How to Make Beer: Our Family Discovers the Lost Art of Home-Brewing

The subject of home brewing keeps popping up everywhere I look. Maybe it’s because I’ve recently started making my own beer and so it’s in the front of my brain, or maybe it’s because tone-deaf bureaucrats keep hiking taxes on liquor. (Like the one that just passed in Illinois increasing the tax by 50% on all alcohol sales.) Either way, the art of home brewing is intriguing, easier than expected, and produces extremely satisfying results while saving hundreds of dollars on your liquor budget.


Mr. Fox and I are always on the lookout for activities we can enjoy together that also help us become more self-sufficient. Since we are opposites — like most happy couples — such good ideas can be few and far between. One we have in common is our admiration for beer, both for what it symbolizes (Friday night) and the good cheer it brings to our lives. We heartily believe, like Ben Franklin, that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. As we’ve grown up together (from our early twenties) we’ve begun to also enjoy anything that is truly “counterculture.” Whenever The Man tells us to like something, we automatically resist. When the beer commercials with the sweaty co-eds hawk tasteless beer in gimmicky cans that change color according to temperature –really? you need a blue stripe to tell you if your beer is cold enough? — we know we’re being sold something that needs a whole lot of hoopla to move it off the grocery shelves.

But when we were younger and more affected by advertising we succumbed to the popular belief that the only beer to drink was highly-marketed, light-colored, pilsener-lager sold everywhere in easily recognizable, brightly colored packaging. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a light pilsener which can be highly refreshing on a hot summer’s day!) The point is, there’s a big beer world out there that popular American culture knows nothing about.

Appreciating the many types of beer comes much the same way as appreciating wine. After graduating from the “sloe gin fizz with extra cherries” stage of drinking, I began to sample wines. I’ll never forget the evening I had an excellent Cabernet from Stags’ Leap Winery with fine French cuisine that forever changed my mind. From then on I understood the important difference between pink wine-in-a-box and complex, layered vino. The same happened when Mr. Fox and I started sampling home-brew made by friends. A whole new world of flavors and possibilities were revealed to us in unmarked, humble brown bottles.


This is our hops plants after the harvest. They were about three times this size

A few years ago, a friend’s car broke down and, as I am known for doing, I volunteered Mr. Fox to fix it with all his spare time (between rebuilding our 140-year-old farmhouse and a full time job.) As a thank you, the friend bought him his first home-brew kit. Thus began the great beer adventure. First came the planting of the hops. As I’ve written before, we have an extensive garden that produces organic vegetables we enjoy all year long. Growing cascade hops is very easy and the only trouble we had was keeping them from taking over the entire garden.

To brew your own beer you don’t need to grow your own hops. We just figured since we grow everything else, why not? They grow like weeds and harvesting them is easy. We spent a lazy September Saturday clipping off the cones and collecting them for drying. Once they dried, we froze them for later use.

Me on hops harvest day!

Before you begin your brewing experiment, it is essential you buy The Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian. This is the home-brew Bible and a terrific read that will have you laughing on the first page. It is not only a guide to making your own beer but a “lifestyle manual, a philosophical tract, and a work of subversive literature.”And there is nothing we love most in the world more than subverting the popular lame culture, whether it happens to be pushing hope, change and unicorns or tasteless beer.

For our first beer making experience together, Mr. Fox scurried around the kitchen dropping things and swearing because I was asking “too many questions” and he wasn’t ready for me and my note-taking yet. There’s nothing quite like annoying the husband when he’s trying to concentrate. I was informed there would be “no music.” This is serious business. He was setting up beakers and plastic buckets and tubing and sterilizing everything and re-hydrating yeast while giving me the difficult task of keeping the 85 pound puppy out of the kitchen on pain of serious punishment lest he contaminate the all-important brew zone.


Trying to contain Moose, the 9-month-old GSD puppy

Contamination is actually the most likely culprit for a bad batch of beer so it helps if you are slightly OCD like Mr. Fox and wash your hands continually in rinse-less sanitizer as though our neighbors were cooking up the Ebola virus next door. Despite these safety measures, it’s a surprisingly easy process. There are different ways to brew beer. We opted to buy several kits that come with all the ingredients you need and can be easily ordered online at Midwest Brewing Company, or any other online distributor.

Brew kit with our home-grown hops

The initial investment in the equipment  was around $150. After brewing two 5-gallon batches, which yields roughly five cases, it pays for itself. Each beer kit is between $25 and $30. When you compare that to the price of micro-brews and better beer like Sam Adams, the cost savings is considerable. A six pack of a good micro-brew can cost upwards of $13. One of the reasons most Americans drink light lager is because that’s what is affordable. A six pack of Miller Light is around $7. Not many people will shell out twice that for a different brand. Not only is home-brew better than most anything in the grocery cooler, it’s cheaper and you’ll have lots to talk about at your next party when everyone wants to know what delicious beer they’re drinking.

After the decontamination process, it’s time for the giant 10 gallon stainless steel pot filled with the proper amount of water. We are fortunate enough to live in the Chicago area that has the best water in the world so we just fill up from the tap. After the water, the next best thing about Chicago is leaving it, but let’s get back to pleasanter things like brewing. It’s time to get out the big pot.


10 gallon stainless steel pot

The 10 gallon pot is necessary to avoid boil-over, which we didn’t escape this session because I distracted Mr. Fox with my endless and annoying questions. So we had some clean-up to do. However, even if you do have a boil-over incident, it’s not the end of the world, just a little messy. The beer we made was an English Brown Ale which is a medium body brew with malty character and a nutty aroma. While that sounds like high-brow wine-talk, when you’re handling the ingredients that go into the beer you do smell the malt and the nuttiness while it’s cooking which just adds to the experience later when the tasting happens. Making your own brew connects you to it; your senses are more attuned to the subtleties of flavor, color and aroma. That just doesn’t happen when you pick up a six-pack at the store and the only investment you have in it is how long it takes to find a bottle opener.

Kit ingredients and homegrown hops

According to Mr. Fox a digital hand thermometer with a probe is a must-have tool to maximize the accuracy of the brew. Much like following baking instructions, brewing depends on exact temperatures and measurements and since Mr. Fox is the baker in the family, he took to it naturally. When the water reaches the right temperature, the malt grains go in a giant muslin bag that is much like a tea bag  and is lowered into the pot and tied onto the handle to steep for the proper amount of time.

Adding the grains and hops

Next comes the addition of the remaining ingredients like the liquid malt extract and dried hops and it is set to boil for an hour to create what is called wort (kind of like a beer stew.) This is a good time to set the timer and catch up on some TV. When the wort is done it needs to be cooled down fast so the whole pot is transferred into a huge plastic bucket of ice. You can buy a fancy copper wort-chiller that will do this a lot faster but ice works just fine.


Once the wort is sufficiently chilled it’s time to strain it into the primary fermenter (which is just a fancy name for plastic beer bucket that has a fitted lid.) Once the wort is strained into the ale pail, more water is added with as much air as possible. Mr. Fox assures me this is necessary and not just fun.

Mr. Fox pouring water into the wort

The only thing left to do at this point is to seal the lid and fill the airlock on the top with liquid. My clean-freak fastidious husband prefers to use vodka because it’s sterile. The liquid in the airlock allows you to see the CO2 escaping as the wort ferments. This is the exciting part. Within a few hours — and sometimes right away — the wort will begin to ferment and send cheerful little bubbles up to the airlock for you to sit and watch like a child wondering at Jiffy Pop. You’ve never seen two adults get so excited over a little “perking.” This particular batch shown in the photos bubbled so loud it could be heard over Mr. Fox’s typical preference for extremely loud television. The happy pop, pop, pop of fermenting beer kept us smiling for days. Once it stops, it’s time to transfer into the secondary fermenter. This is an extra step that isn’t required but Mr. Fox says it keeps the amount of sediment that makes it into your bottle at a minimum and if you haven’t gathered already, Mr. Fox is a wee bit of a perfectionist. And through the sieve and into the secondary fermenter it goes for a second time.

Bottling an English Brown Ale

After the secondary fermenting process is done — usually a few weeks later — it’s time for bottling. A small amount of priming sugar is added to ensure further fermentation in the bottles which causes natural carbonation to occur. You can buy empty brown or green bottles or you can simply collect your empties. Just make sure they’re dark bottles as the clear ones will not keep your beer for long. After sterilizing, insert the bottle wand into the secondary fermenter and use to fill each bottle. A bottle capper is then used to seal the bottle caps. The only thing left to do is pack them away somewhere dark and between 60-70 degrees and wait! Depending on the type of beer, it can be anywhere from two weeks to a year before it’s ready for drinking.


Besides the obvious cost savings, home-brewers also enjoy the constant opportunities to be creative and have new experiences. Each batch of beer, like snowflakes, will never be exactly the same as the last. In our age of instant everything so many elements of home economics necessary to basic survival have been lost. In such uncertain times, it is worthwhile to relearn the lost arts of self-sufficiency. If the world as we know it does crash, at the very least those of us near Fox Farm will be able to crack open a brewski while we watch it burn.


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