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A Practical Guide to Homebrewing During a Pandemic

March 26, 2020

By Joshua Bernstein, March 26, 2020

A pandemic is the perfect time to acquire a hobby. Confined by the novel coronavirus, clocks ticking through seemingly endless tar, folks are filling their days with knitting and baking, laying groundwork for bountiful victory gardens in backyards. But in these trying times, many people find cheer in beer, leading some to start making their own.

“Our business has exploded and sales have doubled,” says John LaPolla, a cofounder of Bitter & Esters, a homebrew shop in Brooklyn, New York. Old customers are returning, and regulars are brewing extra. No moment like now to add another five-gallon batch to a liquid stash! “People are brewing because they’re stuck inside.”

LaPolla is seeing brisk business in curbside pickup and mail sales of hops, grains, and yeast strains, as well as starter kits for first-timers. “People are saying, ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to learn how to brew beer,’” he says.

In the before times, a.k.a. February, amateur brewers acquired ingredients as easily as staples during the weekly grocery store run. A national network of homebrew shops and online retailers overflowed with the barley malts, hops, and yeast strains for brewers to simmer, season, and patiently ferment into IPAs, saisons, stouts, and—let’s be real—even more IPAs.

Now, links in the supply chain are starting to break. Omega Yeast, which provides brewers with kveik and other compelling microbes, has indefinitely suspended operations. Northern Brewer, one of the country’s biggest online suppliers, has begun limiting items and is experiencing shipping delays of up to six days due to increased demand. More pressingly, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities are requesting their citizens stay home to slow viral transmission. Risking infection to re-up on Citra hops seems ridiculous and reckless.

It might be a little rough, it might be a little funky, but that’s part of the fun.”

One solution is to keep it simple. “You don’t need every specialty hop to make good beer,” says J.B. Zorn, a veteran homebrewer and member of the U.S. Coast Guard. Zorn works in Washington, D.C., as a congressional fellow in the office of Florida congressman Charlie Crist. Last year, Zorn’s congressional office took best of the show at the Capitol Hill Staff Homebrew Competition for its Majestic Sea Cow pale ale that’s crammed with four different hops and five kinds of grain.

Now, he recommends brewers try making beers with a single malt and single hop, often called a SMaSH beer. “It’s about bringing it back to the basics,” says Zorn, who suggests pairing the U.K.’s rich and nutty Maris Otter malt with citrusy Cascade hops. “Why are you doing this? You’re brewing this to enjoy beer at home.”

 Stock your pantry with a couple different kinds of base malt and classic hops, such as spicy Czech Saaz, then mix and match with dry brewing yeast. Unlike liquid yeast, the dry stuff lasts longer, and unopened packets can be stored in your kitchen cabinet, leaving the fridge for important cold stuff—like beer.

Even the best-stocked brewing pantry may eventually run empty, leaving brewers to stare forlornly at a sack of rice, wondering, “Can you get me drunk, Uncle Ben?” The answer is yes! To make it happen, Flint Whistler, the head brewer at Randolph Beer's brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, suggests buying amylase. The digestive enzyme converts tough-to-ferment starches into sugar, helping brewers turn nearly any grain into happy hour. 

“You can take your leftover grits and make a fermented corn beverage,” Whistler says, who notes that a year’s supply of the enzyme only costs around $15. “It might be a little rough, it might be a little funky, but that’s part of the fun.”

This is prison shit, but you can do it.”

With a little creativity, even kitchen waste can help you get wasted. Did you get a little too overzealous baking bread last week, leaving you with two loaves too many? Make Russia’s low-alcohol kvass with stale bread. 

If you panic-bought whole pineapples, try fermenting the rinds with piloncillo (raw cane sugar) or that dried brick of brown sugar in your closet to create tepache, a fermented pineapple drink. “You can still eat the fruit,” Whistler says. “There’s a lot of stuff that can be homebrewed without having to go out and get barley.”

Spend enough time at home—and you will, we’re here to say—and you’ll discover that a world of fermented booze has forever been at your fingertips. “We always have sugar sources,” says LaPolla of Bitter & Esters. Mead is as simple as mixing honey with water and bread yeast. “You’ll have something drinkable,” he says, suggesting that folks add raisins, which add a form of nitrogen that helps yeast consume sugar. 

Maybe you’re truly stuck and are like, “I can’t get out of here. I need some booze. There ain’t no laws. Give me my Claws!” Make your own! Add a pound of table sugar to a gallon of water, toss in some raisins, and let the mixture sit for a week. “If you make it bubbly, you’ll have your White Claw,” LaPolla says. “This is prison shit, but you can do it.”

If desperation truly takes hold and you’ve drank the booze, finished the fruit, squeezed every drop of honey from the bottle, grubbed the rice grains, and consumed every speck of sugar, LaPolla has one final fermentation hack. His former father-in-law spent years in prison, where he learned the art of turning ketchup into the prison wine known as pruno.

“He would put it into a plastic bag and hide it, then let the gas escape every once in a while through the vent at the top of his cell,” LaPolla says. “I’ve never tried it, but you never know.”

Photo by Kristian Hunt on Unsplash

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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