Commercials make brewing beer seem like a monumental endeavor. Giant metal silos, huge barrels of beer, wagons pulled by Clydesdales, and massive factories are all a part of the images associated with America’s biggest beer companies. Somehow, this paint bucket full of fermenting beer in my closet doesn’t seem to compare.
With nationwide breweries delivering a plethora of beers to our local grocery stores, why are thousands of people opting to brew their own beer in their basements, sheds, or vacant closets? “We don’t make our own things anymore,” said Ben A. Ayres K’11. “People can forget about the simple satisfaction of enjoying something that you’ve put your own time and labor into it.”
Ayres has made three different batches of beers since coming to Kalamazoo from Vermont. “I’ve made a brown ale, an India pale ale, which was delicious by the way, and a pumpkin ale which came out really nice for the fall,” said Ayres.
On the recommendation of Ayres, I went to the Bell’s Brewery General Store in order to get started making my first batch of beer. “Anyone who works there knows exactly how to help you. You can tell the people there brew their own beer,” said Ayres.
Almost all beer-drinking residents of Kalamazoo know of Bell’s Brewery. The brewery was born out of a home-brewing supply shop that Larry Bell founded in 1983. The Bell’s website explains how they got started selling beer “in 1985 with a quest for better beer and a 15 gallon soup kettle.” Bell’s Brewery now sells eight beers year-round and 14 seasonal brews, but the brewery’s origins in home brewing can still be detected in the care spent in running the general store.
As I walked in to the general store my eye was drawn to the array of Bell’s sweatshirts, hats, coasters, and slew of other paraphernalia. Once I finished looking at the Oberon lamps I walked into the other wing of the store. This section was all business. Bags of whole and ground barley and wheat covered one section of shelves. On the wall was a fridge full of dozens of bags of hops and row after row of mysterious vials.
I got lost reading the labels of the different hops; Northern Brewers, Chinook, Hallertau, Cascade, Simcoe. I moved on to the vials, which turned out to be different types of yeast specified for hundreds of kinds of beer. I finally found my way to a pile of boxes labeled brewing starter kits.
I spoke to Bell’s General Store Homebrew Specialist David R. Curtis and he explained how the popularity of home brewing has risen in recent years. “In the last year our numbers have gone through the roof, especially during Christmas-time,” said Curtis.
I ended up walking out with just the basic starter kit. I was slightly daunted by the size and price of the box, but I had been forewarned. “I probably spent about 80 or 90 dollars in my initial set up, but it was well worth the investment,” said Ayres.
I emptied the box out on my living room floor and stared at the contents. It looked like two paint buckets, some weird looking tubes and gadgets, a beginner brewer’s book, and a big glass jug. However, if Larry Bell started with a soup kettle covered in Saran Wrap, maybe I could too.
I found a simple recipe for a wheat beer. I went back to the General Store and picked up barley malt, wheat malt, dry ale yeast, and Cascade hops on an employee’s recommendation. I was reluctant to use the questionable Kalamazoo tap water so I picked up five gallons of spring water at Meijer’s as well. The total bill was under thirty dollars. I was ready for my first batch.
“Follow the directions the first time, exactly. Don’t mess around with it too much and just get it clean. Don’t think you know better than the recipe,” said Ayres. “Nothing is more discouraging than having 5 gallons of beer that you don’t want to drink.”
Home brewing can be a little tricky at first, but also becomes an engaging hobby once one understands the basics. Many Kalamazoo residents have not only brewed their own beer, but have also entered them in local contests. Bell’s recently held a home brewing competition; the winners were announced on their annual All Stouts Day. “There were 130 or 140 people who competed. The line was out the door,” said Curtis.
After an hour on the kettle, ten days in my fermentation bucket, another week in the bottles, and my beer was finally ready. A small pop as I took off the cap off let me know the carbonation had worked. I poured it into a glass to check the color; a pale amber.
I was reluctant to taste it. A small amount of bacteria, or some mistake in the brewing process could have left me with 50 bottles of garbage and a sense of utter failure.
I had a photo taken of me with my first bottle, and I nervously took my first sip. A nice wheat flavor followed by the tangy bitterness of the Cascade Hops; pretty good. “It was surprisingly good,” said Noah Oesterle K’10. “Since Jordan made it I thought it might be terrible.”
Will microbreweries and an army of college-aged amateur brew-masters ever beat out the onslaught of cheap beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon and Steel Reserve? “I don’t really think that the trend towards drinking cheap beer is changing,” said Ayres. “Until college students start not being poor.”
Making your own beer does require time and financial investment, and this might make it too daunting a task for some college students. “I’d say it’s only about twenty percent of our customers are college students. Most are working people,” said Curtis. “We get a fair number, but most are a little older.”
However, the success of breweries like Bell’s and local spots such as Olde Peninsula still gives hope that college students will venture into the world of craft beer and home brewing. “I think more people are starting to buy some nice beer once in a while, and later down the line, once they have a steady income, I think they’ll start drinking better beers, or even make their own,” said Ayres.