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. So is making your own beer a coming of age thing? My dad said he tried to make his own beer at the same age, back in the early 70s. I don’t know if he had *any* instructions. He said that one day he heard these popping sounds in the garage. Went out there to find the bottles exploding. Mom alleges that he’d tried to flavor the beer with things like bits of onion, though he gives her the stink eye and denies it. The funny thing is that now he makes a pretty good homemade wine. I wish you luck in your pursuit. If you use a recipe and follow the instructions, you should do very well.

  2. Here’s my advice;
    1. use fresh yeast. your first batch will be a regular strength beer – then do a stronger batch on the second pitching, then push the yeast to the max on the third.
    2. get some kegging equipment. some used soda kegs, a CO2 tank, a regulator, and a few other things. serving your beer from kegs is much easier than having to bottle and stuff.
    3. don’t rush your beer. age it in your carboy in a cool place once secondary fermentation is done for a few days.
    4. sanitization is really important
    5. stronger, hoppy beers tend to have less issues than weaker, less hopped beers.
    6. for dry-hopping, only use pelletized hops as they are usually irradiated.

  3. Hehe! Being a girl has nothing to do with it! I learned the wonders of guiness and my long time fave Woodchuck hard cider, working at a ren fest in the midwest at 19!

  4. Nope the guy in the store really did mean American Budweiser. American Light Lagers are incredibly delicate and unforgiving to brew, because there is so little beer taste. Any slight defect shows up. Little things like letting the ferment get a few degrees to warm leads to flavors that are inappropriate to the style. Even keeping the color that light is tricky. The brewers at AB really do know what they are doing. Sad, in a way.
    Pale Ales, Brown Ales, and Porters though are dead easy and very forgiving.
    Sanitize. Remember that. Don’t worry about it. Just remember.
    Also wort boilovers. They are sticky messes. Try to avoid them.

  5. What a neat coincidence — I’m on the cusp of taking the homebrewing plunge myself. I’ve done a lot of reading, but I’m saving the actual acquisition of gear until my husband returns from deployment. Luckily, I don’t have much longer to wait ’til the Navy gives him back to me and we can embark on our beer-venture. :-D

  6. You can prime with any highly fermentable sugar. I use table (cane) sugar. Others have used honey, maple syrup, etc. Corn sugar isn’t the only option, though it is the most common.
    And unless you’re doing a saison, I’d be careful to keep the fermenting beer much lower than 80F.

  7. Important steps to home brewing:
    1) Have Fun
    2) Take notes, how long you steep your grains, the temperature & specific gravity when you pitch the yeast. This will come in handy to refer to when you see what works & what doesn’t.
    3) William’s Brewing in San Leandro has some great kits & liquid yeast which is awesome. I have used their stout kit and made an excellent chocolate stout.

  8. Four maxims to successful homebrewing: 1. Quality in is quality out, 2. Sanitization is a big deal, 3. Learn to boil 4. Facilitate fermentation through controlling the tempurature.

  9. Sanitation and temperature control, sir. And if things look to be going awry, research and ask before pitching the batch.
    The number one thing that can ruin the taste of your home-brew is worry.

  10. Everyone has already emphasized sanitation, but I’d like to give you a suggestion that will make the process more enjoyable.
    Spring the extra cash for kegging equipment. Bottling sucks. It also takes a couple weeks to condition and carbonate after you bottle. If you keg, you can just hook up your gas line, chill it and it’s ready to drink.

  11. My husband’s a homebrewer and he loves the whole process. He recently bought a big, outdoor gas burner so he can brew in the summer time (DC heat + requirement for a/c = no summer brewing indoors).
    I have a few craft hobbies myself and I’ve come to the conclusion that all craft shops (in which category I would include homebrewing) should be judged on 3 basic factors: 1.) selection/quality, 2.) price, and 3.) willingness to educate. That last one is so key: it means the shop owner and employees know they’re not just selling you something, they’re creating a relationship with someone who may have something to teach THEM in the future. They’re investing in a person who’s going to contribute to the craft, be part of the community.
    Anything less than a helpful, friendly attitude and I just walk out the damn door.

  12. You seem like you’ve got the important stuff hammered in already (sanitation, ferm temps) so you’re on your way!
    Another concern I had in Southern California was my local water wasn’t great…I would recommend using filtered water (I use water through a charcoal filter) or some bottled water (like that .30/gal stuff from the store) and you can avoid the funky chlorine-ish tastes I got in my first bunch of batches.
    Also, when it comes to documenting, I LOVE the brewday sheets from http://www.brewersfriend.com
    They have cool printable sheets on the side that really help you remember to write down all the important stuff.
    You might run into problems bringing that big ol’ pot to a boil on your stove, and if you do, one of the nicest (and cheapish) upgrades I made was to change to boiling outside. I got a turkey fryer (like this one http://www.amazon.com/Bayou-Classic-SP1-Jet-Cooker/dp/B0002913MI/ref=sr_1_12?ie=UTF8&qid=1310160276&sr=8-12 ) and it made the boil go much, much faster. But I hate to be the guy piling on telling you to buy more equipment. Heaven knows I’ve got way too much of my own.

  13. When my husband and I were newly married, he started to homebrew. To keep you out of trouble with your wife, you should know that during fermentation, your beer will sometimes bubble so much that it bubbles right out of the airlock. It is NOT a good idea to have the carboy of beer sitting on the carpet of an extra bedroom in your new house when it bubbles over and into large pools on the floor.

  14. Wil, I am not a brewer or a beer drinker at all. But, reading this post reminded me that I have recipes for homemade root beer and ginger ale that I have never tried (too scared I would fail) But, I know my daughters (13, 12, and 10) would love to try this together. If you can do it, I can.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  15. #1 Sanitize.
    #2 Do not overflow the pot during the boil! Be particularly wary right after you add the hops as it can rise a couple inches in the pot fairly quickly if you are not careful. (Take it from someone who brewed a beer that ended up being called “Firestarter”!! :) )
    Good luck!

  16. I’ve been brewing for almost two years now, and I absolutely love it. Yes, I’ve had a couple of bad batches, but mostly they’ve been really tasty.
    Also, you’ll find that the homebrewers tend to share information in much the same way as open-sourcers, and they’re just as friendly.
    Oh, and if your brew turns out well, save a bottle to give to the proprietor of your homebrew supply shop — he’ll appreciate it.

  17. Another wife of an avid homebrewer here (he’s literally brewing right now). I was kind of wondering if you were into homebrewing with as much of the microbrews that you talk about drinking. It’s a great hobby, and one that your friends will greatly enjoy, haha. I wanted to let you know that my husband uses a program called BeerTools Pro to keep very detailed accounts of all of his different recipes and brew sessions. I also wanted to tell you don’t fear the wheat beer – hubby makes a watermelon wheat beer that is insanely drinkable and perfect for summertime. All the girls ask for it, lol. Getting into homebrewing, I’ve learned to appreciate all different styles of beer, including those that I used to say I “hated”. I’ve also learned that the homebrewing community is full of super nice, super geeky people who love to share recipes and techniques. Also — kegerator. Bottling is cool and all but it takes much longer, and sanitizing bottles is a pain. Though, I guess you should probably decide that after you make a couple batches and see if you and your son enjoy the process.
    Cheers!
    Sarah

  18. I love brewing shops like that. People before have said it, but sanitation is key. Make sure yo rinse things out when you’re done too as it’s hell to clean them if stuff dries on. ONly technique tip I’ll give you is to make sure the wort isn’t too hot when you pitch the yeast. Should be around 100F IIRC (but check your books). Too hot and the yeast dies. THis makes fermentation… slower. :)
    One thing I was amazed by when I made beer was how much difference the yeast makes to the flavor. Different yeasts have a big impact on the flavor. Um… oh yeah. Some recipes have you do secondary fermentation in the bottle by adding small amounts of sugar to each bottle, then bottle the beer to get carbonation. Don’t do that. Add the sugar to the beer, stir well, then bottle. Each bottle will get about the right amount of sugar if you stir well and it makes bottling MUCH easier.

  19. I don’t care if Food Network gives permission or not – they’ve already made all the money they deserve off cable TV subscriptions. As to Alton Brown, I’ll throw him a few pennies by watching the legit ad-supported version he’s got on the web. Got a link to it?

  20. While Wil’s Bearded Lager is a cool name, I’m hoping for “Frakes Beard” as a possible name.
    But only if the brew is cool enough, of course.

  21. Another great resource (which I don’t believe has been suggested yet) is John Palmer’s “How to Brew” the first edition is available for free online here http://www.howtobrew.com/ and contains a plethora of info on the process of brewing and the science behind it.
    I’ve been homebrewing for 3 years and not only is the beer better, but the brewing community is warm and welcoming. Here’s hoping you get addicted! Prost!

  22. “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.”
    …Now I feel old- I’ve been reading since then, and I’m 24.

  23. Hey Wil,
    I recently started homebrewing as well. It is a very rewarding hobby, and it appears you already have great advice here. I hope that the first batch goes well, and that you guys have an awesome time. Would love to hear the results when it is finished.
    Good luck! When in doubt, remember the words of Charlie Papazian, “Relax! Don’t Worry! Have a Homebrew!” Since its the first batch commercial brew will work.
    Cheers,
    James

  24. I have no comment on the beer as I don’t drink it, but it’s always so amazing to find someone who loves the product they sell so much they don’t care if they’re making a sale, they just want to teach the world about it. And it’s sad that it is amazing, because it should be always like that.
    Good luck with your brewing adventures.

  25. My husband has been homebrewing for a couple years now- not so indepth as it appears around here, just a Mr. Beer kit or two. (Yes, the name still amuses me.)
    The comments I’ve seen that I’d reemphasize are the ones involving sanitizing and “Quality in, quality out”. We have good water, we get good ingredients, we have good beer.
    Our fun story is the Infamous Hard Apple Cider. As others have mentioned, the yeast still ferments while the bottles sit. This was our lesson. We made the Hard Apple Cider, and it was good. We carbonated only 4 of the 8 1-liter bottles, and those went pretty quickly- they were sweet, bubbly, and went down easily. Then we opened one of the non-carbonated bottles. It was smooth, drinkable, and caught up with you pretty quickly. So we drank them slower, usually when friends were over. The last bottle was about a year old when opened, and by the end of it we had a house rule that no one got more than a shot per night! It was soooo alcoholic and soooo smooth it was dangerous.
    We soooo have to make another batch of that someday.

  26. I started homebrewing years ago, and now I am a professional brewer currently working at a micro brewery in Colorado. Your list of forums are very good. It’s exactly what I would recommend. The Alton Brown episode was especially helpful to me when I was starting out. The best advice I can give you is to not get disappointed if your first batch or 2 doesn’t turn out the way you want. My first run was terrible, and I went on to win several medals in homebrewing competitions, and start a career in the industry. Just keep at it, and pay attention to the guys at your local homebrew shop, they can be your greatest asset. Good luck.

  27. Long time reader, first time commenter. Welcome to your new obsession.
    I found the whole process much less intimidating after watching a few videos.
    The TerpsichoreanKid’s Youtube channel is a great reference. His videos are informative and amusing too. His earlier videos would be a good place to start.
    http://www.youtube.com/user/terpsichoreankid
    The Brewing TV vidcast is a mix of industry news and brewing how-to. Hosts Dawson and Keeler are knowledgeable and entertaining.
    http://www.brewingtv.com/
    Basicbrewing.com has a great video series geared towards the novice brewer.
    http://www.basicbrewing.com/index.php?page=video
    Hopefully you have a high WAF if you intend to brew indoors. Your house may smell like a brewery for a day or so. Oh, and keep some old towels handy. Sometimes brewing is messy. Good luck!

  28. Budweiser in Europe is not a pale ale, it’s a Czech Pilsner, which is a lager. Being a lager doesn’t make it bad. American macro lagers are brewed with corn, rice and other adjuncts to thin out the grain bill. That’s what makes them nasty, not the fact that they’re lagers.

  29. I second a couple recommendations to take Alton Brown’s brewing episode with a large grain of salt. He is a food expert, but not the greatest expert on brewing beer. Don’t sanitize with bleach ever. Use star-san or another no-rinse foodsafe sanitizer. Also, don’t boil your grains. Steep them.

  30. Also, I think maybe an olde timey label and name? Ryan and Wil’s Moste Fortifying Ale! With a tagline such as: “The cure for what ales you!” Maybe a picture of the two of you back to back with red and white striped shirts, red vests, waxed moustaches, and straw boater hats.

  31. We do mead, mostly, not beer, because my husband likes it better, and I can DEFINITELY say that it is easy and worth doing, though it does involve some work and waiting. DH has made regular mead using champagne yeast (sparkly!) that is to die for, and since it has no sulfites, makes a dandy substitute for headache-inducing sparkling white wine. He’s also done sparkling blueberry mead, non-sparkling cherry mead (SO DELICIOUS!!!), Maple mead (in honor of the Vorkosigan saga, and my GOD that stuff is tasty), and I think something involving hazelnuts? We’ve found that citrus doesn’t work in mead, but berries are divine.
    I do recommend for mead using a carboy with a fermentation lock, rather than trying to ferment in the bottles. The one disaster I know about with mead involved a roommate who tried to do in-bottle fermenting, and things exploded, and not in a fun way.

  32. Wil,
    I didn’t see a site that has been around forever, or at least the recipe collection has been. The Cat’s Meow 3 @ http://www.brewery.org/cm3/recs/00contents.html is a great collection of recipes, broken down by beer type.
    The collection has been around since the mid to late 90′s. I have what I think is a full set of Cat’s Meow PDF’s I’d be willing to send your way as well, if you’re interested.
    (I have most of the gear but like others, life got in the way and I haven’t brewed a single batch yet. I’m interested to see how your first one goes. )
    Oh, and if you haven’t seen this, I’d say this would be the way to do it, although it would take the fun out of the process.
    http://www.williamswarn.com
    Jeff

  33. I only have plenty of experience in drinking beer, not making it. Hehe …
    I look forward to reading how it all turns out and hope you guys have fun!

  34. There’s been some really fabulous advice here. I’m not nearly as experienced a homebrewer as some of these guys are, but these are two things I’ve learned in my travels:
    1. Use filtered water, always. I made the mistake of using tap water one time and it really affected how the brew turned out, in a bad way.
    2. Absolutely do not be afraid to go ask your local homebrewing shop for advice. We saved a batch of beer because our homebrew shop owner was willing to sit down and talk us through the big screwup. If they can’t remember what it was like to be a noob, they don’t deserve your business and you should find a shop that IS willing.
    Otherwise, I hope you guys have fun! Brewing beer has been a really awesome experience, partially because of the excellent result and partially because you get to feel like a mad scientist while you’re making it. :D

  35. I’ve been homebrewing for several years. See my blog at http://huningtonsachsbrauerei.blogspot.com/
    If you need help for your first couple of brews, I live in Burbank, and would be happy to show you the ropes.
    Tips:
    1. Sanitation is #1 — use StarSan.
    2. Fermentation temperature control is essential to avoid hot alcohol tastes and to keep your yeast healthy enough to finish out. Use an old frig and a Johnson digital controller. See my blog for pics.
    3. Grow a yeast starter a day before you brew. Stirplates help to keep it oxygenated during the early growth phase.
    4. Dose your wort with oxygen before you pitch your yeast, and also add yeast nutrient so your yeast don’t poop out. You don’t want sweet beer.
    Check out my beer labels for inspiration at my blog, and email if you want help.

  36. Very cool! You know, it’s funny you picked now to start this up… There was a show on NPR just the other day about home brewing, and they actually explained the whole history and process. I think it was “all things considered” but I’m not sure… it’s the show that’s on right around 9:30-ish in the morning.
    I would consider trying it, however, my son is only three, and I doubt the wife would approve of home brewing as a Father/Son activity.
    As for names, how about a “Instant Courage Ale” (+20 to courage, and -10 to charisma)?

  37. Alton Brown’s episode on Homebrewing is one of the best 30 minutes of television ever made. If I ever wanted to try to make my own attempt at home-brewing, I’d follow his episode like the friggin Bible.
    Hope the brew turns out okay, and Ryan has a wonderful time with his awesome stepdad, who raised him to be an upstanding and great man.

  38. My cousin started microbrewing, then after a few years, he ended up as a top judge for the beer circuit. I don’t know if he does it anymore, but he’s judged some of the bigger breweries for competitions.
    What can I say, your passion leads you to the best things in life.

  39. “We paid for everything, and I thanked the guy on our way out.”
    Come now Wil, you didn’t need to add that line. I expected you to pay and thank them :)

  40. Have fun!
    A couple things I haven’t seen mentioned, but are useful to know:
    You can use the spent grains for baking. We have made bread and dog biscuits out of them. The dog biscuits were a big hit with the friends’ dogs. However, be aware that hops are very toxic to dogs. so make sure you keep the grains separate from them.
    Read the thread on homebrewtalk about Mistakes You Made Where Your Beer Still Turned Out Great. http://tinyurl.com/abhve5 It’s a good reminder that it’s actually hard to screw up beer.
    I’ve only brewed 3 batches so far, but each was better than the last.
    I’d also like to suggest brew-journal.com which is an open source logging tool for brewing. As people have pointed out, good notes are your friend. Again, Have Fun!

  41. I’ve been brewing for over a decade,
    Two pieces of advice that saved my kitchen:
    1) Spring for a giant home brew pot. Mine cost $50 but not having over flow and cleaning malt off the stove is priceless. Boil overs happen in the blink of an eye.
    2) Glass carboys are rubbish. They’re a giant pain to clean. I use the plastic buckets which take no time to clean out and sanitize. Also, they are cheaper.

  42. I last homebrewed in my 20s, in a teeny apartment. The actual brewing part smells yummy and oatmeal/porridgy. The fermentation bit? Not so much the yummy. We called the carboy the pooping device (we were in our 20s afterall)…and learned to keep it in a spare dark closet with the door propped a little open so the smell could dissipate.
    After the yeastie beasties have done their job, there will be a layer of yeast, hops, and just general poopie at the bottom of the carboy. DO NO mix it up into the beer before bottling. Or POUR the contents of the carboy into another container to get the beer out, you will syphon the beer out. Try to keep the syphon away from that bit. It seems an obvious thing but a terrible mistake that has been repeated by so many, I thought I’d point out the obvious.
    Again, like everyone else, everything needs to be clean. You will be all the happier for it.
    And your grain: If it was milled at the store when you got it, then put in just a plastic back or somesuch? Use as soon as possible. Like coffee beans, you shouldn’t store milled grain for a long time as the flavor is best when fresh ground/milled. (We bought in bulk and had a mini-mill run off my drill. Oh the memories…that dust? FLAMMABLE.)
    HAVE FUN!

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