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Old West Homebrewing's Gary Lee talks history and basic gear for homebrewing

Four simple ingredients

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Starting with the right equipment makes brewing easier. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Starting with the right equipment makes brewing easier.

Good beer isn't cheap, and it never has been. But it used to be worse. Gary Lee remembers how hard it was to find boutique beer before the craft explosion of the 2000s. Typically, a drinker's best option was an import. He recalls Yorkshire, UK-based Samuel Smith Brewery Taddy Porter, going for $12 for a six-pack in the early 1990s — around $20, adjusting for inflation.

But the cheapest way to drink well was and remains homebrewing, and that's Lee's specialty. He has owned and operated Old West Homebrew, a downtown brewing and cheesemaking store, since 1991, supplying not only local homebrewers but some commercial accounts as well. I've been buying most of my supplies there for every beer, mead and cider I've made over the five years I've been brewing.

Let's do the math: Weber Street Liquor sells a 24-pack of Bud Light for $20. That breaks down to 6.9 cents per ounce. For a not-uncommon $10 six-pack of craft beer, it's 14 cents per ounce. But Lee sells boxed brewing kits that make a five gallon batch for as little as $35 — that's 5.5 cents an ounce, cheaper even than the fizzy yellow stuff, equipment costs aside.

Further, brewing allows for total creative control over the beer, from pulling sugars out of malted barley to infusing bitter alpha acids and aromatic terpenes from hops to controlling the fermentation temperature to get different flavors from the yeast.

"You can do whatever you want," says Lee. "You want to make a wheat beer that's IPA hoppy? It's all yours!"

Access to supplies and information has come a long way since the U.S. government re-legalized homebrewing in 1978. In the early '90s, homebrewing meant starting with a can of Munton & Fison (now just Muntons) pre-hopped malt extract with a packet of brewer's yeast under the cap.

"You could kinda get close," says Lee. "You'd get better than Bud-Miller-Coors' major stuff." But it's been in the last 10 years or so that the quality of available supplies and information has exploded. That said, Lee emphasizes the importance of keeping early recipes simple, sticking to malt extracts, hops, an ale yeast that isn't too fussy, and maybe some adjunct grains to add color, body, or head retention.

"Beer is a lot more complicated to make than wine," says Lee, who does sell winemaking equipment. He equates wine to making brownies out of a box: "Throw some things in, some yeast in, and mostly wait... There's no cooking."

Given that, one of the first pieces of equipment he recommends is a good reference book — while the myriad forums and reference articles online are helpful, they can also be less approachable. He recommends The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, by Charlie Papazian, as a starter. It was first published in 1984.

"It was the brewer's bible forever," he says.

For something more in-depth, he recommends the Brewing Elements book series, each of which focuses on one of the four key ingredients for beer: malted barley, yeast, hops and water. Homebrewers interested in specific styles can find recipes and historical information in the Classic Beer Styles Series from Brewers Publications.

Beyond reference material, Lee recommends a simple setup to start with: a pot for boiling the water and malt extract; a glass or food-grade plastic fermenter, with an airlock, for letting the yeast do its work; a hydrometer, to make sure the yeast has eaten all the sugar and figure out how strong the beer is; a bottling bucket, separate from the fermenter; bottles, caps and a capper for storing the beer; as well as sanitation equipment.

And sanitation is critical. Because unfermented beer is basically warm sugar water, a huge range of microorganisms love it. Thanks to alcohol-producing yeast, it isn't easy to make poisonous beer. But it's very easy to get unpleasant tastes from unwelcome microorganisms.

Another obstacle is overcomplicating a recipe. Not every beer needs to be fruit-infused, double dry-hopped or barrel-aged. A simple recipe can let a brewer get a handle on how the four basic ingredients affect the flavor of a beer — there's a huge flavor range there alone. Further, starting with a simpler recipe can help homebrewers isolate and fix flaws in their brew process, getting them closer to making the beer of their dreams.

If there's an actual risk in homebrewing, aside from wasted dollars, it's bottle bombs. Before bottling, the yeast should have fermented out — no fermentable sugars left in the beer. To give the yeast enough food to carbonate the beer, homebrewers add a little corn sugar to the bottle or the bottling bucket. If there's still unfermented sugars in the beer, the yeast can produce so much gas pressure that the glass of the bottle fails, causing an explosion. It's not unheard of for brewers to find bits of sticky glass all over their storage area and a divot in the ceiling from where the cap hit.

Lee's advice: Use a hydrometer to make sure the yeast's done eating before bottling, usually between two weeks and 30 days, barring temperature issues. If a brew seems to be at risk of blowing, chilling bottles can calm the yeast down enough that the beer can be dumped into a bottling bucket and re-bottled with most of the CO2 removed.

Longer term, he strongly advises investing in a kegging kit.

"I've found over the years that one of the things you end up losing more people over is that they get sick of bottling, sick of washing bottles and sanitizing them and going through that whole process," he says. "We've often joked that I'd be better off giving keg systems away to people to keep them as customers."

There's a huge flavor range in malt, yeast and hops alone. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • There's a huge flavor range in malt, yeast and hops alone.

Homebrew recipe: Wasted Years ESB

In the interest of getting our readers into making their own beer that much sooner, here's a recipe I've found delicious and satisfying, nicknamed for my dad's favorite Iron Maiden song. It's an Extra Special Bitter (or strong bitter, if you're British), brewed with traditional British noble hops — I dig easy-to-find East Kent Goldings hops for their clean bitterness — and bearing a fruitiness from the yeast. I've only brewed it as an all-grain beer, but Old West Homebrewing owner Gary Lee helped convert it to a partial mash beer for ease of brewing. The liquid malt extract provides most of the fermentable sugars, while the crystal malt adds color and body, and the torrified wheat helps with head retention. This recipe makes five gallons of beer. Hop additions are timed for a 60-minute boil. Methods should be adjusted to your brewing setup.

8 lbs. light liquid malt extract

1.5 lbs. 60L crystal malt, for color and flavor

0.5 lbs. torrified wheat, for head retention

1 oz. East Kent Goldings hops, added at start of boil

0.5 oz. East Kent Goldings hops, added at 50 minutes into boil

0.5 oz. East Kent Goldings hops, added at end of boil

1 pack Wyeast 1968 (London ESB) ale yeast

Look for an original gravity of around 1.060. Ferment between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Look for a final gravity of around 1.012, for an ABV of around 6.3 percent.

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