Homebrewing is a hybrid between old-fashioned sorcery and chemistry of the mad-scientist sort. Mysterious liquids boil for hours in giant kettles, then are cooled, decanted and left to ferment in enormous glass bottles.
The origins of the process can be traced to colonial Virginia in 1587, when Europeans used corn from what would become the United States to make the first American beer. Relatives of Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson were reportedly accomplished brewers. However, beer-making at home was outlawed with the coming of Prohibition in 1919, and home-brewing of beer with an alcohol content higher than 0.5 percent remained illegal until 1978.
Today, the American Homebrewers Association estimates there are a million people performing alcoholic alchemy in kitchens, garages and basements across the nation, many assisted by the venerable association, which was founded just weeks after President Jimmy Carter signed the law that again legalized the hobby.
But how does one get inducted into the brotherhood of homebrewers? It’s as easy as buying a kit, says local brewer Mark Debree. He has been brewing out of his Cold Springs home since the mid-1990s.
“My wife bought me a brewing kit at Costco,” he said. “Maybe she regrets it now.”
Debree’s yen for brewing rose from a growing appreciation of craft beer—beer made with traditional methods by small, independent breweries. He soon discovered that brewing at home allowed him to enjoy high-quality beer on the cheap.
“You can make better beer at home cheaper than you can buy it in the store,” he said. “It’s really not very expensive to brew your own beer. It’s maybe 30 to 40 cents a bottle.”
Dennis Botkin, a carpenter with Sawtooth Construction, was also prompted to start homebrewing through his love of beer but distaste for the price of microbrews.
“I just think it’s great to make my own beer at home,” he said. “It’s almost always good, and it’s less expensive than buying some of the microbrews out there—and it’s the same quality.”
Most kits, such as those offered by Minnesota-based supply company Northern Brewer, come with everything needed to boil up a batch of ultra-microbrew: a fermenting bucket, a bottling bucket, spigots, tubing, bottle brushes and caps, along with malt extract syrup, yeast and primer.
For extract brewing—the simplest of all brewing—malt extract is added to water, which may have had other specialty grains steeped in it or hops added. The mixture is boiled, then cooled before yeast is added and the fermentation process begins.
While they started with extract brewing, Botkin and Debree have graduated to all-grain brewing. The process of cracking specialty malt barley that has been roasted, then mashing it before letting it steep in water, gives the homebrewer more control over the final taste of the beer.
“You’re basically creating your own equivalent of mixing the malt syrup with the water,” Debree said.
The next step is to add hops—Debree grows the requisite flower in his backyard, but hops can be purchased—then the liquid is boiled and fermented before it’s bottled or put in a keg. Botkin’s brew day takes an average of six hours. From there, it’s two to four weeks before the beer has fermented enough to bottle and keg. If homebrewers choose to bottle like Debree does, they’re looking at another two weeks before the beer is carbonated enough to be enjoyed; if, like Botkin, they choose to keg, the beer is drinkable after the fermentation stage, thanks to the keg’s forced carbonation.
The type of hops used, along with the type of malt barley and yeast strain that the brewer chooses, gives each brew its unique flavor. Debree often experiments with Belgian yeasts, as well as the hops he grows in his own garden, including one he calls a “mosaic” variety. This type of hops has notes of pine and some bitterness, but also hints of stone fruits such as cherries.
“Depending on the variety of hops you’re using, your beer might be spicy, it might be fruity, it might be piney, it might be citrusy,” Debree said.
Though Prohibition is long gone, those brewing beer at home still need to comply with legal restrictions. According to federal law, homebrewers must be over 18 years of age and can only produce beer for personal and family use—selling is forbidden. Brewers are also limited to 100 gallons per calendar year if there is only one adult living in the home, and 200 gallons per calendar year if there are two or more adults. Beer brewed at home is also regulated by Idaho code, which states: “[A]ny person shall have the privilege of manufacturing wine or brewing beer from native grown products for the personal use of himself, family and guests.” Sgt. Nathan Hansen from Idaho Alcoholic Beverage Control said that while the code says homebrewers can only use “native” or state-grown products for brewing, cases are considered on an individual basis and federal law has priority.
Aside from some thorny legal issues, beginning homebrewing can be as easy as picking up a kit and leafing through a book such as “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing” by homebrew guru Charlie Papazian. Botkin and Debree also recommend browsing the hundreds of homebrewing websites and exploring the numerous homebrew stores in Boise.
Sometimes, they both agreed, the best resources can be other homebrewers or microbreweries themselves.
“It’s always nice to try other different styles and different people’s interpretation of an IPA [India Pale Ale] or any other kind of beer,” Botkin said. “If there’s something you really like, they can give you an idea of what it was brewed with.”