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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 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.


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.  


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.

– Convenience. We have beer on tap all the time on the farm. Usually we combine picking up brew supplies with other things needing to be done. This drastically reduces running to the store to pick up a six pack when we want a beer. This can save a substantial amount of gas and time for even a light drinker. If you want you can even put a tap in your kitchen. This is going to be one of the luxuries we have in ours when it is finally finished.

Getting Started Brewing  

If you are a beginning brewer and don't have access to someone to show you how to brew, it might be advisable to start with a beer kit or take a simple beer recipe from a book and order the ingredients. Some brew supply stores offer starter sets to aspiring brewers. These usually include a primary fermenter usually in the form of a 5-6 gallon glass carboy or a food grade plastic bucket, airlock, and other supplies you need to get started. Starter sets vary a lot based on who you buy from but just about any place will have an option for what you want to do.  

Those that live close enough to a homebrew shop might consider taking a class on homebrewing. At our local store, you can take a homebrew class and meet others that are learning the brewing process for $45. That is not much money to learn a new skill that can save you a lot of money. Plus you get to take home a 6 pack of the brew created in the class. Usually classes meet twice. Once to brew and once to bottle. If you have a friend that homebrews, usually they don't mind showing others or answering questions to help get you stared. We are very close to a lot of breweries and there are a lot of homebrewers in our area. If you live near town, there might be a homebrew club near you that can be a great resource in getting started. Plus many meet once a month to sample each others creations. 

All Grain Brewing Vs Brewing With Liquid or Powder Concentrates 

While brewing just using malted and cracked grains is a lot cheaper, it takes longer and requires a larger pot. Since we are working on the house still and don't have complete kitchen facilities required for all grain, we use powdered malt. Liquid malts used to be a bit cheaper so back in college we used those. With prices rising a lot in the last 9 years plus living in Alaska and dealing with shipping costs, we never used liquid malt anymore. In addition we use a bit of grain as outlined in the process below. This is not required but we think it makes a better brew. 

Below I am going to outline the basic beer making process that we use. This will vary a bit depending on what recipe you choose to follow. 

– Fill a 7 gallon stock pot with about 3 to 3 1/2 gallons of water for 10 gallons of beer or a smaller 5 gallon stock pot can be used and only 1 3/4 or 2 gallons added for 5 gallons 

– Fill muslin or cheese cloth with desired supplemental grains and place in water.  

– Bring water to 150 degrees. This is slightly steaming. Steep grain in bag for 45 minutes. 

– Add starting hops and bring to a rolling boil. 

– Add malt and corn sugar if desired. 

– Boil approximately 30 minutes for pale beers and 45 to 60 minutes for dark beer. 

– Turn off heat and let cool until 150 degrees. You can use a wort chiller here to speed up the process but we are just patient about it. 

– Add finishing hops and give 15 minutes to dissolve or steep.  

– Sterilize airlocks and fermenter with hot water and non scented oxygen cleaner or other approved homebrewing cleaner. 

– Pour wort (beer that has not been fermented yet) into the fermenter. For glass carboys you will have to sterilize and use a funnel. 

– Add cold water to bring the level up to 5.5 gallons or so in your fermenter. Note: This is only if you have exceptional water quality. Technically with making beer all the water that goes into it should be filtered if chlorinated, and sterilized by boiling and bringing it back down to a temperature of 150 degrees. I will leave it up to you to determine your water quality. 

– Place the airlocks or stopper and airlock on the fermenters and add water to the fill line. 

– Ferment for the desired time. 

– Bottle or keg and enjoy after aged out.  There are a lot of good directions online on how to bottle beer. There are several types of bottle types. 

Bottling Versus Kegging  

Bottling is good for the beginner but kegging is much more time efficient and convenient for the serious brewer. Kegging also allows you to drink beer sooner. The flavor can benefit from a week of aging in the keg though. 

Making Wine 

When I was a little girl I used to help my dad make wine. Since them I had not made it until Christmas Day 2012. Matt and I had to clean out my Grandmother's freezer and we discovered enough Blackberries to make 10 gallons of wine. All picked around the family property including our place. We hope to make more in the future as we are planting 110 grape vines this spring. A mixture of Catawba, Concord Seedless, and Villard Noir. It is pretty easy to get a winery started in North Carolina so we will see where this leads in the future. At the bare minimum we will have grapes in a few years to turn into all kinds of products like jam, jelly, juice, wine, etc. 

A Few Of Our Favorite Beer Recipes 

Cascade Pale Ale 

For 5 gallons: 

3 to 4 lbs Extra Light Dry Malt Extract 

1 oz of Cascade Hops to Start and 1 oz to Finish 

Add a pound or two of corn sugar if desired to boost alcohol content. You can also achieve this by simply adding more malt 

American Ale Yeast ( Any will do) 

Rye Pale Ale 

This came about after trying Sierra Nevada's Ruthless Rye IPA .

1 lb of German Rye or Similar Whole Grain Malt in a Muslin or Cheesecloth Bag 

2 lbs of Amber Dry Malt Extract 

2 lbs of Gold Dry Malt Extract 

1 oz of a Low Alpha Acid Hops such as Cascade 

1 oz of a High Alpha Acid Hops such as Nugget 

Corn Sugar if desired 

For both beers let ferment for a week if the temperature is in the household range. A few days longer if it is colder where you are fermenting. 

Always remember that like any skill, you will get better at brewing the longer you do it. It will become like second nature if you do it enough. If you mess up a 5 gallon run try to figure out what went wrong and prevent it from happening again.

Oh and does it seem like Spring anywhere else around? We are having a week of mid to upper sixties in the middle of January in the mountains. The squirrels are out and about and it is way to warm for a regular coat. The buds are appearing on a lot of plants around here.