It can be said that home-brewing is the wellspring of the craft beer movement. Many of the early pioneers got their start making at home the flavorful beers of England, Belgium and Germany that were unavailable in the United States. Ask a craft brewer how they got into the trade and many will say, “Well, I started home-brewing. … ”
The home-brewing hobby is going strong. The American Homebrewers Association reports that there are 1.2 million home-brewers in the United States. Collectively they produce 2 million barrels of beer annually. That amounts to about 1 percent of total U.S. beer production. At the National Homebrew Competition held in July at the Minneapolis Convention Center, more than 8,600 entries were judged.
The hobby has changed a lot over the years. While most home-brewers still embrace a do-it-yourself ethos, cobbling together breweries from coolers, cook pots and glass or plastic carboys, a whole new world of high-tech gadgets promises to revolutionize the way beer is made at home.
Jeff Merriman, general manager of Northern Brewer home-brew supply store in Minneapolis, describes the change. “Previously we had a home-brewing industry — especially if you got really into it — you had to DIY your system. The only way to do that was to adapt parts from other industries. People would do things with pumps and lines and whatever they could find just to make one piece fit into another piece. And now I think it’s really exciting to see all this stuff being designed specifically for home-brewers.”
One area that has seen major advances is fermentation. Home-brewers now have access to small-scale conical fermenting vessels that mimic the look and function of the large tanks in a commercial brewery, as well as advanced temperature control systems. “Most home-brewers in the past were wrapping wet blankets around things to cool them off. Now people have glycol systems,” said Merriman.
Another area of innovation is mini-batch systems that allow home-brewers to make as little as one gallon at a time. One such device is the Pico Pro, a countertop brewing machine from PicoBrew Inc. in Seattle. The mostly automated Pico Pro makes 5-liter batches with the push of a button. The self-contained PicoPak recipe kits, available from PicoBrew (picobrew.com) and elsewhere, contain the base ingredients: malt, hops and mineral salts for water treatment. Recipes are available for beers from well-known commercial breweries across the country.
The process is simple. Insert the PicoPak into a drawer-like compartment in the machine. Add distilled water. Push the button and the two- to three-hour brewing process takes care of itself. The result is five liters of unfermented wort in a mini Cornelius keg. Cool the wort, add yeast to ferment and 10 days later you have beer. The beer is carbonated using an included regulator and CO2 cartridge that attaches to the keg.
Pico Pro is for people who want to dabble in making beer at home, but don’t want the fuss and time commitment of doing it completely from scratch. I had the opportunity to try Pico Pro. Making beer was super-easy and I found the results to be quite good. As a former home-brewer, the only problem I had with the system was that I didn’t feel I could claim to have made the beer myself. The recipes weren’t mine and the machine did all the work.
Some hard-core home-brewers take DIY to another level by growing their own hops. Some even maintain cultures of their own house yeast strain. But mastering the complex process of turning grain into malt has largely remained out of reach. Rudimentary efforts have been made, but the difficulty of getting consistent and good-quality malt has made it an endeavor best left to professionals.
Sprowt Labs (sprowtlabs.com), a homegrown company operating out of a Minneapolis basement, is looking to change that with a small-scale home malting machine that brings precision and predictability to the process.
The compact unit is basically a temperature-control device with blowers to force hot or cold air through a bed of grains in a small conical fermenting tank that is purchased separately. It runs on standard 120-volt electricity and connects with a hose to any household water supply. Pre-designed recipes are loaded via Wi-Fi connection. The machine automatically runs the entire process from steeping and germination of the grains to drying and kilning to achieve different flavor and color profiles. The brewer need only check the progress once a day.
The Sprowt Labs device can also be used to dry homegrown hops, control fermentation temperature or as a general dehydrator.
But with hundreds of high-quality, professionally made malts available at the local home-brew store, why would a home-brewer go to the trouble of making their own? The answer lies in that do-it-yourself attitude. “The same argument applies to going to a liquor store where there are all these great craft beers that a really talented brewer has made. Why not buy that?” said Sprowtlabs co-founder Mark Emmons. “But you start brewing your own to make your own unique products. The same argument applies to home malting. Yes, professionals can do that for you, but that’s not why you’re home-brewing.”
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier); Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.