A student's guide to homebrewing

The unexpected life lessons of making your own beer

Matt in his house with his brewing
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At its core, craft beer culture is very appealing. 

There’s nothing more fascinating than a crowd of young, energetic, beer-loving hipsters who vocally share their distaste for classic, watered-down American beers. A creative deviation from “your grandfather’s beer,” craft beer is essentially veganism for ale enthusiasts. 

Needless to say, snobbiness is alive and well in the craft beer community.

Perhaps that’s what first got me hooked on the idea of making my own beer. There wasn’t a distinct moment in time where this became a desire of mine, but I knew I had wanted to do it for a while. All I could think was, “damn, that would be so cool.”

My initial first-hand experience of homebrewing came at a family friend’s house on Wolfe Island, where he showed me a bucket of fermenting beer under his sink. The apparent simplicity, alongside the cost-saving aspect — 60 beers for $30 — grabbed me instantly.

That’s why this September, my housemate Brian and I embarked on our first journey as homebrewers in our basement unit on University Avenue.

While it seemed cool on paper, homebrewing isn’t as glamorous as it seems. My entry into the culture of homebrewing consisted of watching videos of 

middle-aged men with growing guts, made evident by the shrinking of their decade-old tank tops. After hours of note-taking, I began to ask myself one massive question: What am I doing?

That wasn’t the first time I had asked myself this — I had already endured a heartbreaking loss with a failed attempt at making root beer three months earlier. Full disclosure: my mom said it tasted like cough syrup. Thus, I was determined to rebound from failure and turn a grain of sand — being my confidence — into a pearl.

An intricate process, homebrewing isn’t for the faint of heart. The average “brew day” lasts approximately eight hours and requires meticulous attention to temperatures, sanitation and timing.

In the weeks leading up to our brew day, Brian and I did everything in our power to make sure we did this right. 

After consulting homebrewing experts, a 400-page manual and more Youtube videos of our favourite garage-dwelling middle-aged men, we felt ready to go. 

After making a trip to Toronto’s local brew store, we covered the kitchen counter with bags of grains, yeast and hops. Following an unnecessarily long discussion on how to approach this journey we were about to embark on, we filled up our kettle with water and waited. 

As the thermometer crept up to its optimal temperature, we poured our 11-pound mixture of grains into a Gatorade cooler and, as our pot-bellied Youtube gods instructed us, poured the water into the cooler. 

We quickly found out an important quality for any homebrewer is patience. After a round of high-fives and buzzing excitement about a successful first step, we realized we had an hour and a half of waiting until we could get going again.

The following steps included bringing the grain-infused liquid to a boil and pouring in a variety of hops. 

For those that have tried bitter tasting beer, these pellets are what give it this taste. Oftentimes, they are also the source of many people’s hatred towards certain beers.

As the hours began to pass, we realized how deep we were in this. This wasn’t a simple arts and crafts project — we were forfeiting a day of frosh week to stay inside. There was no turning back and we’d be damned if we messed this up.

When the sun began to set, we prepared for our final touches. After pouring the “wort” (the name for fermenting beer), we slammed our fermenting bucket shut and placed it in the back of my closet. Though we were able to get a whiff of our brew when we bottled it two weeks later, the entire process requires four weeks of patience. 

While the desire to get a taste of our labours ate away at Brian and I, our greatest struggle was pushing away thoughts of doubt. A key component in the brewing process is sanitation. All we could wonder was if we missed something — even a dirty spoon would’ve spoiled the batch entirely.

Thus, when we cracked open our inaugural, 6.4 per cent alcohol content homebrew (an unintentional result), we were bottled up with nervous energy. Brian and I clinked glasses, took a sip and a moment to process it.

The beer was amazing — a perfect combination of bitterness and sweetness, we knew it would be a crowd favourite and Larry from Youtube would have been proud.

As a calmness began to settle in, Brian and I gained a tremendous sense of pride in what we had made. I thought about how far we’d come over the course of four weeks; we had turned a fantasy into a reality with a couple of tins of boiling water, 11 pounds of grain and a keg’s worth of heart and patience.

Making homemade beer was never purely driven by 

cost-saving desires — even if I didn’t realize this until after it was said and done. It was about inspiring something that beer does itself: bringing people together in the spirit of friendship. It’s something every beer commercial manages to convey.

Over the weeks following our first taste, the feeling of accomplishment continued as we began sharing it with friends and family. 

In addition to being a balloon pump for our egos, the positive feedback was exactly what we needed. After weeks of patiently waiting for our first batch to come together, we found that the true gift of homebrewing is the ability to share it amongst friends.

More importantly, the moment Brian and I tried the beer for the first time, it was immaculate. The sense of accomplishment the two of us gained from the experience is something I’ll never forget. By embarking on this project together, the real power lay in the shared experience; it’s something that you can only create through time, patience and camaraderie.

The summation of the experience brings me to the common saying, “good things come to those who wait.” Boy, did we wait. And we were rewarded.

Where brewing now takes us has yet to be determined. A simple cost analysis of making significant investments in materials has proven any large advances to be at a hefty price tag, so at the moment we’re staying modest.

With that in mind, we’ll continue to brew in our bottom unit apartment on University Avenue, putting every inch of our hearts into creating a beer that continues to do one thing: make the good times better.

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