up the Internet for more information. I recommend checking out howtobrew.com, the website for the book How to Brew by John Palmer. The entire first edition of this book is available online ... for free! This will help you kill time and keep up your enthusiasm for the hobby while you wait for the next step. Once the beer has fermented, take a sample and give it a taste. At this point it’s not carbonated and still needs some conditioning, but you’ll recognize it as beer to be. Get that batch into bottles and be patient; it’s worth the wait. It’s doubtful that your first batch will be your best, but it’s likely to be pretty darn good and will certainly pair well with the sense of gratification that comes from having created a carbonated alcoholic beverage from scratch. Happy brewing!

Paul Schiavone brews at home in Charlestown but spends most of his time at work in Cambridge running BostonChefs.com—the insider’s guide to dining in Boston. Paul can be reached at paul@bostonchefs.com or twitter.com/paulschiavone