It is no secret that the craft beer industry is struggling but the lockdown alcohol ban is at least having a positive impact on one area of the beer scene: homebrewing.
For weeks, news sites have been reporting that Google searches like “how do I make alcohol at home” have been trending; homebrew clubs and brewing forums have noted a vast increase in the number of new members, and pineapple “beer” recipes have been circulating almost as quickly as memes about mask-wearing and exercising en masse (side note – it is not pineapple beer. It has nothing in common with beer. It is pineapple cider). Actually. while we’re having a homeschooling moment, let’s just clear something else up. When you talk about homebrew or a home made brew, you are talking about beer. Spirits, cider, wine and mampoer are not brewed. The only drinks you brew at home are beer (including umqombothi) and tea. And let’s face it, searches about how to make tea at home won’t be topping any Google lists this year.
Without further ado, I would like to offer you a quick Q&A on how to get started in homebrewing.
Why would I want to brew my own beer?
From jams and pickles to banana bread and the ubiquitous sourdough, one thing this lockdown has taught the citizens of the world is that it’s hugely satisfying to make your own foodstuffs – and alcohol is no exception. Add to that the fact that for the moment, you can’t actually buy any alcohol and suddenly homebrewing is more appealing than ever. It’s an absorbing hobby with a wonderful community of people and one that can lead to great things – many of the country’s best craft brewers started off brewing in a pot on the stove. Once lockdown is lifted and the country’s homebrewing clubs are once again allowed to meet up, you can join in competitions, attend brewdays, go to expert talks or just turn up for the monthly get-togethers where people share their spoils and chat about all things beer. It’s ace.
Is it legal?
Homebrewing is legal in South Africa. There are limits on the amount of alcohol you’re allowed to keep in your home which vary from province to province, but if you brew a batch and drink it shortly afterwards, you’ll be fine. It is NOT LEGAL to sell any of the beer that you have produced. Selling homebrew is always illegal in South Africa. And of course selling any form of alcohol under the lockdown restrictions is not permitted.
How long does it take?
If you’re looking for a quick fix of booze, beer might not be for you. But when done well, I assure you it’s worth waiting for. The actual brewday takes around five to seven hours, depending on how smoothly things run. Then you need to let it ferment. If you’re really thirsty, you could be drinking your beer within a week, but for the best results, you’ll want to give it a second week for the yeast to clean up after itself.
How much can I make at a time?
The standard batch size for a homebrewer is 20 litres, and while there’s nothing stopping you producing five or 10 litres at a time, it’s pretty much the same amount of work as making a larger batch. The one issue is that to produce a 20-litre batch you will likely need to purchase a few pieces of equipment.
What equipment do I need?
On a very basic level, you will need a plastic bucket capable of holding 20 litres of liquid. This will be your fermenter and will ideally need to have a spigot at the bottom and a lid with an airlock. If you’re brewing a kit beer, you won’t need much else, although a thermometer is highly recommended. If you’re opting for a partial mash beer, you will also need a large pot for boiling and some sort of muslin bag. If you’re doing it properly and doing an all-grain brew, you will also need a mash tun – a cooler box does a good job – and some copper piping (luckily hardware stores are now open). There’s no space here to go into the specifics, but chat to fellow homebrewers (see below for links) and work out what you’ll need.
Where can I get ingredients?
There are a number of homebrewing supply stores in South Africa, some of which have obtained a special licence to open up in level four. Please note that they are currently inundated with requests and orders (one store owner described it as “absolute fucking bedlam”). Homebrew suppliers are of course dealing with their existing, returning customers as well as a large number of newbies. They are also experiencing a number of requests from people they suspect are planning to brew on a larger scale and potentially sell. They will not supply someone that they suspect to be selling. Please bear this in mind when dealing with any of these companies. Be patient. Be polite. Be nice.
- BevPlus (Cape Town) are accepting online orders or orders via email for brewing ingredients and equipment and will deliver via a courier.
- National Food Products, AKA The Homebrewer’s Shop (Emmarentia)
are also operating but the physical store is not open. Please use this form to place an order. Orders are being dealt with in chronological order and as NFP has a small team, there is a backlog of orders. Delivery is via couier or you can collect from the store at a designated time.N.B – National Food Products is currently not taking new orders until they have caught up on the backlog. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for updates.
- Brewmart (Pretoria) has managed to stay open throughout lockdown. Orders must be placed online and then either delivered or collected from the store at an allotted time.
- Brew for Africa (Walkerville) is also open for online orders only (the physical store is closed).
- BeerLab (Cape Town) has just opened up for online orders to be delivered via a courier and is currently working through a backlog.
- BeerGuevara (Cape Town) is probably the company with the quickest turnaround time during this crazy rush. You can order on their website and collect at an appointed time. Once you’ve ordered and paid, contact the store to arrange a specific pickup time. A courier option is also available.
Is it expensive?
The price really depends on what you’re making. A higher ABV beer that uses a lot of speciality malts will be more expensive that a simple blonde ale; a beer that’s been highly hopped with imported American hops will be pricier than a brew that uses South African hops. As a vague guideline, a single-hopped pale ale coming in at about 5% ABV would be around R15 per litre to produce (not taking water and electricity costs into account).
Does homebrew taste good?
Homebrewed beer can be amazing. Over years of judging in homebrew competitions I have had many beers that could stand up to their professionally brewed counterparts. I’ve also had a lot of dreadful swill that is best used for watering the garden. Throughout the course of your homebrewing career, you will likely produce some that fit into both categories. As with anything, you might make a few mistakes in the early days – the most common ones are not controlling the fermentation temperature, failing to properly clean and sanitise equipment, scrimping on ingredients and not giving the beer enough time in the fermenter. But as you go on, you’ll wow even yourself with just how good it can be.
Is it dangerous?
There have been a lot of articles in the media recently about the safety of making alcohol at home. This week the death of a Northern Cape couple has been widely reported, with articles from TimesLive, Cape Town etc., News24 and more suggesting that they died from drinking homebrewed beer. These reports show a lack of understanding of the brewing/alcohol making processes. If indeed anyone has died from drinking homebrewed beer, it is likely because something dangerous has been added to the beer. Beer consists of water, hops, malted barley and yeast and the nature of the process makes it a very safe alcohol beverage to produce at home (obviously when consumed responsibly). One of the reasons beer became popular, so many centuries ago, is because it proved safer to drink than water. During the brewing process, the liquid is boiled for a minimum of 60 minutes, effectively sterilising itself. During the fermentation process, there is a possibility of bacterial infection if equipment is not sanitised properly, but even the worse off flavours in beer present no danger to your health (worst you might get is a runny tummy from ingesting too much yeast).
When you read about people that have died from consuming “homebrew” I would suggest that the culprit is one of two things: either adding some ungodly poisonous substance in some desperate attempt to up the alcohol percentage (methylated spirits, rubbing alcohol, antifreeze, paint thinner and the like) or that the “brew” in question is not a brew at all but some misguided effort to distill at home – not something to mess around with if you don’t know what you’re doing. Check out this article on the dangers of potential methanol poisoning from shoddy home distilling.
What if I want to make some other sort of booze at home?
Pineapple cider is all the rage at the moment and there are recipes all over the internet. If you’re a visual learner, check out this video from Afro Caribbean Brewing Company’s Greg Casey or this one from Charlie Murray of School of Hops and Urban Brewing. Other options include umqombothi, apple cider and alcoholic ginger beer. I would not recommend distilling unless you have proper equipment and know what you’re doing.
You should also check out the brand new ebook Lockdown Dranks, written by South African craft brewer Tsikwe Molobye. It’s a bargain R30 and features 12 recipes including cider, ginger “beer” (also a beer in name alone) and mead . (Side note – please don’t be one of those people we’ve spotted this week on Facebook who buys the book and then freely distributes it. It’s R30 and you’re supporting someone who’s found a clever way to make some extra cash during this crappy time).
Where can I learn more?
The first thing to do is to look up your local homebrewing club. In the Cape, check out the Southyeasters or Helderberg Homebrewers. In Gauteng, join the Wort Hogs. If you’re in KZN, try the Durban Home Brewers or East Coast Brewers, while in the Eastern Cape you can check out the Yeastern Cape Brew Club. Many have active online communities with helpful members who will happily answer your queries. And now it’s time to read. I cannot think of a better resource than How to Brew, the excellent website started by John Palmer, American homebrew guru extraordinaire. Many of South Africa’s homebrew stores also offer excellent advice – they’re too inundated for individual responses at the moment but check out their websites above to find all sort of tips and recipes.