Someone once told me, “homebrewing beer is kind of like making boxed mac-n-cheese…in a hotel room.” After brewing for years and winning a few awards for wine, cider and beer, I tend to agree with this oddball statement. While you’re thinking about MacGyvering some hotel Kraft dinner, let me tell you a bit about Orange County’s homebrew scene, a new shop, and where to get started on your first batch of homebrew.
A lot has changed in the homebrew world over the years. My first batch in the early 90’s was a kit purchased from Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Newport Beach; a white box with baggies of grains, a jar of malt extract and typewriter-written instructions. The college roomies and I thought making an “Alt” beer sounded interesting because we liked New Order and Depeche Mode at the time. Little did we know Alt Bier is one of Germany’s stand-out ales in a sea of historic lagers. We brewed collectively, ultimately stopping the hobby after “the great beer explosion of Aliso Viejo”, and slowly going blind from drinking our homemade beer*.
While in the hospital for PTSD therapy and two ocular transplant surgeries, I caught the homebrew bug again. Large loquat fruit trees in my backyard dump tasty little fruits every spring and thought to make wine with it. Turns out, the process was super fun and the wine was more than great—It took bronze in the OC Fair. With my wife looking disgusted, I jumped on my king-sized bed and yelled, “lets ferment ALL THE THINGS,” in a karate stance with surgical gloves on. I went on to brew beer, cider and even sake, and still do to this day.
The first beer I made after the long hiatus was a super-simple extract American wheat ale, lightly hopped, with some b-grade maple syrup thrown in for good measure. I named it Sunday Mornin’, inspired by my weekly banana-wheat pancake ritual with my daughter. The beer turned out great, the addition of maple syrup made the beer super dry, leaving behind some earthy maple notes and the wheat malt produced a spectacular meringue-like head. It was super-crushable on a hot day.
Extract-brewed beer is actually much like making boxed mac-n-cheese; aside from cleaning and sterilizing ALL THE THINGS. It’s a matter of boiling water, dumping in some sticky-sweet powder, plopping hops in, then chilling down the wort to 70F for the yeast. Bottle it two weeks after fermentation, and the brew is ready two weeks after that. The most warm and fuzzy feeling is hearing the PSSSST sound when opening your first homebrew; the cool and buzzy feeling after sipping a couple is priceless.
Where to get started: The worst place to start as a beginner is online. Shopping homebrew on the internet is akin to looking up a strange bump on your skull on WebMD (You’re going to die!!). As you should go to the doctor for such things, I recommend going to a homebrew supply store in person and talking with the employees and catching a brew class. Orange County has four homebrew shops to get you started:
- Costa Mesa: Windsor Homebrew Supply – New shop dedicated to only homebrew. Great all around store for beginners through advanced. Classes available monthly for a nominal fee.
- South County: O’Shea Brewing Co – Sells beer to-go (kegs/bottles), sausage and homebrew supply. More of an advanced shop, but they do have kits made from award-winning recipes.
- Fullerton: Addison Homebrew Provisions – dedicated homebrew shop with free brew demos by regular club members regularly.
- Anaheim: Phantom Ales – What isn’t this place? Cidery, winery, brewery, pub, and homebrew supply. Aimed more at advanced users.
- Online: Morebeer.com is semi-local and has comparable prices to the local shops, but shipping fees and ease of return should be noted.
What to get: A starter kit is a great way to get a large chunk of gear you’ll need. I don’t recommend a Mr. Beer kit as it’s not scalable if you decide to go deeper into this hobby. I still use items that were in my starter kit from four years ago! With Mr. Beer, that’s not an option. At Windsor Homebrew Supply, the kit is $70. Great additions to make your first experience better: add an 8-gallon kettle for $60, immersion wort chiller for $55, and a six-gallon plastic fermentor for $30 ($215 overall). Borrow a friend’s outdoor turkey fryer (propane brew stand) and you’ll be making good beer in no time.
What to brew: Your first few batches, go simple and inexpensive. I still daydream about that dry Irish stout I brewed for a party that cost $19 for five gallons. Lower alcohol and lower-hopped beers are great starting points for cost, ease of brew day, and beer-readiness speed. I recommend starting with a Hefeweizen, Belgian Wit, or Saison kit for your first few beers. After that, try a Pale Ale with a dry hop, then graduate to IPA and double IPA. I see some people reach for a Pliny the Elder Double IPA clone kit for their first beer and cringe. There’s a lot that can go wrong with these bigger styles, and I highly recommend getting your process down before tackling the house-whales.
- Brew Better BEER, Emma Christensen (beginner and intermediate, 1- and 5-gallon recipes).
- Mastering Homebrew, Randy Mosher (intermediate and advanced).
- homebrewersassociation.org (all levels, videos)
*We forgot to add an airlock to our fermentation bucket, causing the lid to blow off and get stuck to the ceiling; beer can’t make you go blind.