Homebrewing for fun, taste and profit


“Hamm’s” is the first spoken word recorded in Rob Nelson’s baby book. His parents say he was influenced by the rhythmic beat of the Hamm’s Beer television commercial. Now, when not consuming one of his own homebrew creations, Nelson, 47, is out searching for the perfect pint. His favorite beer to date, Alaskan Smoked Porter, arrived back in Seattle the first week in November after a nine-month hiatus.

“I just love the dark, rich, smoky taste,” Nelson says. “They make it with a smoked malt up in Juneau, Alaska. Great with food, a nice oily taste to it. Wonderful stuff, but not everybody likes it. I’ve been trying to duplicate Smoked Alaskan Porter since I’ve been homebrewing in the Northwest. I’ve come pretty close.”

A self-employed software applications trainer at Seattle-area companies by day, Nelson brews and works on his Web site at About.com. in the evenings. When neophytes e-mail wanting to get started brewing beer, he refers them to his online article “The Best Way to Get Started.” Nelson says brewing is as easy as following a simple recipe with just three basic ingredients: yeast, malt extract and hops.

Though a kit with these ingredients can be ordered from any homebrew mail-order supply house, the basics are available most everywhere. Bakeries use malt syrup, an extract used in cooking. Hops are the medicinal herbs stuffed in a pillow for a relaxing night’s sleep. Though bread yeast would work, it would make for strange beer, so Nelson recommends the Williams Brewing Company Web site in San Leandro, Calif., for “great yeast,” and knowledgeable service.

The most basic recipe requires adding a can of malt extract (concentrated malt barley syrup) to 10 liters of boiling water and boiling for 15 minutes. While the malt extract is boiling, sanitize a 20-liter glass carboy fermenter with a little bleach in a lot of water. Empty, rinse and pour in 10 liters of cold water. Add the boiled brew to make a total of 20 liters of liquid. Stir in the yeast. Ferment for eight to 14 days and you’ve got beer.

A prize-winning beer takes creative tweaking. Ichiro Fujiura from Tokyo toasted coconut, then mashed it into his brew. In June 1998, Fujiura took top prize in the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) competition in Baltimore, Md., with his toasted coconut porter. Nelson, present at the judging, said no one could put a finger on exactly why the beer was so good, but he remembers the exact words of one of the judges: “This stuff rocks.”

Fujiura competed from his home in Japan, sending four bottles of his brew to the States for judging. In Japan it is illegal to brew beer with more than 1 percent alcohol by volume. Junko Saito, who with her husband sells homebrewing equipment from their Beer Club Shop in Kobe, says retailers are required to include warnings explaining the law in their catalogs and instruction manuals. Then it is up to the customer to obey the law.

The government, she says, understands the “accidental batch” exceeding the 1 percent mark, and the possibility of prosecution is remote. “As long as they don’t intend to sell,” Saito says, “it is logically impossible to arrest homebrewers. Both authorities and homebrewers know this fact.”

Saito and her husband started Beer Club Kobo, the first Brew on Premise (BOP) in Japan. A BOP is a do-it-yourself brewery, where as Nelson puts it, “you mess up their equipment and they clean it up for you.” At a BOP, you rent equipment, time, space and assistance, and brew with proven recipes. Depending on the type of beer, customers spend about $100 and three weeks later walk out with two and a half to three 24-bottle cases of beer. The concept originated in Canada, spread to Australia, the U.S. and now Japan. It’s a way to learn by jumping in and brewing good beer the first time, and also to meet people with like interests.

Local homebrew clubs offer another venue for learning and meeting people. At his first meeting on Hale and Ale Tasting Night, “There were 14 India pale ales line up to be tasted,” recalls Nelson. “And I’ll tell you, I learned more in that one night than I could have learned in 15 years of brewing by myself.”

More than 600 homebrewer clubs worldwide, with 12,500 club members, affiliate with AHA in Boulder, Colo. AHA’s Web page offers information on events and homebrewing. They will build and host your beer-related Web site, and find a homebrewers club nearest your area, or get help to start one of your own. Saito’s homebrew club, largest in Japan with more than 300 members, is one of only two in Japan affiliated with AHA.

Nelson, Fujiura and Saito regularly attend AHA’s National Homebrew Competition in June each year. Though Saito has never entered the competition, many of her club members have, and she and her husband ask friends to carry entry bottles to the states to help them to avoid the large shipping charge. The next competition will be in Michigan, June 22-24, 2000.

A starter kit from Williams Brewing Company, the company Nelson recommends, costs from $87 to $160. Their Web site offers photos and detailed information on the best kits for different levels of expertise. Check their site before buying a kit. Maui Home Brew Supply’s basic kit costs $49.95 plus $24.95 shipping by boat. Beer Club of Japan sells a basic kit for approximately $180. All three companies carry individual components and literature.