In which my son and I make our own beer

Ryan is going to be 22 at the end of the month. For those of you who have been here since I wrote the 13 on 31 post, you now know how I feel every single day. The rest of you can get off my lawn before I call your parents.

So the other day, he and I were having a beer together, and Ryan said, "We should make our own beer while I'm home this summer."

I tried homebrewing once when I was about Ryan's age, and it ended … poorly … I've wanted to try again, but I've always been intimidated by what I remembered was a complex and peril-fraught process. When Ryan suggested that we do this, though, the excitement and joy of doing something together gave me a natural 20 on my Save Versus Fear. Besides, even if it's a spectacular failure, it's still something we did together, something we can bond over, and something that will stay with us — success or failure — for the rest of our lives.

"That would be the most awesome father/son activity, ever," I said. "Plus, we get beer when we're finished!"

The next morning, we did a little research online, and the entire process actually looked a lot simpler and more straightforward that I remembered it being coughmumble years ago when I was 22. As long as we could follow a recipe and do our fermentation in a place that was temperature-controlled, we'd probably be able to make some beer that didn't suck.

We found a local homebrewing supply store, and went there yesterday to get our kit and ingredients.

The late afternoon had given way to early evening, but it was still 90 degrees as we parked the car and walked up the sidewalk toward the shop.

"I'm really excited about this," I said, partially because it was true, and partially because I needed to calm the nerves that were working themselves up. What if they laughed at us when we walked in? What if whoever worked there wasn't interested in helping a couple of noobs get started? What if I said something stupid and embarrassed my son?

"Yep," Ryan said.

'Yep'? That's it? 'Yep'? Not "Me too dad this will be awesome!" Not "Yeah, I'm looking forward to this, too." Not even, "Don't embarrass me, dude." Just 'yep'. Okay, Wil, don't blow this.

We walked into the store. It was cool inside, and smelled delightful from all the different types of grain that were in tubs along the walls. A man sat behind a counter at the far side of the room, reading a computer screen. I took a breath, and decided that it was go time.

"Hi," I said, "I tried homebreaing once about 15 years ago, and it was a disaster. My son's home for the summer, though, and we wanted to make our own beer together. Can you help us get started?"

He looked up at me, and smiled. "Sure, just give me one minute."

Awesome.

For the next twenty minutes or so, he literally and figuratively walked us through the entire process, showing us equipment and ingredients, and explaining in simple and precise terms exactly how the whole thing worked. I'm not entirely sure, but I think this guy could cast Dispel Fear as a free action, because by the time he was done, I felt like I was ready to go home and start brewing right away.

"Is there one type of beer that's more difficult than another?"

"Not really," he said. "Most of the beers you're going to make are pretty simple and forgiving. The hardest thing to make, honestly, is something like Budweiser."

Before I could say, "I said beer," he continued: "That's a very pale lager that doesn't leave much margin for error."

So they make that shit taste that way on purpose? And it's difficult? Wow, I learned something today.

"What about a California-style Pale Ale?" I asked, hopefully.

"That's very easy," he told us, "it's one of the most popular styles." He gave us a recipe to follow, and helped us pick out the various ingredients to make it. I thought it was really cool that he didn't just show us where things were, but also explained to us what made each specialty grain unique, how different types yeast worked, and the benefits and risks associated with each one. I never felt like he was trying to sell us anything, but that he was educating and truly helping us. It was really great.

Ryan and I gathered up all our individual ingredients, including Caramel 10L, Caramel 40L, and Columbus and Cascade hops. We paid for everything, and I thanked the guy on our way out.

The whole way home, we talked about what we'd just learned, and I may have repeated several times that I was excited to get started and do this together.

We're going to do our brewing on Sunday, so we can continue to research and learn about the proper way to make it go. I asked Twitter for advice on forums, and here are the most frequently-recommended sites:

Are you a homebrewer? I'd love to hear any advice/warnings/stories you have.

189 thoughts on “In which my son and I make our own beer”

  1. I can’t stand beer (sorry) but I’ve been meaning to get into brewing ginger beer for years. After reading al this I might just get off my lazy arse (that would probably be ass to most of you guys– I’m Australian) and do it.
    Scott

  2. i would like to second some of the comments so far and recommend the charlie papazian book _the_new_complete_joy_of_home_brewing_ there are several editions all of which are pretty much the same. he keeps updating it because ‘old’ books tend not to stay in print very long. i see on amazon that some of these papazian books are available for $0.01 used. may i suggest the name ‘wheaton flux ale’ good luck wil!

  3. PARTY AT WIL’S PLACE!!! :)
    I have made mead (a honey wine) and it turned out pretty good. My brother makes beer, he had 3 varieties at my sister’s wedding, Judging from how it went, it was pretty good (I am not big on hoppy beer, and my brother LOVES hops).
    Beer making is a bit easier that wine. Not that a person has to do much more, just that wine can take longer to mature. The mead I made was pretty bad for the first few years, the flavors started to develop after about 4 years.
    Oh, and your worry about failing at making beer. Put “Mr. prove to them I can make beer” in his place. First thing you did right is go to a homebrew store instead of buying a “do it yourself” kit from a box outlet who have had the kits in a how warehouse for who knows how long. I will bet whatever you make it will turn out better than most of the national beer.

  4. Hey Wil~Just finally got to watch Season 4 of Eureka and saw your first episode with them. Your rage is epic and you did a great job. Can’t wait to see how your character develops along with the plot. Love to read your blogs keep it up!

  5. Cat’s Meow is a great recipe archive. I made a kick-ass dewberry mead that was based on the sweet raspberry mead recipe on their site. Here is a historical beer recipe that I find interesting, but am a little afraid to make:
    http://www.brewery.org/cm3/recs/13_23.html
    The “obscure text” referred to in the recipe is ‘The Closet of Sir Kenelme Digbie, Opened’ circa 1669. It is an excellent resource for mead recipes and period cooking.

  6. I’m not sure where to ask you questions directly, so I’m just commenting (again).
    Watching Season 4 of Eureka (finally. No cable.) and I keep wondering something, and then remembered you might actually know. So many actors stay in the same sci-fi circles (you, Felicia Day, and James Callis, and most notably, the awesomely awesome Joe Morton), and here’s my question(s): is it typecasting, or preference, or both? And if it’s preference, does the geek make the sci-fi actor, or does the sci-fi actor make the geek?
    I don’t think I’m being too presumptuous in assuming that both you and Felicia Day, at least, are geeks, so I’m just wondering if your early sci-fi acting made you into a geek, or if you’ve always been a geek and wanted to do sci-fi.
    Please, let me know and end several months of thinking-out-loud to my (mostly) patient husband.

  7. Wil i know this totally has nothing to do with your post but i didnt know how to tell you anyway else. Anyways PLEASE continue making youtube videos God i laughed at every single one of em espically the one about the voltron USB drive and your wife walking in on you holy toldeos you could be a famous youtuber

  8. Also, homebrew talk is a great site =)As far as homebrewing, I’ve done less of it than professional brewing, but I have still done my fair share, and we make a batch a few times a year at least.
    My friend Anita owns a shop and they have a walk through class for both grain and malt extract. If you can find something like that in your area after you have a few tests under your belt, they can be immensely helpful (and if they are anything like Anita’s shop, they will give you a discount after the class)

  9. +1 to that being a great book.
    No time like the present to start again. I find bottling to be such a chore that most of my homebrew posse have ditched it for kegerators. If you have the cash flow and the space, or if you can make one yourself (double bonus) get yourself a cornelius keg and brewing becomes so much less of a hassle on your brew day.

  10. Did you get a copper immersion cooler? They tend to be expensive but are so helpful on brew day.
    Also, sorry I am spewing all over your post. Wish I had seen it sooner, but this is my passion.

  11. Making your own recipe is tough at first, and its really tempting, but if you mess up on some math, a sanitation faux-pas, or hell, anything, you can get disgruntled pretty quickly from making beer after a few ‘off’ batches. :P
    Definitely check out ‘The Complete Joy of Homebrewing’ by Charlie Papazian if you don’t have it.
    A log is a MUST for the entirety of the beer making process. You will hate it if you make an amazing beer and not remember something as silly as what ratio of hops you added when, or whether or not you added an adjunct.

  12. Champagne yeast is great for ginger ale and hard cider, just be careful with it when you bottle it, it tends to be a little more explosive than ale yeast.

  13. I find that people that get too nerdy about it don’t end up making much beer, but instead formulate and build constantly. While there is nothing wrong with this, I sometimes find their conversation exhausting.

  14. 5. (adding) The reason that the stronger beers do better (especially for homebrewing) is that they have higher alpha acids and they make it harder for your wort to get infected if something goes slightly awry sanitation wise.

  15. I would like to second this. Bottling is not only messy and a pain in the ass, but it gives you that many more chances (each bottle) for something to go wrong.
    Its nice to be able to give out a few bottles here and there, but having a fresh keg is awesome.

  16. “Although I certainly support the “sanitize” admonitions, please FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY use the right sanitizer. A lot of the first time kits use an iodine-based sanitizer. I used that initially and then went to a class where someone was spraying sanitizer on EVERYTHING like it was no big deal. I then did the same on my next batch . . . . I made five gallons of band-aid flavored beer. It was NOT pretty!”
    This happened with my very first batch of beer. :(

  17. I bought a glass bottle and a valve to use for my next outing (instead of an old plastic 2-liter soda bottle). If I’m going to let it ferment for more than a few days, the glass seems important since I can sterilize it easier.
    I was told that the valve won’t let pressure build up, which means the ginger beer won’t be very carbonated.

  18. I’m a long time reader, but I’m also a home brewer as well. Definitely the first rule is sanitize. Also, make sure you watch the wort carefully while boiling, as it’s such a pain to have to clean up boil overs. Keeping a log is important, especially if you find a recipe you love, as you’ll know how to make it again.
    I also found out from a friend of mine who has taught me a lot about homebrewing that Oxyclean is great for cleaning out carboys, and you only need a small amount of it to work.

  19. “So they make that shit taste that way on purpose? And it’s difficult? Wow, I learned something today.”
    Hilarious. I read this post to my husband and he chuckled too. Now he wants to look into brewing his own beer… you may have created a monster Mr. Wheaton.
    Oh and not to be all Picky McStickler, but I spotted a typo: “Hi,” I said, “I tried homebreaing…” Sorry if you don’t want them pointed out to you. I’m a bit of a noob around here. :)

  20. You’re gonna love it Wil. I used to make beer and wine with my old man, always had a blast….except the process and equipment 20 years ago weren’t the best. Before the autosiphon got popular, decanting by suction (ala fuel tank gas theft), was NASTY when you were decanting just a week or two into the process. The liquid you ended up tasting bedore moving the hose to the new carboy was NOT beer yet *yuck*
    Things have gotten alot simpler since then, and it’s been my experience that most homebrew stores (as long as they’re not huge chains), are staffed by kind, intelligent and helpful souls.
    If you’ve got a taste for wine, you may want to look into homebrewing that too, it’s even easier than beer, damn cheap, and uses mostly the same equipment!

  21. Looks like you’ve got tons of great advice already and by now you’re probably well aware just how helpful the homebrew community is. I’m late to the party it seems (thanks to a long weekend AFK), but I wanted to throw my 2 cents in.
    Remember that beer is hard to screw up (as long as you sanitize like you’ve got the OC disorder). You may make a beer that isn’t what you wanted, you may not make a fantastic beer every time, but you’re almost always going to surprise yourself with how good your beer is.
    You’ll probably find yourself wondering at times, “is this normal?” Pretty much every first time homebrewer freaks out at the gunk on top of the beer after a couple of days when most of the krausen has subsided. “It’s infected! I suck!” you’ll exclaim. Relax, this is normal (the gunk, anyway). The beer is not infected (unless you didn’t sanitize, but that would be silly). Let the beer hang out for a couple more weeks and it will go away.
    I’m not sure if the recipe you are currently brewing is a mini-mash (a.k.a. partial-extract) recipe, but if not, I highly recommend moving to mini-mash with your next recipe. It will give your beer so much more character and make it taste more like a “real” beer. There isn’t a lot of variety when it comes to extracts so after drinking all-extract homebrews for a while they kind of start to taste the same.
    It’s not much more difficult than all-extract; instead of steeping a small amount of adjunct grains you actually mash roughly 2-6 pounds worth of grains. In other words, there are more actual grains and you have to “steep” them at a specific temperature (~150-160F). With adjuncts you are just extracting the “essence” of the grains to try to give the beer some semblance of character; you’re not really gaining any fermentables. With a mini-mash, the grains actually provide a significant portion of your fermentables and beer character.
    Ok, last tip, I swear. (Like many homebrewers, I am passionate about my hobby and can ramble on for hours about it.) Anyway, get your procedure down before you start formulating recipes. Otherwise, if your beer doesn’t turn out quite right you won’t know if it’s because of your procedure or because of your recipe. Brew several batches using recipes/kits from your local homebrew store and once you’re confident that you can produce a great beer from those then move to making your own recipes.
    When you do start making your own recipes, it’s important to understand the characteristics of different malts, hops, and yeast, and how they contribute to beer and different styles of beer. “Designing Great Beers” (http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Great-Beers-Ultimate-Brewing/dp/0937381500/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_b) would be a good book to pick up to help you with this. Also, brewing software like Beersmith (www.beersmith.com) or websites like http://www.hopville.com are great because they do pretty much all the calculations for you.
    Homebrewing can be messy and involves a lot of cleaning, but when you take a sip of that first homebrew and go, “wow!”, it all becomes worthwhile and you can’t wait to get started on your next batch. Welcome to the hobby and I look forward to reading about your experiences!

  22. All these people complaining that you’re making beer with your (even in California) of legal age son need to get a life. I grew up in Southern Germany where you’re brought up with beer as soon as you’re weaned and I’m no alcoholic. I’ve drunk beer regularly since I was 16 (legal age for beer and wine in Germany) and occasionally for two years before that.
    Really looking forward to reading about your brewing exploits. I know a few people who’ve tried and it’s definitely a learning process.

  23. I’m a little late to the party on commenting on this but I’ll add my two cents. I’ve brewed many batches of beer and 95% of them have been a success. Like multiple people have said, be clean. I will also add that if you don’t want a skunky taste, don’t use green or clear bottles. Use Amber glass.
    UV light destroys the isohumulones of the hops and that’s what makes beer skunky.
    Our perfected beer was a honey pale ale. We never went full grain but did half grain recipes and used a malt for our wort.
    Good luck and enjoy.

  24. Not sure if you listen to podcasts or not (I’m new here), but if you do, you may want to check out The Brewcast from the Brewing Network. My husband highly recommends it for its entertainment value alone.

  25. A friend and I brewed some beer in college. We wanted to put our beer into bottles, so we went to the liquor store and bought a couple of cases of Budweiser, drank them, then washed the bottles. We bought a bunch of bottle caps and a capper. We filled the bottles and capped the beer, and even made our own labels for the bottles.
    Then disaster struck: The pry-off bottle caps didn’t work with the twist-off necks of the Budweiser bottles, and we ended up with 3 and a half cases of flat beer.

  26. I’m glad you had such a positive experience in our store. If you’d mentioned you’re an Alton Brown fan, though, I’d have warned you about a few things. I love Good Eats too, but he was clearly learning homebrewing as he went, so follow our instructions, not his.

  27. I never saw the Alton Brown episode, and by the time I knew it existed, I'd been warned off of it by experienced homebrewers.
    We just finished bottling our first batch (we slightly modified the Colorado Pale Ale), and now we're counting down the days until we can open it up and drink it.
    Thanks for being part of such an awesome store; I don't know who helped us when we came in three weeks ago, but he was kind, patient, incredibly helpful, and demystified the entire process for both of us. I've discovered a passion that is going to stay with me for the rest of my life, spent many hours doing something awesome with my son, and have memories that will last us both long after the beer is gone. If the guys in your shop weren't as kind and helpful as they are, I don't know if we would have had the courage to start.
    Thank you! You have a customer in me forever.

  28. Wil, I’ve been following you for coughmumble years, and I’d just like to mention that the more I read your stuff, the more I enjoy it. You made me make snorting noises when reading this, and I had to apologise to my better half for aspirating hot chocolate.
    So, thank you.

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