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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Homebrewing experts share their best beer tips with beginners


Using a living organism (yeast) in a process synonymous with rotting (fermentation) makes homebrewing seem like a ripe opportunity for a domestic disaster.

But brewing your own beer is not as tricky as some think, says Brad Lowry, owner of the The Pantry & Homebrewing Depot, 7215 W. North Ave. "You're almost assured of getting something that at the very least is drinkable," says Lowry of first-time homebrewers.

Nor is it that expensive to get started. Lowry says the beginner's kit is about $50 for the hardware and another $25 for the ingredients. But like any hobby, the more extravagant you get, the more pricey it gets.

Give it about 30 days from the time you start a batch until you take your first sip of beer, says Lowry. Most of that time is just waiting for the beer to ferment (about two weeks) and to carbonate (another two weeks). The actual labor is about four hours of producing the beer (boiling the wort) and roughly a similar amount of time for bottling.

It's easy to get started with homebrewing, but advancing can be tricky. "A lot of people think they're going to come in and brew beer that's the equivalent of something Belgian brewers have been perfecting for hundreds and hundreds of years," says Lowry.

Belgian style beers are too complicated for a beginner, says Paul Tinsen, president of the Beer Barons of Milwaukee. Even some experienced homebrewers are hesitant to try making Belgian beers, says Tinsen, who suggests a wheat beer as a simple formula for beginners to try.

It's also unlikely that a beginner will be making a lager; they should stick to ales, says Lowry. Ales ferment at room temperature, whereas lagers ferment at a colder temperature (approximately 55 degrees) that requires special equipment.

Both Tinsen and Lowry stress the most important aspect of homebrewing is sanitation. Everything that comes in contact with the beer needs to be sterilized. If it's not, the equipment can become contaminated because of the yeast.

Lowry says homebrewed beers can last longer than commercial brews. Most commercial beers have been filtered, which means there is no yeast in them. But in homebrewed beers the yeast continues to interact and actually increases the shelf life. Tinsen says heavier beers, like stouts and IPA, will still be drinkable after a year, whereas most ales probably have a three-to-four month shelf life.

Homebrewers are prohibited by law from making more than 200 gallons per year, and they cannot sell the beer they make, says Tinsen. Since the typical homemade batch is five gallons, the 200 gallons limit is not an issue for most.

So would a homebrewer ever consider making a batch of low-calorie Miller Lite-like beer? "There are people who experiment with lighter beers, but generally it's not the aim of people who get into homebrewing," says Lowry with a chuckle. Tinsen makes no doubt that a faux 'Lite' would not appeal to most homebrewers since what draws them to the hobby is "the love of good beer versus drinking a Miller or Pabst."

The Beer Barons of Milwaukee meet monthly and host an annual World of Beer Festival at Serb Hall on May 1. For more information go to beerbarons.org.

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