Water, hops, malt and yeast. It’s a simple enough recipe when viewed from a broad lens: Boil some water and malt, add some hops at the end and mix in some yeast. Let it sit for a couple weeks and then, bam, you’ve got beer.
In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that, as any homebrewer will tell you. Homebrewers are the folks for whom drinking craft beer isn’t enough; they want to create it. For decades, that was the only option, and these DIY brewers have been sweating it out in their kitchens, garages or wherever they make space to perfect their crafts, serving as the foundation for the city’s now-thriving brewery industry.
On a recent spring afternoon, Jake Beck stood over a 5-gallon kettle in his Waxhaw garage. Inside swirled a murky mix of malt grain that bubbled as he welcomed me into the room. The brew Beck was working on at the time was his recipe for an ale that he dubbed Mary No. 2. It’s the second attempt at a poem Beck constructed for his girlfriend, Mary, in the form of a beer. He had been fine-tuning the recipe throughout the week, changing the type of hops and the amount he would throw into the beer.
“It’s a honey blonde ale,” Beck explained to me as he stood in his garage, which housed his homebrewing equipment and freezer-turned-keezer that holds the kegs once they’re filled. “I just altered it. The last one was just a basic two-hop addition and that’s where I felt like it needed more or just some different hops.”
Hops, which I like to describe as the law-abiding cousin of marijuana, are the flowers of the hemp plant Humulus lupulus and are often processed into compacted pellets. In the brewing process, hops are usually thrown in during the last 10-or-so minutes of the boil to add aroma, citrus flavors and bitterness to the brew. There’s tens of hundreds of types of hops, each contributing a different characteristic to the overall flavor profile and aroma of a beer.
When we talked, Beck had an India Pale Ale (IPA), a chocolate brown ale and Mary No. 1 on tap in the keezer at the back of his garage. When it comes to brewing, IPAs are his favorite to make, but English porters — the darker stuff with a maltier flavor — are his favorite to drink. He likes the range that porters offer, as brewers can add fun flavors like chocolate, peanut butter, pecans and other nuts to alter the taste.
“I like brewing IPAs because it keeps you busy during the boil with throwing all the hops in at the right time,” Beck said. “Drink-wise, I always liked more English porters, I actually made one of those last week … I kind of like sticking more to the English style beer just ‘cause it’s been around for centuries and I think it’s good.”
And he’s right. While IPAs are a relatively new style of beer, humans have been brewing beer in general for thousands of years.
Jen Blair, the president of The Carolina BrewMasters, a homebrewing club formed in Charlotte in 1983, explained that humans have been making beer for so long because back in the day (and I mean way back), it was safer to drink than water. But now that we have giant beer manufacturers and more than enough local breweries to quench our thirst, why brew at home?
It’s a passion project for some, but the cost plays a big role, too, she said.
“For a lot of people, if there’s a particular style that you like to drink, at some point it becomes more cost-effective to learn how to brew five gallons of it yourself at a time,” Blair elaborated.
That sentiment rings true for Beck.
“I have not bought beer from a grocery store in a while,” he said. “It’s more rewarding when you make it yourself, I think. And it’s a whole lot cheaper.”
As cheap as it can be for the homebrewer in the long run, the initial investment can be quite steep, especially for those interested in purchasing the high-tech equipment right off the bat. After a year or two, however, the equipment pays for itself — at least in the case of a regular craft beer drinker.
Mike Melnick, an employee at Alternative Beverage, a brewing and winemaking supply store with three locations in Charlotte, likens the hobby to audio enthusiasts.
“It’s almost like the people that are really into audio. They have to have the newest speakers or the newest mixing board,” Melnick explained. “That’s kind of like homebrewing. There’s always something new coming out that you’re going to want to buy.”
I met Melnick at Alternative Beverage’s South Boulevard location when I was sent to pick up some equipment and ingredients for brewing my own beer with a friend. Not only did he help me identify the items written on the ridiculously vague list of needs I had brought, he also picked out a yeast strain that would complement the “Old Flat Tire” ingredient kit that I had chose to make a Belgian ale.
Helping homebrew novices like me and shooting the shit with experts are Melnick’s favorite aspects of his job.
“I get to talk about beer all day long, that’s the best part of my job. I get to talk about beer and help people create beer,” Melnick said. “We get to do a lot of tasting and creating different flavors out of ingredients you wouldn’t think that you could.”
Melnick handed me a dry English yeast for the style of beer that I’m brewing, which I have officially named Production Day Ale — an ode to every other Monday that the Queen City Nerve staff puts together the paper for the next two weeks.
Yeast is a bacteria strain added to the mixture after the boil and after cooling that eats the sugar in the liquid and converts it to alcohol. This is the stuff that gives you the buzz — the more sugar, the higher alcohol content and vice versa.
During the fermentation process, it’s imperative that the mixture stays between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s too cold, the yeast won’t ferment; too warm, and the yeast ferments wildly, shooting off flavors that drastically change the outcome’s flavor profile.
“Start reading about what happens when yeast starts getting up into the mid- to high-70s and the off flavors that it kicks off into the beers,” Beck said. “You do the same beer with a free rise, no temperature control and then the same one with it controlled at 65, 68 degrees, you’d notice a huge difference in the beers. The taste would be completely different.”
This isn’t a problem for commercial brewers because the industrial equipment they use includes intense temperature control, usually on the dot for the target temperature or at least within 1 degree Fahrenheit.
One thing commercial brewers are less apt to do, due to the large-scale nature of their production process, is try new things. That’s a problem that homebrewers don’t have.
The experimentation that takes place in a homebrewer’s garage is the thing of nightmares for the production team at a big-name brewery. There’s less risk when you’re making 5-gallon batches. If it doesn’t come out right, dump the five gallons and try again. For breweries, however, that could mean 500 gallons or more. That’s a huge loss — especially in a market as saturated as Charlotte’s.
“With homebrewers, they’re usually at the forefront of trying new styles, more so than commercial brewers are because, of course, there’s less risk,” Blair stated. “If you’re trying out a new style at a brewery and it doesn’t go well or the market is not ready for it, then you just lost money, whereas with homebrewers, that risk is minimized with that 5- or 10-gallon batch.”
In addition to being the president of The Carolina BrewMasters, Blair is also the executive director of Craft Maltsters Guild, an international association that promotes craft malt.
Understandably, most homebrewers prefer to use the freshest specialty malts available, so Alternative Beverage has a program in which brewers can purchase a 55-pound bag at bulk price upfront, then retrieve malt from their “bank” as needed. This is to prevent malt from going stale in whatever home storage setup brewers have built, and ensure fresh malt for their next brew.
Even though Beck doesn’t use the malt bank program, he said he usually ends up walking out of Alternative Beverage with a bag or two of specialty malts because he “might use that next week.”
Although beer can be brewed with wheat, barley, rice and other grains, malt is the preferred grain for brewing beer.
For beginners, ingredient kits come with a small bag of roasted malt with a 6-pound bag of malt extract, which looks a lot like sugar. First, the roasted malts are steeped like tea in a bag in water, then transferred to a larger kettle where water is added. Next, the extract is slowly stirred in over five to 10 minutes. More advanced — and patient — homebrewers may opt to spend hours upon hours steeping pounds of all-grain malt to avoid using the sugary extract. This process is where the beer gets its coloring and additional flavor. Lightly roasted malts yield a paler color while heavily roasted malts result in darker colors, such as in porters, stouts and dark lagers.
As president of The Carolina BrewMasters, executive director of Craft Maltsters Guild and an employee of Pilot Brewing in Plaza Midwood, Blair is deeply rooted in the local craft brewing community, especially in the homebrewing subculture. It’s an easy place to make friends, she said.
“You know how it’s like when you’re a kid and it’s like, ‘You like coloring, I like coloring, we’re best friends now?’ That’s how homebrewing can be, because you’re meeting somebody who is so like-minded,” Blair stated. “And now beer culture isn’t about sustenance and survival, it’s about community and friendship. And that’s something that’s welcoming, like, ‘Come on in, you’re amongst friends.’”
Many times, homebrewing is about sharing a new brew with friends. Other times, it’s bringing a couple bottles to a Carolina BrewMasters meeting — held at GoodRoad Ciderworks on the first Tuesday of each month — to get feedback and talk about new recipe ideas.
At these meetings, Blair hosts an educational portion about homebrewing to spread more information about the science behind the beer.
“I’ve been the president for two years now and I’m very passionate about beer in all aspects of my life,” Blair said. “Beer education is very important to me so that’s something that we stress within the club and continue moving forward is providing a beer education piece.”
April’s meeting included a segment on temperature control during boil and fermentation by Steve Turner, head brewer at Blue Blaze Brewing and former fermentation science and technology instructor at Colorado State University. Like many professional brewers in Charlotte, Turner is also a home brewer.
“The BrewMasters take a lot of pride in knowing that first waves and the second wave in Charlotte were BrewMasters and a lot of the knowledge and the information that they have when they open the brewery came from being a member of The BrewMasters,” Blair said. “If you wanted to open a brewery and you wanted to do it yourself, you learned by going to brew clubs.”
While business is always at the front of their mind, these homebrewer/professionals revel in the creativity and experimentation that comes with being able to brew what they want to drink and have it on hand at home. For those who stick to the DIY approach, however, the year-round lineup of flagships that breweries offer may not tickle a homebrewer’s fancy.
Other than being drawn by the prospect of saving money by brewing your favorite style rather than buying it at the store, homebrewers fall into a couple of distinct categories: engineers and cook-from-scratchers.
“I see a few different types of homebrewers, there are the types like me who enjoy cooking and enjoy [asking], ‘Why would I buy that much?’ It’s just a process I enjoy,” Blair explained. “We see a lot of engineers get involved in homebrewing — tinkerers — because you can build your own equipment, and [they have] sort of that same spirit of figuring out how to make something — they’re just more mechanically minded.”
So if you can’t find it on tap in town or bottled in a six-pack at the grocery store, there’s always that option for the more proactive pint drinkers: brew it yourself.