Home Brew: Happening Hops

It's the last culinary frontier, the long sought answer to what you drink with spaghetti from your home pasta maker and smoked chicken breasts from your home smoker. It's simpler than roasting your own coffee, cheaper than buying a vineyard and less hassle than moonshine. It's what Yuppies would drink on Fourth of July picnics, if they went to Fourth of July picnics. It's home brew, the beer you make yourself.

It's not exactly a tidal wave, yet, but a fairly steady drip into the bottles and kegs of the 1 million Americans who will make beer at home this year, according to Charlie Papazian, president of the American Homebrewers Association. Outlawed, along with all other form of alcohol during Prohibition, home brew became legal in most states only about 20 years ago. Federal law currently permits production of up to 200 gallons a year (about a six-pack a day) per household for personal consumption--except in the dozen or so states that still prohibit home brewing, on the theory that you can drink all you want as long as you pay taxes on it. A typical home brewer, Papazian says, is a college-educated white male in his 30s. Almost no women make their own beer, although the few who do "tend to be very good brewers," says Tom Ayres, a home-brew enthusiast who is the public-relations director of a hospital in Quincy, Mass.

In part--probably not a very big part, frankly--home brewing is an extension of the organic-food movement; home brew has none of the/additives and preservatives sometimes found (without notice on the label) in commercial beers. It has the cachet of, say, baking bread, while actually requiring about the same level of skills as making Jell-O; the main requirement is patience during the three- to seven-week process of fermentation, clarification, bottling and aging. In part, it is a way to recapture that long ago dream of every college-educated white male in his 30s: cheap beer. The basic equipment--buckets, jugs and hoses--can be had in the form of starter kits for as little as $32.50. The ingredients are inexpensive: malt (grain, usually barley, that has begun to sprout), hops (dried aromatic flowers), sugar, yeast and water (in many parts of the country, straight from the tap). A typical five-gallon batch of home brew costs between $10 and $25. Some brewers boast they can turn out acceptable, even great, beer for the equivalent of as little as $1 a six-pack.

Of course, it's also cheaper to paint your own pictures than to buy them from an art gallery. The finished product must bear comparison with what comes from the tap at a decent bar, not to speak of off the shelf at the deli. Home brewing is the ultimate solution to the homogenized, pasteurized, lowest-common-denominator flavor of American commercial beer. Home brews come in a staggering (metaphorically speaking; at around 5 percent alcohol, they are no more potent than any other beer) variety of styles. In color they range from the pale yellow of melted butter to the opacity of Coca-Cola; in flavor, from the most delicate lagers to the heartiest ales. Most home brewers are on a quest to duplicate one perfect glass from their past. Roger Locniskar, who does customer support for a computer company near Boston, is inspired by the pale ales of Sam Smith, a specialty brewer whose bottles sell for as much as $15 a six-pack. Locniskar prefers his own, at about one fifth the cost. Ayres lost interest in American beers after he discovered draft Guinness while studying in Ireland. "A well-made home brew can stand on its own two feet against any premium brew the world over," he says.

Well, perhaps. Interestingly, though, Jim Koch, the brewer behind Boston's acclaimed Samuel Adams lager, contends that "I couldn't make beer like this at home." Home brewers are most successful with strong ales, whose pungent flavors mask any defects, he says, no backporch brewer can maintain the temperature consistency and sterility standards of even a small commercial operation. But what of it? Home brewing is about the rich, satisfying taste of superiority, the superiority that comes from serving something that nobody else can possibly have. "I've had people that don't like beer try my beer and like it," says Locniskar, gloating. Pass the home-smoked trout tidbits; have another slice of home-baked bread. Raise a glass of home brew.