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13 Things You Might Not Know About Homebrewing

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With the craft beer movement still in full swing all over the country, the homebrewing scene is also experiencing a growth spurt. Two decades ago, brewing beer in your kitchen seemed esoteric, but with 1.2 million homebrewers in the U.S. (and rising), it’s become more than a hobby for many beer fanatics. Whether you’re a homebrewer or ruminating about becoming one, here are 13 heady facts about this delicious hobby.

1. HOMEBREWING DIDN’T BECOME LEGAL UNTIL 1978.

On October 14, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law amendment Public Law 95-458 (H.R. 1337), which states an adult (21 and over) could legally produce beer in his/her home without paying taxes on it. It took until February of the following year for the bill to go into effect, but there was a stipulation: A two-person household cannot exceed 200 gallons of beer per year, or one adult cannot produce more than 100 gallons in a year. Today, it’s still illegal to sell homebrewed beer to the public.

2. BUT HOMEBREWING DIDN’T BECOME LEGAL IN MISSISSIPPI AND ALABAMA UNTIL MORE RECENTLY.

Some states were behind the times and didn’t pass a homebrewing bill into law until recently. Mississippi finally got on the bandwagon and said homebrewing was OK in March 2013, and two months later, Alabama became the last state to pass the legislation. The bill said homebrewers 21 and older could brew as much as 15 gallons of beer, wine, mead, or cider every three months for personal use.

3. THERE ARE MORE THAN A MILLION HOMEBREWERS IN THE UNITED STATES.

Charlie Papazian founded the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) in 1978, and the organization keeps track of homebrewing stats. According to their 2013 data, 1.2 million homebrewers reside in the U.S., and two-thirds of them began brewing in 2005 or later. But, millennials are more “predisposed to take up homebrewing than any generation in recent history,” AHA’s director Gary Glass told Pacific Standard Magazine. “Previously, it was people in their thirties and forties who were going out less, taking up hobbies. Now, younger people are doing it.” The West Coast has the highest percentage of brewers, clocking in at 31 percent (the Midwest has 23 percent; the Northeast only has 17 percent). Homebrewers produce about two million barrels a year, which makes up 1 percent of the total U.S. beer production. Perhaps surprisingly, women make up 20 to 30 percent of AHA’s membership growth—in 2006 the AHA only had 11,724 members, but today they have more than 46,000 members.

4. SIERRA NEVADA, BELL’S, AND BALLAST POINT HAVE HOMEBREWING ROOTS.

In 1970, Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman started homebrewing, and in 1976 he opened The Home Brew Shop, in Chico, California. From there, his homebrewing became “more elaborate,” and in 1977 he bought 100 pounds of hops from a hop broker in Yakima, Washington. Three years later Grossman officially founded Sierra Nevada, and the rest is history: In 2015 they ranked as the third largest craft brewery in the U.S., based on beer sales volume.

Another West Coast brew, Ballast Point—which sold last year for a billion dollars—got its start when college roommates Jack White (not that Jack White) and Peter A’Hearn wanted to make more interesting beers than what were available in stores and at keg parties, so they brewed their first batches at their UCLA apartment. Later on, frustrated with the dearth of homebrewing stores, White opened Home Brew Mart and vended homebrewing supplies. In 1996, White took the next step and founded his own successful brewery in San Diego. Last year, based on sales volume, Ballast Point ranked 11th out of the top 50 craft breweries in the country.

But it wasn’t just the West Coast that was a forerunner in the craft brewery game. In Michigan in 1983, Larry Bell started out brewing in a 15-gallon soup kettle under the name Bell’s Brewery, Inc., a home supply shop. In 1986 they only brewed 135 barrels a year, but in 2014 they brewed 310,000 barrels. Last year Bell’s ranked as the seventh best-selling craft brewery in the country.

5. BOTTLING BEERS IN DARK BOTTLES PREVENTS “SKUNKY AROMA.”

When bottling your brew, Brew Your Own magazine suggests using brown bottles to prevent a “skunky aroma” from forming when the hops react with ultraviolet light, as tends to occur with clear glass bottles. “This reaction can occur at any time, so remember to keep those clear glass carboys covered up or in a closet to prevent 'preskunking' the beer long before it reaches the bottle,” the magazine said.

6. YOU SHOULD BREW WITH THE BEST WATER POSSIBLE.

One mistake homebrewers tend to make is using unfiltered tap water that still contains chlorine. Most municipal water supplies contain chlorine, and you can remove the chemicals, but bottled water is probably a better bet. “One of the most common off-flavors I taste at homebrew club meetings is medicinal chlorophenol, which is formed by the combination of chlorine in the water or sanitizer and phenols from malt and yeast,” a blogger at The Mad Fermentationist wrote.

7. PEOPLE HAVE HOMEBREWED BEER AT THE SOUTH POLE.

In 1992, Jason Dorpinghaus—who maintained supplies for the United States Antarctic Program (USAP)—started homebrewing when he was based at U.S. research station McMurdo, in Antarctica. Then, for 12 months starting in 1995, he lived in “The Dome,” located at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Without much to do besides research, Dorpinghaus started homebrewing … at -100℉. He wasn’t the first person at the station to homebrew—workers before him established the South Pole’s Dome Brewers Association (DBA). Because Dorpinghaus lived “on top of the world's largest block of ice,” the beer always stayed fresh, and he had access to some of the freshest water on the planet. One issue he ran into was the fact the water boiled at about 185℉ to 195℉, which caused his wort not to hit full temperature. But he did have some advantages: “Nowhere does it say that I can only legally brew 100 gallons a year, and nobody is ever going to know if I make a bad batch,” he wrote in a 1996 issue of Brew Your Own.

8. IT TOOK 30 YEARS FOR A WOMAN TO WIN THE HOMEBREWER OF THE YEAR TITLE AGAIN.

In 2013, Annie Johnson became the first woman since 1983 to win AHA’s Homebrewer of the Year Award at the National Homebrew Competition, the world’s largest beer competition. Her Mow the Damn Lawn lager also won in the light lager category, where she beat out more than 200 entries. “I’m pleased see a woman win the Homebrewer of the Year Award, and it’s impressive that she did so in a lager category,” Gary Glass, AHA’s director, said. “Lagers are difficult to brew well, which shows how homebrewers are more technically proficient than ever before.”

9. THE WHITE HOUSE BREWED ITS OWN BEERS.

President Obama, who will certainly go down as one of the hippest presidents in history (next to Bill Clinton’s jazzy sax), released the recipe for his White House Honey Brown Ale. Brewed on the White House premises, it's believed to be the first alcohol brewed or distilled at the White House. The honey was harvested from the presidential hives on the South Lawn. The Honey Brown was such a success, the president had his team concoct a honey porter and a honey blonde as well.

10. WIL WHEATON INVENTED AN IPA BEER KIT.

Celebrity homebrewer Wil Wheaton’s Devil’s Gate Brewing teamed up with homebrew supplier Northern Brewer and invented the VandalEyes PA Beer Kit, “the first-ever IPA beer kit.” Wheaton described his IPA as “a big IPA with lots of hops aroma, but a big caramel malt backbone to balance it out. Think of it as an IPA that drinks like a double IPA, I guess.”

11. HOMEBREWERS CAN (LEGALLY) MAKE MONEY FROM SELLING THEIR BREWS.

Most states frown upon homebrewers selling their suds to the public, but an Oakland startup called Noble Brewer circumvents the legal restrictions by pairing a homebrewer with an established brewery. The company seeks out award-winning brewers, who receive a couple hundred dollars to license their recipe to the breweries. Members sign up through the website and pay around $44 per quarter for a subscription. A few times a year they receive four 22-ounce bottles of collaboration beers.

12. YOU CAN REUSE THE SAME YEAST MULTIPLE TIMES.

“Washing yeast” separates live yeast from the hops and spent grains after brewing beer. According to the homebrewing blog BeerSmith, instead of buying new yeast, you can wash the yeast and “reuse your yeast across as many as 5-6 batches spread out over a period of months by reusing yeast from your primary fermentation.” After drawing a yeast sample from the fermenter, quickly harvest the yeast and place it in a mason jar.

13. BASKETBALL STAR CHRIS BOSH DABBLES IN HOMEBREWING.

Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh started making his own beers when he received a homebrew kit for Christmas one year. “It blew my mind—I didn’t even know you could homebrew,” Bosh told the St. Cloud Times. “I was very fascinated by the instructions and the whole process.” Bosh joked he even got teammate Dwyane Wade to try his beer. Bosh’s first batches turned out “terrible,” but he has since worked with Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on a web series in which they brewed a beer together called Daddy Jack Stout.

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Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?
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by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

A Beer From the Middle Ages Is Making a Serious Comeback

Hop-forward beer is all the rage today, but in the middle ages many imbibers preferred brews that skewed towards the sweeter side. Now, centuries after it fell out of fashion, Atlas Obscura reports that gruit ale is making a comeback.

Gruit beer is any beer that features botanicals in place of hops. The ingredients that give the drink its distinctive sweet, aromatic taste can be as familiar as ginger and lavender or as exotic as mugwort and seabuckthorn. The herbs play the role of hops by both adding complex flavors and creating an inhospitable environment for harmful microbes.

It may be hard for modern beer lovers to imagine beer without hops, but prior to the 16th century gruit was as common in parts of Europe as IPAs are in hip American cities today. Then, in 1516, that style of beer suddenly vanished from pint glasses: That was the year Germany passed a beer purity law that restricted beer formulas to hops, water, and barley. Many of the key botanicals in gruit beer were considered aphrodisiacs at the time, and the rising Puritan movement helped push the brew further into obscurity.

Hops have dominated the beer scene ever since, and only in the past few decades have microbrewers started giving old gruit recipes the attention they're due. In 2017, the Scratch Brewing Company in Illinois released their seasonal Scratch Tonic, made from a combination of dandelion, carrot tops, clover, and ginger. The Põhjala Brewery in Estonia brews their Laugas beer using Estonian herbs, caraway, and juniper berries. Get in touch with your local microbrewery to see if they have their own version of the old-school beer in their line-up.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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