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Christmas is coming - time to make beer

People think brewing is hard. Can you boil water? Then you can make beer.

Patrick Beach
American-Statesman writer Patrick Beach enlisted the help of John Brack in making a batch of Belgian Noel.

There are lots of reasons to make your own beer — economy, versatility, freshness — but here's the one near the top of my list: It's good for your ego.

Few things are more gratifying than handing a friend who doesn't know much about home-brewing one of my own beers, the product of a tiny and little-known Austin brewery called Casa de la Playa. (That's "Beach House," people. I'm having a little fun here. Hold those e-mails.) After a sip or two their visages will appear both puzzled and pleased and they'll ask, "You made this beer?"

If only they knew how easy it is. And the holidays are looming, which means if you are already a home-brewer, you've just got time to brew a batch or two to pass out a little liquid Christmas cheer. Or if you have someone who loves beer but has never made his or her own, you can give the gift of a new hobby — and if you play your cards right you'll enjoy the spoils and not necessarily be conscripted into the toil. Crafty, that, not unlike giving somebody a lawn mower with the caveat that it must be used to cut your grass, too.

Getting going is as easy as opening a beer. Back when I started making my own, the hands-down best resource was "The Complete Joy of Home Brewing," by Charlie Papazian, who is basically the Dr. Spock of the grass-roots good-beer movement. He founded the Brewers Association in 1978 and has had a hand in birthing the American Homebrewers Association, the Great American Beer Festival, the World Beer Cup and Zymurgy, a magazine for home-brewers. For my money, his book is still the top tome for beginners, and a comforting one at that.

Of course, there are plenty of online resources these days, including video tutorials. And for the price of an e-mail address you can download a PDF of a special issue of Zymurgy on home-brewing here: .

And speaking of online videos, at austin you can check out a clip of Austin Homebrew Supply's John Brack and me brewing Austin Homebrew's Belgian Noel earlier this month .

Keeping your wort healthy

For purposes of our discussion, let's say you're contemplating giving your spouse or loved one a new hobby. The two things you most need for brewing are something that makes fire and something that spews water. In most domiciles, that would be a stove and a faucet. Your brewer-to-be also is going to need a big pot — say, two gallons or more — to boil the ingredients: water, malt extract, maybe some specialty grains and hop pellets. Add a long-handled spoon, probably a strainer and unscented bleach or commercial sanitizer to sterilize absolutely everything that might come in contact with the boiled ingredients (wort) that will go into the fermenter.

This is a side benefit to brewing at home. After the wort cools and before fermentation really gets rolling, it's extremely vulnerable to infection. This means that before you brew, your kitchen has to be clean enough that you could spay and neuter neighborhood pets there. But there will be time for that later. First let's make the beer.

Unless you're MacGyver, some specialty equipment is necessary — fermenter, plastic tubing, airlock, bottling bucket, capper, bottle caps and the like. Austin Homebrew (7951 Burnet Road, can set you up with a beginner's kit for about $80, which is more or less the going rate everywhere. (Locally, Austin Homebrew is pretty much the only game in town since St. Patrick's of Texas went to selling winery supplies. There are tons of home-brew stores online, too.) And there's one component on the list of supplies that's no chore to fetch: A five-gallon batch of beer is going to require about 48 clean 12-ounce beer bottles (not screw-top). That means you must — must! — immediately go buy and drink two cases of beer. Save the empties and soak the labels off in a sink full of hot water so you'll be ready come bottling time in a couple of weeks.

You're also going to need a recipe kit, which will run from less than $30 to $70 or more, depending on the ingredients. Kits typically include everything you'll need to make a batch, including priming sugar, which is used to carbonate the beer in the bottle.

The joy of gurgling

Like most any hobby, home-brewing can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. I know brewers who have pictures of their brewing operation on their phones like normal people have baby pictures. And a lot of brewers graduate to all-grain brewing rather than extract or some combination of extract and specialty grain. I never made the switch because I'm too lazy to buy the additional equipment. And the batch that Brack and I made was a combination of extract and crushed grain. (All-grain evangelists swear their method gives them more control and a better final product; others say it depends on what you're brewing. And since I almost exclusively brew ales on the heavy side, the hybrid approach is just fine.)

Stirring the brew pot in my kitchen, Brack backed me up on this. He also answered a lingering question: Why are you not supposed to squeeze a bag full of grains to get the sweet extract you've just made more completely back into the boil? Turns out doing that can release tannins in the hulls, the same compound contained in grape skins that's desirable to a varying degree in certain wines.

I love the way brewing smells: the fresh grains, the astringent hops and the malt. Brewing is all about converting starch to fermentable sugar, so when the wort really gets roiling, Casa de la Playa smells like a candy factory. There's visual appeal, too, in the 6.5 gallon carboy (simply a glass water bottle that has been elevated to a higher purpose) I use as a primary fermenter. Within 24 hours, once the yeast wakes up and realizes it's party time, time to make alcohol out of sugar, the contents of the vessel foam as carbon dioxide burps reassuringly out of the airlock. For a beer hound, this can be as mesmerizing as a lava lamp. When I woke up the morning after brewing day, the beer was already fermenting. This pleased me. I gave that carboy full of burbling Belgian Noel a good-morning hug.

Just think — get started now, and this time next year, you'll be boring your friends with talk of decoction and proteolytic enzymes. Good times, good times. And I swear it's easy.

Breweries in the works

Exciting news from Jeffrey Stuffings — his upstart brewery, Jester King, has secured four acres in Southwest Austin, and a warehouse in Victoria is being taken apart and shipped. Stuffings quit his job as an attorney earlier this year to pursue the dream of making beer. Of course, there was the little matter of fundraising. There's now $500,000 of investor dough to play with, which is at least a start.

Stuffings says he hopes to lay the foundation in four to six weeks, with the aim of having beer out the door next spring or summer. Based on the test batches he's made — samples of which he's kindly passed along to me — it's gonna be good. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, over at Circle Brewing, Ben Sabel and Judson Mulherin have ordered the equipment for their 30-barrel brewhouse. It's being put together right now, meaning they should have it in the spring.; 445-3603