Hoppy days: the joys of home-brewing
Home brewers can save a considerable amount of money, but people who have been bitten by the bug say passion and pride become the primary motivation over time
‘There is an element of how much you can save at the start, but that becomes a small part of it.’ Photograph: Thinkstock
Keith Villa, who created Blue Moon, a Belgian white beer, in Dublin recently to give a talk to enthusiastic home brewers. Photograph: Robbie Reynolds
Before there were brewers with their industrial-scale productions and their slick marketing campaigns, there were home brewers.
Some 5,000 years ago, some genius, by accident or design, found that mixing water with fermented barley, hops and yeast produced a drink that was pleasant to drink and did funny things to a person if consumed in large quantities.
Brewing is perhaps the world’s second- oldest profession, but the DIY options can save you money, particularly now that we live in a world where big retailers are selling booze at heavily discounted prices in order to lure us through their doors.
Before he became a professional brewer, Keith Villa was a home brewer. Growing up in California, his parents wanted him to become a doctor, and he did, but not in the way his parents had hoped. He obtained a PhD in brewing from a university in Belgium – a country that more than any other takes its brewing seriously.
He joined Coors in Denver in the early 1990s, and the company asked him to set up a microbrewery. Following on from that, he created Blue Moon, the Belgian white beer that is one of the most successful craft brews in the world.
Villa was in Dublin recently to talk to an audience of home brewers, who were eager to hear from a man who is given free rein and a large budget to come up with his own beers. At the tasting he produced a 9 per cent cherry wheat beer, a beer infused with juniper berries and one infused with lemongrass and basil. They sounded implausible but were all very drinkable.
He describes himself as a master brewer and his fellow Blue Moon employees as “like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the Oompa-Loompas”.
What is his advice to would-be Irish home brewers? “Learn what styles of beer there are: there are more than 80. Get familiar with all those different styles and start with a pre-made kit to brew that beer,” he says.
A brewer’s kit usually consists of a can of malt extract, hops and yeast. “Once you do your first batch, you see what magic occurs when you make beer. It is the magic of the yeast and the fermentation and the cooking that goes together to make the beer.”
He also strongly advises that cleanliness is next to godliness when it comes to brewing beer. Sterilise everything you use, he warns, because wild yeast that is not properly cleaned can turn a good batch of beer bad very quickly
“All kinds of strange flavours can enter the beer if you are not scrupulously clean,” he says. Above all, you have to be passionate about what you are doing. “The minute you lose the passion, it is time to give up.”
Home brewers have a reputation of being rather solitary types with beards and custom-made beer mugs who could spend hours debating the respective merits of different rare yeasts.
The dozen or so home brewers who turn up to listen to Keith Villa conform to one stereotype: they were all male.
They pepper him with questions, most relating to the technicalities of brewing. “Does hot-side aeration lead to bad beers?” is one question. There is a widespread dissatisfaction in the group with the taste of established products in Ireland.