For many there is nothing more satisfying than cracking open a cold beer after a long, hot day. Among a growing number of urban beer fans, the drink of choice has become the one that they’ve brewed themselves.
Forty years ago, you could not have drunk, much less created, your own alcohol. Once the 18th Amendment outlawed domestic brewing in 1919, no American could legally make his own beer until 1978. Since then, though, interest in this pursuit has grown. According to Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Assn., nearly 1 million Americans now craft homemade beer and wine.
The unique challenges of brewing in New York
One unlikely place where this hobby has caught on is Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Here a group of ardent brewers, known as the Dive Bar Homebrewers Symposium, meet monthly to share and compare their libations at their snug, neighborhood bar, the Dive Bar on Amsterdam Avenue.
Making alcohol in cramped New York City dwellings may not seem practical. After all, suburban beer makers can acquire large and expensive equipment, install taps and refrigerated rooms, and transform their basements, garages or sheds into miniature breweries. These opportunities just don’t exist when you reside — and make beer — in a 400-square-foot apartment.
“Brewing in the city has all sorts of horrible complications,” says Ben Fulton, award-winning home brewer and member of the Dive Bar group. “My closets are at least half dedicated to brewing. My refrigerator for my kegs is on my food fridge, and I live with my wife and two 80-pound dogs. It’s tight, requires constant organization and cleaning, and it’s hard to make sure I don’t take over the whole apartment.”
Chris Cuzme, president of the New York City Homebrewers Guild, concurs.
“While it doesn’t take a lot of space to home brew, it is an addictive hobby and it is not unusual for us enthusiasts to have more than one beer fermenting at a time. This takes up closet space,” he says.
A hobby that’s catching on
In spite of the drawbacks, Cuzme has seen a rise in the number of New York City home brewers as well as in the number of shops that specialize in brewing materials. Even chain grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, have begun to carry these items.
What’s offered has likewise expanded. At Bitter & Esters in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, customers can purchase supplies, take classes and even brew six cases of their own beer on the premises. That’s a blessing for those short on brewing and basic living space.
Another gift for city dwellers is brewing amounts. The home-brew standard is normally 5 gallons, says Tristan Cook, freelance filmmaker and organizer of the Dive Bar Homebrewers Symposium. “It’s practical for us New Yorkers because 5 gallons takes up space but not as much as 10 or 15,” he says, noting that one symposium member makes just 1 or 2 gallons of beer at a time.
Home brewing can save you cash
Godsends aside, the question remains of why one would home brew at all. Wouldn’t it be easier and quicker to pick up a six-pack at your local market or just drop by a bar when the urge for a cold one strikes?
“With home brewing, it is possible to get the same — and often better — taste at a fraction of the cost,” says Drew Ernst, hard cider brewer and another member of the Dive Bar group.
Ernst explains that he can make 55 (12-ounce) bottles of hard cider for roughly $30, or $3.28 per six-pack. In New York City, you would pay up to $12 for a six-pack of beer and even more for the hard cider in which Ernst specializes.
Along with cost, the desire to engage in a bit of DIY is frequently cited as a reason for home brewing. “It’s like cooking or baking, having an appreciation of that what is enjoyed has been made by your own hands and not simply bought,” Ernst says.
Ernst and Fulton point to the scientific aspects of home brewing as a draw. “Formulating a recipe is half cooking and half lab protocol. It’s like my job but less stressful and the product is a lot more tasty,” says Fulton, who is a scientist by day.
Cheaper, tastier, handcrafted and intellectually stimulating: It’s no wonder that home brewing has bubbled up in New York City. Here’s a recipe perfect for using home-brewed beer.
Belgian Steamed Mussels
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon dried tarragon
3 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley, minced
4 pounds mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1½ cups Belgian-style home-brewed/craft beer
- In a medium-sized stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté for about 3 minutes before adding the garlic, thyme and tarragon. Stirring occasionally, cook for another 2 to 3 minutes until softened but not browned. Add 1 tablespoon parsley, the mussels, black pepper and white wine or beer and bring the ingredients to a boil. Cover the pot with a lid and allow the mussels to steam for 5 to 8 minutes.
- Once most of the mussels have opened, take the pot off the burner. Shake the pot several times to coat all the mussels with the sauce. Toss out any that haven’t opened. Spoon the remaining mussels and broth into bowls and sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of parsley over the bivalves. Serve immediately with a loaf of fresh, crusty bread.
Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Photo: Saison, lager and raspberry beer. Credit: Kathy Hunt