In life, says Joel Robertson, “There’s two things. People are going to drink and people are going to die.” Robertson works at Brew Your Own Brew, a specialty store on North Campbell Avenue. Brew Your Own Brew is a centerpiece of the thriving Tucson home-brewing scene, selling products needed for making beer, wine, cheese and mead.
Home brewers encompass a wide range of Tucsonans, and they defy classification. “There’s no way you could put a demographic on the typical home brewer, says Robertson. “We get them from college kids to, literally, rocket scientists. A lot of the intellectual community loves it, right down to your Joe-the-Plumbers. They come in here too.”
Drinking is one area where a tough economy might even be a good thing for some people. “We aren’t hurting one bit.” Says Robertson.
The startup cost is not something that can be overlooked, either. According to Robertson, the typical start-up cost is just under $200, including equipment and ingredients. A typical batch with this setup produces about five gallons of beer, or just over 50 12-ounce bottles. This works out to nearly $4 a bottle, at least for the first batch.
One Tucson home brewer, Connor Mendenhall, describes beer making as a simple process.
It begins by boiling water and adding malted barley.
“Generally you add some hops to give it some balance, to preserve the flavor and add a little bit of bitterness,” Mendenhall adds.
Once the mixture, called a wort, has cooled, it is transferred to a fermentation vessel. Mendenhall typically uses food-grade five-gallon buckets. He has dozens of such containers strewn about his house.
Next, yeast is added.
“It’s reconstituted from a dried yeast packet, or you can use a live yeast culture,” says Mendenhall. “Pitch it in, put an airlock in and wait a few weeks.”
Either way, the yeast metabolizes carbohydrates in the wort into alcohol, a process known as fermentation. An airlock is used to allow gasses formed during the process to escape while preventing outside air from contaminating the beer. The fermentation process typically lasts several weeks, depending on the type of yeast used. The lager-type beer that Mendenhall is currently brewing has been in a mini-fridge in his living room for two weeks. It will be there for at least one more before it is ready to drink.
Once the yeast has utilized the available carbohydrates “it’s basically a non-carbonated beer,” says Mendenhall. “You can move that to a secondary fermenter if you want, to let it clear up.”
Next, the beer is bottled.
The bottling process involves the addition of sugar which allows the beer to naturally carbonate.
Mendenhall stresses the importance of cleanliness throughout: “Sanitation is super important. At every step of the process you have to wash out everything.” Otherwise, impurities might cause the beer to become infected and undrinkable.
Different variations on the four primary ingredients account for the numerous varieties of beer. Alcohol content, flavor and color are all affected by changes to these ingredients.
Robertson states unequivocally that the best selling style at Brew Your Own Brew is the award winning “Show Low Pale Ale.” Its “hoppy” flavor is modeled after the popular Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from Chico, California.
But there are also other ways to create a unique flavor.
Mendenhall typically starts with a recipe from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, by Charles Papazian, and adds what he calls “some crazy stuff.” In the past, he has used ingredients such as ginger, chocolate, apricots, raisins and coffee. He has also utilized local ingredients, such as honey.
Some brewers take it a step farther when it comes to utilizing local ingredients. “We’re planning to use chilies,” says Chardon Stuart, another local home brewer. He hopes to create a beer with a local flair by adding chili peppers at some point in the near future.
Home brewing is not limited to just beer, however. Mendenhall recently made fifteen gallons of cider using a similar process. Working with friends, he built his own press to extract juice from apples using lumber and an old car-jack. They pressed over 150 pounds of locally grown apples to use for the cider making.
Stuart has also expanded beyond simple beer brewing. He says he has made mead using locally produced honey.
He has also produced what he calls “prison wine.” While a student living on the University of Arizona campus, Stuart says that he and some friends clandestinely made a wine using water, orange juice and bread yeast.
There is not really a type of beer specific to Tucson. What typifies a Tucson brew is its extreme resistance to classification. It is made primarily from grain and yeast, but as Robertson puts it, “it’s all just beer.” Robertson says that most of the grains used are imported from the Midwest and the beer styles are mostly German or British.
“Some people make beer out of prickly pear,” he adds. “But more people are doing wine out of that, wine or mead.”
While understanding the science is important for home brewers, some of the brewing process is up to chance.
“This one went bad I think,” says Mendenhall, holding up an unlabeled brown bottle. “Were pretty sure it’s infected. This was a chocolate porter, and it went sour. It’s either an infection or we just added way too much coffee.”
“But all is not lost,” he continues. “Apparently Guinness gets its distinctive flavor from adding about three percent of sour, pasteurized Guinness to each bottle.”
Mendenhall blesses each batch of beer with an incantation to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of fermentation, as well as prayers to gods from “most monotheistic religions.” He feels that any chance at improving the flavor of his brews is a chance worth taking.
Interested in brewing your own beer? Visit Brew-Your Own Brew online at brewyourownbrew.com/ .