You may associate home-brew beer with something dodgy your granddad used to concoct in the garage, murky brown stuff that gave your family a terrible headache and didn't taste any better than it looked. But don't let those early memories scare you.
The advent of simple-to-use commercial-grade brewing kits has revolutionised the home brewing world to the point it's now possible to fast-track professional methods, on a much smaller scale.
Believe me, with a bit of planning you can produce some pretty good stuff in your own kitchen and without any previous experience.
Aside from the fun element, there is also a substantial financial saving with a 750ml serve of a simple recipe costing as little as a dollar. New Zealand has one of the highest excise taxes in the world, but there is no tac on home brewing and it is perfectly legal.
First, let me explain some brewing fundamentals.
The main ingredient is malted barley. Brewers receive this intact. We then crush it and mix it with hot water. In the resulting warm porridge (mash) the natural malt enzymes convert the starch to sugars. This is important because yeast can ferment sugars but not starch.
The brewer will then collect the resulting liquid (wort) and boil it with hops for bittering and flavour.
Finally, the wort is cooled and fermented with a specific strain of yeast. As a result the sugar is consumed and alcohol, CO2 and flavour is produced. The actual process is a bit more complex that this but you can still do it yourself at home.
However, there is an easier way for the beginner: home brew kits. This way, most of the brewing has already been done. Professional brewers have made the wort and concentrated it so all you have to do is sort of a cordial beer.
I won't go into all the details as these are generally outlined clearly in the kit instructions but it is extremely easy: Mix the extract with water, add yeast and wait two weeks, bottle the beer and wait another two weeks for it to carbonate.
Of course there are a few details that need attention along the way, most importantly to keep all your equipment clean and sterile.
The only other gear needed is a fermentation bucket with an airtight lid, an airlock and a tap ($40), and a hydrometer (from $12), a simple instrument that measures the amount of sugar in the beer before and after fermentation and therefore can tell you when your beer is ready to bottle.
The ingredients for one batch (20 litres) will set you back as little as $18. Alternatively, and I would recommend this, you can get a starter pack that includes everything you need to brew 20 litres plus a few handy extras. This will cost $100-$150 and can be found at your local home brew shop, online home brew shops, Bin Inn or maybe even a well-stocked supermarket. This also makes the perfect Christmas present for the (wo)man who thinks (s)he has everything.
When the beer is fully fermented (this takes one to two weeks) you add a bit more sugar and bottle it. The extra sugar will ferment in the sealed bottle and since the resulting CO2 can't escape it will dissolve into the beer and carbonate it.
Again, this is all explained in the kit instructions. Bottles can either be PET plastic bottles from home brew shops or recycled commercial beer bottles. It is important that the bottles can withstand some pressure otherwise they might explode, so if you go with glass bottles I recommend the bigger ones (500ml and up) as they are made of a thicker glass than standard 330ml stubbies. You will also need to invest in a capper ($30) and some extra time to clean and sterilise the bottles. Once you have mastered brewing the kit you may want to venture further, this is where it can get really addictive. There are a few easy steps to enhance your kit:
1. Change the yeast. I would recommend getting a proper strain from a homebrew shop. The Safale range is an excellent choice.
2. Temperature control. It is important to keep the fermentation temperature relatively stable as large swings can put the yeast to sleep or produce undesirable flavours. Most yeast in the beginning works best around 20C. Keeping the temperature within 2C of that will improve your home brew immensely. An easy way to cool the fermenter is to wrap it in wet towels, or put it in a tub of cold water if it's really warm.
3. Adding hops. The kits already contain hops, but not many. Adding a few more will give your beer better flavour and aroma.
4. Finings. Adding a bit of gelatine to the fermenter before bottling will clear up some of the haze often found in homebrew.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. For enthusiastic homebrewers there are virtually no limits. There are hundreds of different malts, hops and yeast strains that can be combined to produce thousands of different beers.
The next step in your home brewing career is likely to be partial mashing, where you mash grains of your choice and boost the beer with pre-made malt extract, and then all-grain brewing, where you do everything from scratch.
For more information, there are web forums where home brewers engage in passionate discussions and hand out advice to newcomers. Reading is also good; the book that drew me into what is now a way of life was The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, by Charlie Papazian. How to Brew, by John Palmer offers a more scientific, yet easy-to-follow approach. The latter is available free online.
Soren Eriksen: The making of a beer baron
A brewer's starter kit gift for Christmas from his wife Monique sparked a dramatic career change for transplanted Dane, Soren Eriksen.
A little more than two years later he ditched life as a biochemist - studying sea urchins at Auckland University - in favour of full-time brewing.
After gaining his commercial stripes assisting at Renaissance Brewery in Blenheim, the home-brew graduate launched his own Blenheim-based label, 8 Wired, in 2009 with whirlwind success.
Less than a year after sending its first pallet out the door, 8 Wired's The Big Smoke: Smoked Porter won the Best in Class Trophy at the prestigious BeerNZ Awards, the New Zealand beer industry's Oscars.
Snaring two national poker titles en route boosted development, but sales are booming in the fast-growing craft's sector, both here and overseas, says Eriksen.
Since the BrewNZ accolade in August, Eriksen (30) now exports to Australia, the US and Denmark.
This month 8 Wired launches Tall Poppy, its latest variant through local distributor beernz.co.nz.
"It's a mix between a big, robust, red ale and an India pale ale," says Eriksen, whose 8 Wired roster also includes HopWired (IPA), ReWired (Brown Ale) and iStout (Imperial Stout).
* WIN: To get you started on your home-brewing career, we have two Brewtec Micro Brew kits each containing fermenter, steriliser, hydrometer, crown seals and hand capper, premium liquid brewing sugar, one can of Brewtec Premium Draught beer concentrate and other key items, plus full brewing instructions. To enter, email your name and contact details to email@example.com with "home brew" in the subject line by 5pm Thursday, December 9. Entrants must be 18 and over.