Ten Tips for Homebrewing in a Pandemic

pouring a homebrewed IPA

If you’re a brewer stuck at home by government emergency decrees, but you’re not actually suffering from the Cornonavirus yet, you’re probably thinking that this is an excellent time to do some brewing. Especially if you, like me, find yourself sharing your living space with a few other family members (see photo) who are happy to help drink whatever you make. Here are some things to keep in mind during this time of international emergency.

1. Contact your local homebrew supply shop and ask if they plan to remain open. Supporting local small businesses is the right thing to do, especially in a disaster-related economic downturn, and homebrew shops are typically not very crowded so you’re at a relatively low risk of infection there. Wear a tight-fitting face mask if you have one, of course, and don’t pick your nose before you get home and wash your damn paws off. Don’t let mail-order be your first impulse just because we’re all striving for social distancing. Think about those overworked warehouse and delivery people.

2. If things get really bad, obviously you risk losing access to local shops and mail-order both, so what to stockpile? It’s a good time to buy a 25-lb sack of base malt. Remember that you can make several kinds of adjunct malts from that if you have to, just by baking it in the oven. Randy Moser’s book Radical Brewing is a good resource for stuff like that, should your internet go down (which seems unlikely at the moment).

3. Also you’ll probably want to buy plenty of hops in pellet form for better long-term storage.

4. If your local natural food store is still open, it’s not a bad idea to stock up on cane sugar — the less processed, the better. Especially if you’re not rich. Adding a pound or two of sugar to an otherwise all-grain beer is a great, cheap way to keep costs down and ABV up. It used to be said that using more than a tiny amount of cane sugar was a bad idea, but then the craft brewing world discovered Belgium and that went straight out the window. I tend to mash on the hot side of 150F so there’s always enough maltiness and mouthfeel to make up for any insipid qualities that the sugar might contribute.

5. You can obviously stockpile yeast, too, but this might be a good time to start cultivating your own yeast if you’re not already. To do it right, scoop out some actively fermenting beer a day or two after fermentation starts and store it in sanitized stoppered jars in the fridge. Or simply get in the habit of racking into a secondary (to reduce sediment load), then when you bottle, stopper up whatever bucket or carboy you used for the secondary and drop your next beer onto it. That’s my approach. It does mean brewing a day or two after bottling, and I generally only do it a few times before using fresh commercial yeast again. If you’re brave, you can try using one of the commercially available kveik strains of Norwegian farmhouse yeast and then drying it out for long-term storage—it’s apparently been selected for that by generations of once-a-year brewers.

6. If you’re working from home now and you previously had a commute, you might consider using that extra time to learn new aspects of brewing, which might in turn make you more valuable in the event of complete societal collapse (or at least the last in line at the cannibal abattoir). You could learn how to do a decoction mash, for example, or dig yourself a lagering cellar (which could double as a root cellar). Or…

7. Take up home malting. I’ve yet to try this myself, but there plenty of websites with directions. Here’s an excellent illustrated guide. Something probably worth learning how to do in case the worst happens.

8. If you have kids underfoot because the schools have been closed, then the aforementioned projects are much more doable because you’ve got lots of free child labor (hey, it builds character). Consider rewarding/bribing them with homemade soda (that’s pop for all you yinzers). Which can be made from any form of sugar, of course, but if you’re brewing anyway, just remove a gallon or so as soon as it comes to a boil but before you add the hops. Carbonated malt is, for my money, delicious enough on its own, but you can always add root beer flavors as well. Naturally, considering the general emphasis of this blog, I recommend foraging for some of the ingredients on your own instead of just using artificial root beer flavoring, but actually your local homebrew shop probably has most of what you’ll need on the shelf, such as vanilla bean, sassafras extract, wintergreen favoring, star anise, licorice root, and sarsaparilla root. Just be sure to bottle the stuff in those big plastic soda bottles, rather than glass, to avoid dangerous explosions. And use baking yeast if you have any around because it’s cheaper — why waste the good yeast on sugar water?

9. Also worth thinking about in case of severe hard times: Can you still brew in the absence of electricity? Water is going to be a limiting factor for most people in that scenario, but if you’re lucky enough to live near a good supply of clean water, then all you need to think about is how to make a hot fire. You can use wood, but take it from me, it’s a pain in the ass to keep a rolling boil going for an hour on a woodstove. So it might be a good idea to learn how to brew raw or nearly raw ale. Larsblog is currently the best source for this, pending the publication of Lars Marius Garshol’s book Historical Brewing Techniques: The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing, which is due out at the end of April.

10. Alcoholism is apparently a risk factor for COVID-19, so if you have alcoholic tendencies, ignore points 1-9 and sober the hell up! Another risk factor: sleep deprivation, not to mention hanging out in large groups. So no parties! If you’re a misanthrope who enjoys solitary drinking, like beer historian Martyn Cornell, you’re in luck. If you’re some kind of extrovert who’s finding this whole social distancing thing a bit rough, with spring coming on in the northern hemisphere you could do worse than imitate the great Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (a.k.a. Li Po) and sit outside and party with the moon and your shadow.

11. (Because of course you should always turn it up to 11.) In the immortal words of homebrewing guru Charlie Papazian: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.

boughs of eastern red cedar in a pot of boiling water
Adding boughs of eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) from the tree outside my door to the strike water for a Baltic farmhouse-style ale

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