6 Common Questions (and Answers) About Brewing Beer at Home

6 Common Questions (and Answers) About Brewing Beer at Home

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Emma Christensen
May 4, 2015
(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)
(Image credit: Henry Chen)
  • Today's topic: Why homebrewing is a worthy adventure
  • The Kitchn's Beer School: 20 lessons, 7 assignments to brew your first 1-gallon batch of beer.
  • Sign up & see all the assignments! The Kitchn's Beer School

Hello! Welcome to The Kitchn's Beer School! Over the next several weeks, I'm going to be teaching you how to brew your very own, very real, and very tasty beer. At the end of our time together, you will be able to raise a pint of your own beer and drink deeply.

Clearly you're here because you're excited to embark on the adventure of brewing your own beer — but perhaps you still have a few outstanding questions. Homebrewing looks like a fun project, but how much space do you need? Will your roommates loathe your new hobby or sing your praises? Is homebrewing even legal? You have questions, I have answers: Let's dive in.

This is me, enjoying a homebrew on my front steps!
(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

Why I Love Brewing Beer (and You Probably Will Too)

I've been brewing my own beer for going on six years. I got hooked the way a lot of people get hooked — some friends of mine were homebrewers, it seemed really fun, and I wanted in. And so I did. With both feet.

I am a science nerd at heart (I almost majored in physics), and making beer engages that inner part of me that loves working hands-on with shiny equipment, fiddling with variables, and getting to be creative all at the same time. With beer, you start with just four ingredients — grains, water, hops, and yeast — and in the end you get beer! It feels like you're getting something from nothing, and that's the kind of alchemy that gets me deeply excited.

Plus, I love beer! I've come to love it even more as I've learned how to brew it, and there's still nothing I crave more at the end of a long day. Brewing it myself has made me more adventurous when I'm at the store or out for a drink with friends. I'll try a beer with an unusual ingredient or the extra dose of hops just to see what it's like — and then give the same thing a try next time I'm brewing a batch of beer.

You might find yourself drawn to homebrewing for similar reasons — or very different ones. Maybe you're looking for a new hobby to share with your partner or your friends, maybe you're hoping to duplicate a favorite beer from a faraway brewery you visited recently, maybe you just really love the smell of hops.

Regardless, I can tell you without a doubt that whatever has drawn you here and made you curious about homebrewing, you will enjoy it. You're not required to become a full-on homebrew nerd — just clear an afternoon and some closet space and let yourself have fun with some grains and hops. There's plenty of time to nerd out about homebrewing later on.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)
(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Know the Answers to These 6 Questions Before You Start!

As enthusiastic as I may have been about my new hobby six years ago, my first few batches were not without their moments of drama. In retrospect, I may have put the cart slightly before the horse — there were questions I probably (definitely) should have asked that I didn't think to ask until I was already deep into it.

Here are a few questions (and answers) to consider before loading up on beer supplies:

1. Is homebrewing legal?

Yes, it's legal to brew! It was a little dicey for a while after the Prohibition, but yes, homebrewing beer is now officially and completely legal in all 50 states within the US. The exact laws vary from state to state, but most states allow you to brew up to 100 gallons of beer per adult (or 200 gallons per household) every year. Which is really quite a lot of beer. (If you're brewing outside the US, check the laws in your country.)

But you can't sell it. The one thing you cannot do is sell your homebrew. If you get interested in the commercial side of brewing down the road, check with your state's regulations regarding the sale of alcohol and make sure to acquire any necessary permits.

2. Is homebrewing safe?

Yes, it's safe! Here's why: When I hear this question, people are usually worried about two things: making themselves sick, and the idea of bottles exploding. Both are valid concerns!

To the first concern: No, you will not make yourself sick with your homebrew — as long as you consume it responsibly, of course. The alcohol in beer (even a low-alcohol brew) will prevent anything truly nasty from taking up residence in your beer. Beyond this, yes, you'll occasionally get a funky batch of beer where something went wrong. It won't kill you, but it's probably not going to be very pleasant to drink. Use your nose and your tastebuds — if it smells or tastes gross, don't drink it. Better to toss the bottle and look forward to brewing your next batch.

To the second concern: With homebrewed beers, yes, exploding bottles are definitely a possibility. Commercial brewers have all sorts of fancy ways to make sure the pressure inside their bottles is exactly perfect, but with homebrew, it's less of an exact science. A good homebrew recipe should be designed to help you avoid exploding bottles as much as possible. As a precaution, I always recommend storing homebrew in a box, a plastic container, or a cupboard — anywhere that would contain everything should a bottle happen to explode. Containment like this makes clean-up easier and is much safer than storing bottles in the open.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

3. How much space do I need?

A kitchen, plus just enough space to store the finished beer. You will need somewhere to brew the beer (like a kitchen!) and then somewhere to store your equipment, the beer as it ferments, and the finished bottles of beer. A spare closet is very handy for this, but behind the living room sofa also works.

But the better question to ask yourself is actually, "How much am I planning to brew?"

You can brew as little as a 1-gallon batch of beer. This makes 10 bottles of beer and requires very little brewing equipment beyond a sturdy soup pot, a strainer, and a bucket for fermenting. If you're short on space in your apartment, a 1-gallon batch is definitely the way to go.

Many homebrewers like to brew 5-gallon batches of beer. This makes around 50 bottles, but the equipment needed to make it is typically larger and bulkier. If you have a corner in the basement, some extra closet space, or any other free nook in your house, a 5-gallon batch shouldn't be a problem.

For our Beer School, I'm going to be focusing on 1-gallon batches of beer because I think this size is most accessible and manageable for new homebrewers. If you have your heart set on 5-gallon batches, that's fine! The basic method for brewing beer is the same regardless of batch size, though you may want to pick up a homebrewing book to help guide you through some of the specifics. (And I'll humbly recommend my own brand-new book, Brew Better Beer!)

4. Will I need to buy a lot of new equipment?

Yes, there is specific equipment to buy, and I'll show you exactly what to get. We'll get into this one a little more in a few days, but yes, there is some equipment that's specific to beer-brewing that you'll probably need to buy. If you're brewing a 1-gallon batch, the equipment is pretty minimal and not terribly expensive. Larger 5-gallon batches tend to require more things that you're not likely to have around the house (like an 8-gallon stockpot) and they tend to cost more.

My advice is to figure out your budget first, and then buy the best equipment you can afford — brewing with subpar equipment is frustrating, and good equipment will last you through years of homebrewing.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

5. Will homebrewing save me money?

Maybe, maybe not. Brewing your own beer will save you some money, but admittedly, not a lot. It's all about the economics of scale. A 1-gallon batch (10 bottles) will cost you about the same as a 6-pack of good craft brew. As you scale up, you start to save more money, but even with a 5-gallon batch, we're only talking about saving a handful of dollars.

The cost of homebrewing can also depend on a lot of factors, like how much new equipment you need to buy, how fancy you want that equipment to be, whether you're brewing all-grain or an extract beer (all-grain is much less expensive), and whether you're brewing a complicated beer with a lot of special malts or something more simple and straightforward.

Bottom line: Homebrewing beer will not single-handedly send your beer tab plummeting downward. Better to brew for pleasure and enjoy any small savings as incidental rewards.

6. Will homebrewing stink up my apartment?

Yes, but only briefly. On brew day — the day you actually make your beer and get it going — yes, you're going to smell it! Personally, I love the smell of beer as it mashes and boils; it's sweet and malty from the grains, and then fresh and spicy from the hops. However, I have homebrewing friends whose partners and roommates are less enthusiastic. If this is your situation, you'll need to bring out your negotiation skills to find a compromise with the non-brewing members of your household.

After brew day, there is about a week where the beer is actively fermenting. It will pump out carbon dioxide (a byproduct of brewing), and you'll notice a fruity, yeasty, pungent aroma. Unless you're stashing your beer in a closet or other enclosed space, you're not likely to notice the aroma until you're right next to the beer. Even if you are stashing it in a closet, the aroma will stay fairly contained to the closet itself. After about a week, when the main fermentation is over, the beer is less active and the aromas will dissipate.

(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

So ... Should You Brew Your Own Beer?

I wouldn't be here if I didn't think the answer to that question was a firm and definitive, "Yes!" I think homebrewing is completely its own reward — the process of making it is very fun and in the end you get to drink beer. What could be better?

As you saw above, there are definitely some factors to consider before you embark on your homebrewing adventure. But I truly believe that if the desire is there, the rest is just details. You can work with grumpy roommates, you can work with a tiny apartment, you can work with a budget — you can tailor your new hobby to whatever your particular situation.

Ready to brew some beer? Let's do it!

Brew Better Beer: A Companion to Beer School

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

I love brewing beer so much, I wrote a book about it! Brew Better Beer (May 2015, Ten Speed Press) is a complementary guide to Beer School. Take a look for even more nerdy details about homebrewing, how to brew 5-gallon batches, and plenty of recipes for different beers.

→ Find it: Brew Better Beer by Emma Christensen

The Kitchn's Beer School

With The Kitchn's Beer School, we'll teach you how to brew your own beer at home — and brew it with confidence. In 20 lessons and 7 weekend assignments, we'll get you set up with your own home brewery, walk you through your first brew day, show you how to bottle your beer, and then toast you on your first pint. Ready to brew your first beer? Join us!

Sign up for The Kitchn's Beer School

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