In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
North Carolina is home to the largest number of craft breweries of any state in the South, with more than 370 from the mountains to the coast. From light, fresh lagers to heavy, hoppy IPAs, our breweries and brewpubs offer all kinds of styles and flavor profiles appreciated by devoted hopheads and thirsty locals alike — and many of them got their start thanks to passionate and devoted North Carolina homebrewers experimenting in their own kitchens.
“My favorite part about brewing is being able to create a product that you get to watch develop from start to finish,” says Mike Foderaro, head brewer at Little Brother Brewing in Greensboro. “Once you finish and you get to see the customer enjoy one of your beers — that’s the moment you live for.”
We sat down with Foderaro, as well as Stephen Ramsey, President of the Carolina BrewMasters Homebrew Club in Charlotte, to talk about the complex process of brewing beer, their equipment must-haves, and how a novice can get started at home.
Head Brewer at Little Brother Brewing
President of the Carolina BrewMasters Homebrew Club
How did you get into brewing and what has your experience been?
Mike Foderaro: My wife got me a homebrew kit as my first brewing experience, so I started out on the kitchen stove with just a kitchen pot and some malt extract I got from the homebrew store. I made the wort, added the yeast, and fermented it in a plastic bucket in my kitchen closet. I progressed up to the garage with a propane tank and a burner, and then made a mash tun out of water coolers. We got nicer equipment as we went. I joined a homebrew club called the Battleground Brewers Guild in Greensboro, and I learned a lot from them. There were Beer Judge Certification Program judges in that group that could give you feedback on your beer — whether it was an “off” flavor, or what stood out. I dove into competitions from there and was able to help our brew club advance to the National Homebrew Competition — and we actually won, so that was pretty cool. That drove my passion further. I applied for a professional brewing job, was able to become an assistant brewer, and went from there.
Stephen Ramsey: I’ve always been into doing things from scratch. I’ve done a lot of cooking in my life, a lot of baking. I got into craft beer many years ago. I knew about homebrewing and was interested in it, but I was always scared to try it. Then I met some people that were already doing it — they demystified a lot of it for me. That was 10 years ago. It’s a fun hobby; you get to hang out with people and drink beer — and reap your rewards.
What ingredients do you need to brew beer — and where do you source these ingredients?
Stephen Ramsey: The short, simple answer is water, malt, hops, and yeast. For the homebrewing side of things, there are a couple of different types of ingredients that you might use. When I first started, I used what’s called malt extract, which comes in a liquid or dry form. That takes a lot of the work out of it for you; you don’t have to have as much equipment. Most beer is made up of water, which you can get from your tap if your water is good at home, or you can go to the store and buy it in jugs. For sourcing your ingredients, I think the best thing to do is seek out a local homebrew store. I happen to live close to one here in Belmont, so I’m lucky. But there are also online resources that you can use. There are a lot of online stores where you can buy malts, hops, and yeast and get them shipped right to your door.
Mike Foderaro: We source our malt and grain from Epiphany Craft Malt in Durham. We love their product and think they’re doing a great job of representing local craft malt. You can also use a couple of adjuncts or different sugars. We use oat and barley. You can use lactose, rice, corn, fruit, extracts, hops, or different yeast strains to provide different flavor profiles to your beer. You can add pretty much anything that’s fermentable. People get really creative in the brewing world. There’s not really a wrong answer for the ingredients as long as the flavor profiles match well with what you’re trying to accomplish.
Do you age or ferment beer?
Mike Foderaro: Ales typically takes one and a half to two weeks. Lagers take longer — about four to eight weeks. It just depends on how long you want to help clarify the beer and get rid of the diacetyl [an organic compound with a pronounced buttery flavor] that might develop during fermentation. It depends on what style of beer and what type of yeast you’re using. You can use a Kveik yeast and the beer ferments faster and at a wider range of temperatures, or you can use an ale or lager yeast and that will take a bit longer.
So how does it become carbonated?
Stephen Ramsey: Well, there are a few methods. I think one of the most common in the professional and homebrewing world is called forced carbonation. You put beer into a vessel, typically a keg — pros might use what’s called a Brite Tank — and then just apply a certain amount of pressure. What you’re doing is letting the liquid and the empty space in there reach equilibrium, so it forces the CO2 into the solution. That method is like bottle conditioning, which a lot of homebrewers start out with. You’d add a little bit of extra sugar when you bottle the beer, and the yeast would eat that and turn it into CO2. It sits at room temperature for maybe two or three weeks while the beer creates the CO2 in the bottle, and eventually forces it into the solution.
What about specific flavors of beer — how do the ingredients vary?
Stephen Ramsey: The main thing is color contribution to beer, which is all going to come from the types of malts that you use. There are two major schools of malt; there’s a base malt, which is what you’d use to make up most of your grain mill, and then you’d use some other things called specialty malts. Some of them might be roasted, like coffee or chocolate. And then there are crystal or caramel malts, which are manufactured differently. There’s a wide range of colors for those, all the way from a pale yellow to a dark mahogany-reddish color. Those offer background notes in the beer. And then, obviously, in today’s world, hops are a big deal. One of the big things in the hops industry is to create new hops or to have different flavor profiles. Some things that are big now are tropical, berry, and fruit flavors. Yeast is also something that many people may not think about, but it creates a lot of the background flavors in beer — it might add spicy characteristics or some fruit flavors. With those four base ingredients, you can pretty much make any beer style you want depending on what you put in there and how much.
So … There’s clearly a lot that goes into this process. How can brewing be done in a home kitchen?
Stephen Ramsey: Things have changed a lot even since I started brewing 10 years ago. Nowadays, more people are brewing smaller batches. You can find kits online for one gallon of beer. One thing people may not realize about brewing is that once you start buying stuff, it starts to take up a lot of space. A lot of people who try to brew in apartments prefer to brew just one or two gallons of beer because that way they can brew more often.
Mike Foderaro: You’re boiling water on the kettle. Usually, you’ll start out with an extract — it can either be a dry-malt extract or a liquid-malt extract. They come pre-canned for you, and you’re just adding those into the water and boiling. Based on your recipe, you’ll probably start with a handful of different specialty grains, which will help differentiate what style of beer you’re trying to make. Once you get it boiling, you’ll start to add your hop additions or clarifying agents. After that, you’ll cool it down. You can use an ice bath, or some people use wort chillers, and once you get it cold you can transfer it into a bucket with a blow-off port with sanitizer in it. Then you’d put the sealed bucket into your closet at room temperature depending on the beer style you’re making — so between 68 and 72 degrees for a typical ale — and that’ll ferment in about two weeks. You can dry hop for as many days as you’d like, but I would start with three to nine days and go from there. Then you’d transfer your beer into a keg or bottles, use your preferred method of carbonation, and enjoy your finished product!
What equipment would we need to get started at home?
Mike Foderaro: From the ground floor, you’d be starting with a couple of nice water coolers, a nice stove pot, and maybe a plastic bucket. You can get as nice as you want on the homebrew scale. I know guys who use stainless fermenter tanks and vessels on a homebrew scale, and that would probably mimic more of what a brewery is doing.
Stephen Ramsey: The main thing you’ll need is a good pot. It’s a good investment to buy a big pasta pot that you can feed an army with, put it on the center stove, put water in there, and buy a small kit to brew inside.
Where can we learn more? Who should we go to for more advice?
Mike Foderaro: Starting out, John Palmer’s book How to Brew is a great starting point. It’s got loads of information in it about extract brewing, all-grain brewing, any conversion you’d have to do, bottling, or anything else you’d need to start. It’s certainly what I used when I started. It was recommended to me by the guy at a homebrew shop, and it’s got loads of information that you can use. There’s so much literature out there nowadays, like The Brewmaster’s Bible. Joining your local homebrew club or the American Homebrewer’s Association gives you access to endless online articles and things of that nature.
Stephen Ramsey: There’s a plethora of information online. Just by Googling stuff, there are a lot of websites that are geared specifically towards brewing. If you can seek out a local homebrew store, that’s also a place to get good information for starting out. Most people that are going to be there are interested in the hobby and have been doing it for a long time. They can even walk you through brewing your first beer recipe or sell you a starter kit to get you going. Another big thing would be homebrew clubs; most major cities and some smaller cities have them — and North Carolina has a lot. Once you start brewing or you’re interested in it, you can go talk to those people and they can point you in the right direction. Even if you’ve been brewing and want to make sure you’re brewing well, you can bring beer to meetings, and they can help you out that way.
That’s helpful! What do you love most about brewing?
Mike Foderaro: My favorite part about brewing is being able to create a product that, from start to finish, you get to taste, and watch develop. And being able to provide a little happiness to someone’s day by having a cold pint and enjoying the flavor of their favorite brew — hearing back from our loyal customers saying how much they enjoy it is very rewarding.
Stephen Ramsey: I enjoy the creativity. I’m a very process-oriented person, so being able to go through the steps of something like brewing is nice. I also do pour-over coffee and baking. You can’t control everything out in the world, but you can control these variables, and it’s rewarding.
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