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Homebrewing on the Mountain

Squirrel out in our woods

Blackberry wine and Rye Pale Ale fermenting in the sun room at Biggers Farm

Samantha BiggersAh, beer. Something I realized I hadn't talked about in the blog at all even though brewing and fermenting are regular activities at Biggers' Farm.

Matt and I have been brewing beer together since we got together at Warren Wilson College near Asheville in 2004. Matt had finished WWC but I had a year left. Our friend was renting a trailer nearby with a small shed attached to it where we set up the brewery. We used glass carboys back then which could be a real pain to clean. All of our beer was bottled by hand. This was made possible by Warren Wilson College's recycling program. We would go and raid the glass bottle recycling dumpster for reusable bottles. To clean them we would soak them in a bathtub of highly concentrated oxygen cleaner for 10 minutes ( we found a brand that was the same thing as Straight -A cleaner sold at brew supply shops but available at the grocery store and much cheaper). The bottles were rinsed and most of the time the oxygen cleaner had took the labels right off. (Note if you use oxygen cleaner, use the type with no scents in it. This is very important.) The washing job fell to me a good portion of the time but I always had help if I asked. It took 150 bottles washed every time we did the weekly beer making. Often we would make beer and bottle previous runs at the same time. I never did the math at the time but we were producing 11 barrels a year. Not too shabby.

We had a pretty good idea of what would make a drinkable beer but some experiments turned out better than others. One of our favorites included a pale ale made with a generous amount of Cascade hops and light malt. Amber malt would do if the brew supply shop was out of light. We could make this beer for a cost of about $15 per 5 gallons. Now it costs about double that. We did some seasonal beers as well. When the weather started turning cold we made our infamous Chocolate Stout, using several packages of Bakers chocolate. One time we added cocoa and the result was a chocolate beer with a thin layer of chocolate at the top! At the end of this post I will include a few of our current favorite recipes.

After college Matt and I went up to Ketchikan, AK to work. The nearest microbrewery was in Juneau, AK and there was no homebrew stores. Beer was very expensive up there but due to the shipping weight of brew supplies we really thought we would have no choice but to buy the expensive beer in the store. Luckily we found a great brew supply store called Homebrew Heaven near Seattle, WA. They had good shipping rates and we did bulk orders. This was the point when we started using Cornelius kegs because we just didn't have the time to bottle beer when we were both working 40 or more hours per week. From there on we have used kegs almost exclusively. We bought a temperature regulator and a used chest freezer and used that set up for a kegerator. We could only fit two 5 gallon kegs in the freezer but that suited us just fine.

When we moved back to North Carolina we did not brew for awhile because of our living situation. Some of you might remember me talking about living in a camper with no running water within a few hundred feet for 18 months. That was not conducive to brewing. When the house was far enough along we started making beer again and have continued to do so except when prevented by forces beyond our control. Although we do buy a little bit of beer if we get a hankering for something we don't have, the vast majority (90%) of the beer we drink is that we make ourselves. It is really easy to build brewing into your weekly routine as it is an activity you can do while doing something else. It's kind of like cooking a big pot of something. You have to check it at various stages and times and do stuff, but most of the time is waiting for boiling and cooling. Another way that making beer is similar to cooking food is that you can add ingredients to change the flavor. The same pale ale recipe is going to taste different if you add a pound or two of a different type of grain or malt or several types of hops instead of just one. At this point I will define the main beer ingredients that almost all beers contain.

Hops 

Hops can be thought of as the “spices of the beer”. Hops are grown a lot in the Pacific Northwest of this country. There are many types of hops to choose from this day and age. Here is a short list of some of the varieties we see at our local brew supply store: Cascade, Nugget, Amarillo, Saaz, Northern Brewer, Hallertau, Sterling. Hops can be grown in many areas. If you plan on brewing a lot, you can save a lot of money growing your own. A one ounce bag of pelleted hops costs $2.50 in our area and you need at least two of those to make 5 gallons of beer. 

Malted Barley 

Malted Barley comes in concentrated powder form, whole grain, or liquid. It is usually classified as Extra Light, Light, Golden, Amber, and Dark when in powder or liquid form. Whole grain barley comes in a dizzying number of varieties. Usually this is ground for you at the shop your purchase it from.

Water 

This might seem like a no brainer but I think it is important to mention the role that water quality and properties has in the taste of your brew. If you are brewing in the city where water is chlorinated, fluoridated, or both, filter it using a Brita filter or similar. Water is chlorinated in order to kill microorganisms and yeast is a microorganisms. Not to mention the taste that occurs in water that has been chlorinated.  

Yeast 

Oh yeasties how I love thee! Yeast is one of the neatest little animals. There are thousands of strains of yeast and the variety you choose determines various qualities of the beer you produce. These qualities include head (the amount of foam when poured), alcohol content, flavor, and fermentation rate. For example ale yeast can work off in a week or less at 60-90 degrees but lager yeasts take several weeks at a temperature of no more than 55 degrees. Yeast can be cloned if you want to culture your own from a mother culture to save money. There is a lot of info out there online about cloning yeasts and many excellent homebrewing books that help explain the process. On a side note I have always wondered if you could drink beer and still be considered “vegan” since you are consuming yeast which is an animal? I am curious to hear others opinions on this.

Advantages of Homebrewing Versus Store Bought Beer 

– Beer in the store is taxed heavily depending on what state you are in. If you homebrew you pay taxes on the supplies and ingredients you buy but not on the finished product. We find that by making our own beer, we can save at least 60% over store prices plus the taxes we would be paying on the added cost. For every 12 pack of beer that retails for $12.99 on sale in North Carolina, you pay over a dollar in additional taxes! That can add up.

– If varies by state how much homebrew you can legally make per person of age in your household. For North Carolina it was 200 gallons a year per person last time I checked.

– You control what goes in your beer. Homebrewing is cheaper than drinking Budweiser and I can guarantee you the quality of ingredients is going to better.

– Unfiltered beer. There is some argument to be made that drinking unfiltered beer gives you some health advantages over filtered.