Father's Day is fast approaching, and it can be hard to think of presents for Dad, especially when his most-coveted gift is spending more time with his family. So give him your time—and fill it with beer-making.
Home-brewing has been popular since the late 1970s when it became legal for the first time since Prohibition, says William Bostwick, coauthor (with Jessi Rymill) of the new book Beer Craft: A Simple Guide to Making Great Beer (Rodale, 2011). But it really took off during the '90s with the microbrew craze. "Craft beer in America became really trendy and interesting and creative," he says. "And that kind of explosion coincided with this idea of urban homesteading—people growing their own gardens, keeping bees. Those two movements coincided, and it's getting a lot more popular."
Not only that, but beer itself is getting more sophisticated. No longer relegated to frat parties and keggers, beer is attracting the attention of chefs and restaurateurs who are finding ways to pair beer with food the way they do with wines. And when you make your own, says Rymill, that gives you a better sense of what makes a "good" beer. "Knowing or learning about what different styles of beer consist of in terms of ingredients—barley, malt, and hops and yeast—has been an incredible learning experience in terms of tasting craft beer," she says. "If you haven't made beer, I think it would be really hard to learn that."
"There's a lot of bad beer out there. And you pick up on that a lot more when you start making it yourself," Bostwick jokes.
Home-brewing can be a fun hobby for fathers and sons—and daughters—to take up. "There's too much male energy in beer-making," says Erik Knutzen, coauthor of Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World (Rodale, 2011), who writes in his book that beer-brewing used to be a household responsibility that was often undertaken by women. "Not that I'm saying it should fall to one gender or another, but women's intuition is good for home-brewing."
Setting Up Your Brew Station
Beer brewing does require a few tools you may or may not have lying around your house: two- and three-gallon stock pots (cheap aluminum pots from a restaurant supply store are fine); fine-mesh grain bag; a food scale, measuring cup, thermometer, timer, and wooden spoon; a fine-mesh strainer and funnel; a glass carboy (basically, a big jug with a narrow neck); some plastic tubing, an airlock, a hydrometer (used to measure the sugars in the beer), and, of course, bottles and bottle caps, all of which you can get at a local home-brew shop (or be super ecofreindly, and save empty beer bottles to sanitize and reuse). But don't let this long list of tools intimidate you. "If you can make soup, you can make beer," says Knutzen. He adds that the equipment is pretty cheap (he bought most of his on eBay) or easy to make yourself (he has instructions in his book). And since it's summer, he recommends getting a propane burner so you can brew out in your backyard to prevent overheating your kitchen (that also makes it a fun Father's Day activity to do while you're grilling out).
Then, you need your ingredients, which, as Rymill says, are basically malted barley (barley that has been soaked and sprouted to release its sugars), hops, and yeast. Every single one of these comes in dozens of varieties, allowing you to experiment endlessly with your beer-brewing. Beers with more hops and less malt fall into the pilsner, pale ale, and saison family and are more bitter than they are sweet, while beer with more malt and less hops falls into the brown and Scottish ale families and are sweeter; wheat beers, porters, and stouts fall somewhere in between.
If you've never tried making beer before, you can opt for a kit designed to make a specific beer recipe. Those include all the right proportions of malt, hops, and yeast, and the right types you need to make a specific beer. "You can order kits online," Knutzen says, "but some of those are pretty crappy. Home-brew shops tend to have better, fresher ingredients in what they provide." But Bostwick cautions not to rely too heavily on kits after your first few attempts. "It's like baking a cake from cake mix. You don't get to experiment—you don't get to play around," he says. "It's easy, but where's the fun in that?" He adds that once you get the hang of it, you can add other ingredients to make a wider array of beers based on the season, for instance, sour cherry beer with sour cherries from the farmer's market in summer or pumpkin ales from the pumpkin harvest in the fall.