Home Brewing

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In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law legalizing the home brewing of beer. This act, however, did not mark the beginning of home brewing. Beer has been speculated to be the oldest alcoholic beverage known to civilization. Wherever cereal grains could be grown, beer could be made. Ancient peoples all made a rough form of beer. Six-thousand-year-old Babylonian clay tablets give detailed recipes and show the brewing of beer. Third century b.c. Egyptian recipes describe the making of a strong beer flavored with fruit and spices.

Throughout the centuries, the art and craft of brewing beer developed. Saint Gall, a monk from Ireland, is credited with being the first modern brewer for bringing methods from the Celts to medieval Europe. Charlemagne (742?–814 a.d.) assigned Saint Gall to manage the craft for the Holy Roman Empire and positioned monks to control brewing. Consequently, brewing became a recognized trade. The Royal Family in Belgium recognized brewing in the thirteenth century and a guild was formed. By the late fifteenth century, Germans established standards for brewers, and in 1516 William VI, elector of Bavaria, established the most famous beer purity law. This law, known as Reinheitsgebot, permitted only four ingredients in the production of beer: water, malted barley, malted wheat, and hops.

Colonial America

The first beer brewed in America was in the Roanoke, Virginia, colony in 1587. In the colonies, beer was a major dietary staple, consumed by everyone, young and old. Beer was important because good drinking water was in short supply. Those who drank beer rather than impure water generally avoided getting sick. This was well known before the connection was made between boiling water for brewing beer and sanitation.

During the early colonial years most brewing and drinking was done in the home. Home brewing had an impact on early colonial architecture because many colonists added small brew rooms to their homes. One notable home brewer during this time was George Washington, who had a brew house at Mount Vernon. His handwritten recipe for beer, dated 1757, is preserved and can be seen at the New York Public Library. Thomas Jefferson, another home brewer, collected books on brewing that are part of his extensive library at Monticello.

Alehouses or taverns were established in towns and villages where the brewers had businesses. Residents socialized, discussed politics, and shared news with the community. These early colonial breweries found it hard to come by the traditional raw ingredients for beer because they had to be imported from England, so brewers often replaced the ingredients with what was readily available. Maize, molasses, bran, persimmons, potatoes, birch bark, ginger, and allspice are examples of the creative alternatives brewers used in producing beer. By the late-eighteenth century, as farmers cultivated locally available grains, the production quality of beer improved. Commercial breweries developed throughout the land. In 1840, there were about 140 breweries operating in the United States, with at least one in each of the original thirteen colonies.


By 1919, thousands of breweries existed. They were large and small, supplying beer with distinctive styles to their respective regions. The Volstead Act, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ushered in Prohibition and completely shut down the brewing industry for thirteen years (18 January 1920, to 5 December 1933). While the manufacture and sale of alcohol was illegal, the ingredients to produce them were not. Malt syrup, an essential ingredient for making beer, was produced in huge quantities by many former breweries (ostensibly for baking purposes) to avoid bankruptcy. Home brew, or heimgemacht, as the Germans called it, flourished during Prohibition. Millions of Americans made home-brewed beer. Quality was not important, nor was taste as long as it contained alcohol. Home-brewed beers were characterized as thick and mud brown in appearance, with a yeasty aroma and a soapy taste. By 1929, the Prohibition Bureau, using sales figures for hops, malt, and other ingredients, estimated that Americans brewed 700 million gallons of beer at home. In some cities so much was being made that sewer systems were backed up by spent hops.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the commercial production of beer was legalized. Homemade wine was legalized also, but home-brewed beer was not because of a stenographer's omission of the words "and/or beer" in the Federal Register. Home brewing was abandoned in favor of the lightly hopped beers professional brewers produced. The stigma attached to home brew as a muddy, distasteful, and amateurish libation was so great that forty years passed before Americans once again became interested in making their own beer.

Modern Times

Home brewing was legalized in Great Britain in 1963. Manufacturers there took an interest and produced state-of-the-art home-brewing ingredients, kits, and malt extracts. There was money to make and spend on home-brew products, and the United States was a recipient of the best technology Great Britain had to offer.

These events fueled an already growing resurgence in American home brewing that began before California senator Alan Cranston introduced legislation to legalize it in 1978. Home brewers were making beer again because domestic beer lacked the rich, malty taste they liked. They also shared a creative desire to brew a beer to their own personal taste. Congress passed Cranston's bill to repeal federal restrictions on home brewing, and President Carter signed it into law in February 1979. An adult twenty-one years or older is permitted to brew up to 100 gallons of beer a year for personal use. Selling it is illegal, but it can be removed from the brewery for organized tastings.

In Boulder, Colorado, Charlie Papazian began brewing and teaching classes in home brewing in the early 1970s. His first book, The Joy of Brewing, was written in 1976. In 1978, he formed the American Homebrewer's Association and began publishing Zymurgy magazine. In 1984, Avon Books published his work The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, which is considered the definitive text on home brewing for beginners and intermediates. Its sequel, The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing, was published in 1991.

Papazian considers home brewing to be a hobby in which time, money, and thought are invested, and from which there is an end product that meets a person's creative needs. Most home brewers do it for fun and pleasure. They enjoy making beer; enjoy tasting the beer they make; are enthusiastic about the history, technology, and science of brewing; and like meeting others with the same interests. Membership in the American Home-brewer's Association is over 25,000. The organization estimates there are over 1.5 million home brewers in the United States representing every demographic segment of society.

Brew Your Own, established in 1995, is the largest circulation magazine for people interested in making their own beer, reaching over 116,000 readers with each issue. Their audience is 96 percent male, who are, on average, forty-three years of age with a mean household income of $80,676. Each spends an average of $506 a year on home-brewing supplies and equipment and brews an average of 8.3 batches a year. Seventy-nine percent of readers rely on Brew Your Own as their only beer-related publication.

Clubs and Competition

In addition to brewing beer for fun and pleasure, brewers are often involved in home-brew clubs and participate in home-brew competitions. Clubs form for various combinations of social interactions and activities focused on home brewing: education about beer, brewing techniques, and knowledge; promotion of the hobby; and enjoyment of home brewing.

Home-brew competitions are organized and/or sponsored by many different organizations. For example, the American Homebrewer's Association runs the National Homebrew Competition. Home-brew clubs, brew pubs, home-brew shops, and other beer-related organizations also sponsor competitions. Brewers enter competitions for several reasons. If the goal is to perfect a recipe within the guidelines of a specific style, it is a great way to get feedback on one's beer; home brewers entering a competition get objective feedback on their beer from people who are trained to evaluate it. And entering a competition is fun. It allows brewers to compare their product against other people's beer.

Brewing Beer

Home brewing beer can be simple when using malt extract in a recipe or with a ready-made brew kit. It can also be quite complicated when using all-grain brewing techniques that require knowledge of brewing chemistry and specialized equipment for the brewing process. At the most basic level, beer can be made by mixing together malted barley extract, water, and hops and boiling to make what is called "wort." The wort is cooled and placed in a fermenter, and yeast is added. Fermentation then occurs, converting sugars in the wort to carbon dioxide and alcohol. When fermentation is finished, the new beer is mixed with a small amount of primer (corn sugar) and placed in sealed bottles or kegs. Primer initiates additional fermentation to carbonate the beer. When the beer is aged, it is ready to drink. Aging time depends on beer style and can range from two weeks to one year.


There are specialty shops that sell ingredients and equipment for brewing beer. Many do mail-order business and/or are on the Internet and feature online ordering. Basic equipment includes a five-gallon pot for boiling the wort, a fermentation vessel (food-grade plastic bucket or a glass carboy), a priming tank (bucket or carboy), a plastic siphon hose, airlocks and rubber stoppers, a hydrometer to measure specific gravity and a jar for it, a floating thermometer, a bottle brush, sanitizing solution, about sixty non-screw-top bottles, a bottle capper, and caps. Many shops sell starter kits that include this essential equipment, along with an instruction book and ingredients for brewing quality beer at home.

See also: Drinking, Prohibition and Temperance, Wine Tasting


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Stephen Jay Langsner