Eco-Saturday: Homebrewing

Home-brewed beer: more flavor, less unnecessary packaging.
Home-brewed beer: more flavor, less unnecessary packaging.

A few weeks ago, I bought Ron an early anniversary present: I got him a Mr. Beer homebrewing kit. He really likes craft beer, and I’ve gotten into making yogurt lately — and, to a lesser extent, cheese — so I figured I might as well buy a kit and start learning about the fermentation process before apple season. (I’m daydreaming about making my own hard cider if I can work up the nerve to try it.)

If you’re a beer drinker, I strongly encourage you to support local microbreweries, for all the environmental and economic reasons you’d support any other local business. If you enjoy cooking or have a bit of a DIY streak, you can take your efforts at sustainability another step by trying your hand at homebrewing.

The primary environmental advantage of homebrewing is that it reduces packaging. Our little kit requires one can of malt syrup, a small packet of yeast and a small packet of sanitizer to make about two gallons of beer. That’s the equivalent of just over 21 standard 12-ounce bottles or cans. The kit came with reusable bottles, which means we’ve just kept 21 bottles out of the waste stream. (Yes, I realize you can recycle glass and aluminum — and we do — but melting down containers and making new ones still requires way more energy than simply reusing an existing container.)

The second advantage is that it reduces the energy needed to ship ingredients. As anyone who’s paid attention to gas mileage on a road trip knows, extra weight requires extra fuel to haul around. Two gallons of liquid weigh a lot more than a pound or so of malt syrup, so by purchasing just the syrup and adding our own water, we’ve saved a little fossil fuel and kept a little carbon out of the atmosphere.

Anyway, on to the project. Ron wasn’t sure it would turn out well or be worth the effort, but it took me less than an hour of actual work to make the first batch — including the time it took to assemble and test the equipment — and between the printed instructions and the video on the company’s website, the whole process was virtually idiot-proof. Basically, if you can handle baking a cake from a mix, you can make a batch of beer.

This plastic keg holds the wort -- a mixture of malt syrup, yeast and water -- while it ferments.
This plastic keg holds the wort — a mixture of malt syrup, yeast and water — while it ferments.

The finished product, a Mexican-style beer that tastes a lot like Dos Equis, took a little over three weeks to ferment and carbonate. It turned out very well, and we’ve got a batch of Czech-style pilsner fermenting as we speak.

The kit cost just under $60 from a little homebrewing supply place in Ste. Genevieve. I’ve seen them as cheap as $40 at big-box stores. Refills run $15 to $20, which works out to about 71 to 95 cents for 12 ounces of fresh, unpasteurized beer.

As we get the hang of the process and gain a little confidence, I’ll start experimenting with making my own malt syrup from scratch, which will only increase the environmental benefits (and decrease the cost).