Updated: Jan 4
IT'S NO SECRET THAT OUR ROOTS ARE IN HOMEBREWING. Dating back to the mid 2000's, we forged a path to commercial brewing through a hobby. We weren't the first, and certainly won't be the last. While most of our story is centered around our success in converting a garage project into a couple regional production breweries, there is a prequel that is only understood by those that were there in the beginning. That story, unfortunately, isn't as glamorous, but it was also requisite.
While many aspiring homebrewers in today's modern craft beer landscape might see homebrewing as simply a means to an end, to many impassioned hobbyists it's still something they do just for the kicks. They do it because it's fun to create something, and because it's a fascinating mix of art and science. They do it to impress their friends and family, and because it presents challenges that can be just as satisfying to solve as enjoying the end result. Fruits of the labor, as they say. Maybe you know that already and that's why you're here. Interest isn't the problem - it's execution. If you want to be the coolest mad scientist on the street, read on. These are some considerations before embarking on your homemade hooch journey.
Some People Can't Stand the Smell
No joke. Frankly I have never understood this. If you happen to like the smell of bread baking, it's very similar, although the hops do add a sort of dank funkiness that some find to be offensive. It is not an uncommon complaint though, and it's typically shared by spouses of brewers. Not sure if there is any science behind it but here's what I will say, when we had our homebrew store it was an aversion shared far & away more often by woman than by men. There has to be something behind that. Anyone reading this with a scientific explanation to this should absolutely comment below to explain this phenomenon. 'Why' aside, the fact remains it has a strong odor, for better or worse.
It Requires a Decent Amount of Space
If you have aspirations to brew beer with better flavor than what a Mr. Beer kit will yield, you are going to need a bit of space. How much space depends on how much you plan to make and how often, and also how much gear you plan on collecting. Although there are a lot of gimmicky tools for brewers, in general the more you have (and the more sophisticated they are) the better the beer is going to be, but even when not in use, you are going to need a place to store your equipment, cleaning and sanitizing chemicals, and ingredients when not in use.
On brew day a driveway or garage will work, but fermentation needs to happen in a dark space that hovers around 60-70 degrees so you better make sure you have a closet with free space. Regarding the brewing portion, you may be wondering, "Can't I just brew on my stovetop?" Maybe. It depends on how much you are making. The burners on a stovetop range are designed to boil just a few gallons, max, and therefore max out their BTUs accordingly, so it may not be ideal for those looking to brew north of 3 gallons. Also, it's a lot of work, so making 2 gallons at a time may not be worth the squeeze. Not to mention it's incredibly messy. The first time you have a boil over (and everyone does) your significant other is going to let you know about it. More about cleaning in the next section.
There is an Ungodly Amount of Cleaning
Talk to any brewer, home or commercial, and they'll tell you...brewing should have its name formally changed to just "cleaning". Actually it's a lot like painting. Everyone knows painting is all about the prep work. Yeast is a micro-organism, but it's not the only one floating around looking for a meal. There are lots of micro-competitors out there and that sweet, sumptuous, lukewarm sugar water looks pretty tasty to a lot of them. The problem is the finished product doesn't come out smelling or tasting that appetizing when altered by one of those lil' guys so keeping your brewing equipment clean and sanitized is paramount.
It Can Get Expensive
Don't get into brewing to save money. Like anything else made at scale, commercial breweries are able to produce at a level that translates to savings for you. It may be hard to believe given the rising cost of craft beer, but your average off-the-shelf 6-pack is running at about 10 to 12 bucks, which is actually a pretty darn good deal relative to what it would cost you to produce something similar at home. Take this entry level kit from Northern Brewer, for example, this 1 Gallon kit will probably yield about 75% of that in finished beer at $74 + tax. Thats about 6 full pints of beer. You do the math. You'll also begin to learn very quickly that brewing quality beer sometimes means investing in quality equipment. Some of those toys are cheaper than others, but still...it's a slippery slope. Once you start brewing all-grain at 5+ gallons the cost can come down, particularly with lower ABV and less hoppy styles, but still, expect it to cost somewhere in the $3/beer neighborhood when you're done.
You WILL Lose Batches
There are only two certainties in this world - death & taxes. What that means, by rule, is that batch integrity in homebrewing is never guaranteed, especially in the beginning when the learning curve is steep and you are prone to making mistakes. Why is batch loss so common?
The reality is you probably won't take the task of cleaning and sanitation seriously enough until you lose a batch (although sometimes even despite your best efforts it'll happen. We're talking about microscopic organisms here). Also it can be tough to resist the temptation to do too much. More specifically, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of recipe development, which quickly turns into recipe overkill, and you end up with a beer that is simply undrinkable rather than keeping it simple.
Think about the beers you like the drink when you shop at the store. On a hot summer day do you want a super clean and simple Pale Ale, or do you want a pumpkin spice eggnog jalapeño imperial glitter saison? Yuck. Although discouraging, batch loss happens to everyone and you will learn from it. Just adjust your expectations accordingly.
Be Prepared to Brew in the Digital Age
If you're the type of person that prefers going to a specialty retail store to shoot the breeze and ask questions you're going to have a difficult time. Homebrew supply shops were a cottage industry to begin with, but the proliferation of online retailers pretty much wiped out brew shops, thanks to lower overhead and the convenience of delivery. A lot of your learnings will take place through online forums and chatting with customer support agents unless you are fortunate enough to have local homebrew clubs that you can connect with in-person. If you feel like you aren't resourceful enough to go it on your own, and you absolutely need a mentor, make sure you find a beer tutor first.
Don't Expect Commercial-Quality Beer, at First
This is really a tough pill to swallow because we all want to believe that we can do something as well as the pros, and there are plenty of homebrew wizards out there that are talented enough to make a very respectable product with next to no specialized equipment, but the honest truth is (especially in the beginning) your beer probably isn't going to stand up to that which you are used to drinking off the grocery shelf. There is a reason why breweries invest thousands, even millions of dollars on sophisticated equipment - It's because it works, and they are mitigating issues that you can't entirely deal with at home. It's going to take some time to get to the point where you really feel like you can trust your recipes, understand your equipment, and control the outcome of your brews. That's ok though, learning and adapting is part of the fun.
This article is not meant to discourage anyone from pursuing their interests, or dreams, as is our case. It's simply meant to provide fair and honest info that will allow you to go into it with eyes wide open, and to set expectations that will allow you to succeed earlier, rather than later.
Nothing worth doing comes easy, and despite all the risks mentioned above there are still well over 1 million homebrewers in the United States according to the Brewers Association of America. Add a big chunk to that number because of Covid, surely. Homebrewing is an incredibly rewarding and challenging hobby that pays in spades and gives the most average of Joes the ability to be a neighborhood hero. Wait until you've got folks huddled around your garage, more transfixed than a Gordon Ramsey pop-up kitchen on your street. The best part? You can make all those looky-loos do the cleaning so you can focus the fun part.