A Brief History of Homebrewing

Posted on May 13th, 2010

Prohibition era "Malt Syrup"

It’s well known that craft beer has become a major force in the world of beer. Here in America it is the fastest growing segment of consumer alcohol. While beers sales overall were down 2.2%, craft beer actually grew 10.3%. What a lot of people don’t realize is that today’s craft beer movement is largely the product of a whole generation of homebrewers who preceded it. The fact is that without homebrewing there would be no craft beer to speak of; almost all craft brewers got there start through homebrewing. It’s just one of the many reasons you should give homebrewing a shot yourself.

Some of the best beer is America is produced in Colorado. It’s second only to California in number of craft brewers, which is why it should come as no surprise that the modern homebrewing movement was started there by Charlie Papapizan, who helped legalize the practice through a bill signed by President Carter in 1978. Home wine making was legalized at the end of Prohibition, but due to a clerical error it took an act of Congress to extent the same distinction to homebrewing. Papaizan has since led the Brewers Association as president, and thanks to his leadership we have seen homebrewing and craftbrewing grow to what they are today.

However, homebrewing didn’t start in 1978. It’s of course been around for much longer than that. Papaizan himself credits an older friend who brewed beer at home during Prohibition teaching him the hobby. Although alcohol was illegal during Prohibition, there were still plenty of ways to get alcohol. Many people brewed it in their homes. Some brewing companies during the period would sell cans of malted grain syrup, one of the key ingredients of beer, as a food condiment, but that’s rarely how most people used it. On the label of these cans would be very curious warnings, instructing one to be sure not to boil this syrup in water with hops, and then once it cools add yeast to it.

Following these steps is of course more or less how you make beer, which is why most people bought the cans in the first place. Almost all accounts of Prohibition-era homebrew indicates that it was foul tasting stuff, consumed almost exclusively for the alcohol rather than the taste. Frequently it would be combined with other illegally produced alcohol, creating perhaps some of the earliest American beer cocktails.

Thankfully homebrewing has come a long way since those days, and it’s now incredibly easy to make really great taste beer right in your kitchen. Head over to the American Homebrewers Association website for details on how to get started with this delicious pastime.

Have you ever brewed your own beer? Do you know any friends who have? What topics about it would you like to see us cover? Let us know on Twitter, or in the comments.

Top 5 Most Influential Beers

Posted on November 5th, 2009


Today we’re going to take a look at the five beers that most define they way we think about beer. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, they have shaped what beer is for the average consumer.

bud2Budweiser – Regardless of how you feel about Budweiser, you can’t deny the huge role it has had in creating the modern American beer landscape. Wherever you are in the US, you can find a bottle, can or draft of Budweiser. Sure, Bud Light has replaced Budweiser as Anheuser-Busch’s signature brand, but it was good ol’ Bud that paved the way. A-B won over the masses thanks to Bud’s universal availability and year after year of clever commercials. Although certainly not the first light lager, Budweiser’s own special blend of corn and rice makes for an “easy to drink” beer that’s great for folks that don’t really like beer.

guinGuinness – It’s hard to overstate the influence of Guinness stout. For many (including myself), it was the first non-light lager beer they ever tried. In many ways it can be thought of as a gateway beer, introducing many to the world of beer beyond Budweiser. They’ve accomplished this with their velvety smooth texture and lightly roasted flavors. Although Guinness has a reputation as an extremely heavy beer, it’s deceptively smooth and light, which makes it dangerously easy to drink.

anchorsteam_bottleAnchor Steam –  The original American craft beer. As we mentioned on Tuesday, Anchor Steam was the first brewery after Prohibition to brew without adjuncts or fillers, making it the first craft brewery. When Fritz Maytag bought the failing Anchor Brewing Company in 1965, he probably had no idea it would lead to the craft beer movement, but it did. Anchor Steam showed the world that American beer could be unique, substantial and delicious. The beer itself is a lovely hybrid of the best qualities of ales and lagers. It combines the light and smooth aspects of lager with the warm, round flavors of ale. It’s certainly worth a try.

samSam Adams Boston Lager – While Anchor Steam was the first American craft brewery, Sam Adams was the first to expand their distribution  to a national scale.  This enabled almost everyone in American to get a taste of lager done the proper way. Without any adjuncts like corn or rice in their beer, Sam Adams became the first American lager to be sold in Germany under their strict beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot. Sam Adams lager is notably hoppy for a lager, something the company takes considerable pride in, which they should.  It’s delicious.

sierra_nevada_pale_ale_35clSierra Nevada Pale Ale – Over the last ten years, much of the experimentation and innovation among craft brewers has happened in the realm of hops, and this is the one that started it all. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is one hoppy beer, even by pale ale standards. It delivers a massive hop taste that’s citrusy and floral, really showcasing what hoppy beer can be. Their signature use of Cascade hops also helped usher in that variety as the American hop.  To this day, most American IPAs and pale ales have some Cascade in them.

What beers have really influenced the way you think about beer? Where do these beers stack up in your Top 5? Leave us a comment and let us know what your favorites are and where we missed the mark. And as always next time you have a brew let us know by tweeting what you drank and adding the ‘#mybeer’ hashtag.

What is Cask Ale?

Posted on August 18th, 2009


Today we’re going to take a look at cask ale, a traditional British style of beer which dates back pretty much to the origin of beer itself. When Shakespeare went to his local pub for a beer, this is how they served it to him. A few weeks ago we explained what bottle-conditioned beer is, which is a helpful starting point as cask ale can be thought of in a lot of ways as bottle-conditioned beer in a cask, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as ‘cask-conditioned.’

The process starts after the beer has been brewed, but remains uncarbonated and unbottled. The beer is loaded into a steel barrel, or cask, similar in appearance to a keg. Additional sugar or wort is added to the cask to restart the fermentation process by the active yeast still in the beer. The yeast goes to work, eating the sugar and expelling CO2 and alcohol. The pressure builds in the cask and the CO2 dissolves into the beer, naturally carbonating it. This natural carbonation also continues to condition the beer’s flavor, smoothing out flavors and mellowing out the hops. Once he receives it from the brewery a pub owner will tap a porous peg in the cask’s hole, known as a ‘bung.’ Excess gas and foam rushes out the bunghole and fining agents are added to settle the yeast to the bottom of the cask. A few days later the bunghole is resealed and the cask-conditioned ale is ready to be served.

Cask Ale Hand Pumps

Cask Ale Hand Pumps

Now the most traditional manner of tapping and serving the cask would simply to have it placed on it’s side, tapped with a spigot and poured into your glass through the wonder of gravity. Due to space, sanitation or various other factors an alternate method was developed long ago. Casks of beer are stored in a pub’s cellar, where it can be kept at the proper temperature (54°F for cask ale) and tap lines are connected leading up to the bar. Because the beer is only naturally carbonated it’s not going to have the pressure to make it up to the bar on its own, unlike modern forced carbonated beer, or soda. To solve this problem a hand pump, akin to the water pump on your grandfather’s farm is used to siphon the beer into a glass. These beer engines, or gravity pumps as they are sometimes known, allow the beer to be poured while preserving the natural carbonation and flavor.

The advantage of cask ale over modern beer is similar to the benefits of bottle-conditioned beer. Because the beer is naturally carbonated by active yeast, it continues to age and condition, becoming more complex and smoother over time. Unlike bottle-conditioned beer though cask ale cannot be aged over a long period of time due to it being exposed to open air. Indeed, cask really should be consumed within a few days of being tapped.

Because of the short shelf life it has and attention that must be paid to it, cask ale began to go out of style in the 1960’s as the bigger brewers began to mimic American style lagers, which are much simpler and economical to store and serve than cask ales. Fortunately British beer drinkers didn’t tolerate this loss of their beer and tradition and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was founded in 1971 to preserve this style of beer and the history associated with it. They define ‘real ale’ as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide,” which basically means cask ale. Although cask ale still struggles in some parts of the UK, thanks to the efforts of CAMRA real ale has come back from the brink of extinction to availability throughout much of the United Kingdom.

Now days you can even find some cask ale at better beer bars and restaurants in America. Next time you see it available do yourself a favor and enjoy a pint of some traditional beer the same way Shakespeare would have. When you do be sure to let us know what you think about it by tweeting your beer and adding the ‘#mybeer’ hashtag.