Brew Knew? Beer-Making As Sharp Financial Move

Damn, it was easy, I wish I’d done it before! Long before. I capped, one day and 75 years after the end of Prohibition, 528 ounces of dark stout beer in my Brooklyn apartment.

First time. And no muss and little fuss. What an era and a borough for it all to go swimmingly in: Brooklyn, before Prohibition settled over the U.S. in 1920, was one of the wettest areas of the nation. Its North 11th Street in modern-day Bushwick and Williamsburg claimed nearly 60 breweries (and Manhattan 200 years before was no slouch, with a "Brewers Street" cutting through what’s now the Financial District).

Beer-making. In Brooklyn. Three score and 15 years after it was all so illegal. And right at the cusp of a fresh economic depression.

But, like I said, no matter; it was easy. And cheap! Less than four hours’ labor, give or take, and the one-time capital costs–an air-stopper, tubing, two 5-gallon barrels, a 4-gallon kettle from Macy’s, a hydrometer for measuring alcohol content (roughly 7.5 percent)–came to around $2 per bottle.

I had avoided home-brewing for years, imagining it one of those indulgent hobbies that would have to be kept hidden even from loved ones lest they judge you a bit too frivolous and ask the question: How in the hell do you even have the time?

It hasn’t been like that at all.

It started on Nov. 15 and ended Dec. 6; the beer’s aging right now for a couple of weeks, in time for holiday gifts and a toast, in Brooklyn, on New Year’s Eve.

The ingredients arrived tightly delivered from a Flagstaff, Ariz., outfit named Homebrewers Outpost that started in 1995, during the crest of the U.S. craft beer boom: 7 pounds of dark liquid malt extract, 12 ounces of grains, 2 ounces of hops, some yeast, muslin bags, 50 bottle caps, and, for an extra $21.95, the first 12 bottles. The last 12 emergency bottles came from a randomly Googled warehouse in Elkhart, Ind., for 90 cents a pop (emergency because I didn’t realize just how much 528 ounces is).

The instructions were in the first delivery, and, simply enough, the water, malt and hops boiled to wort (pronounced wert), the wort fermented into beer, and the beer went into bottles. It was a relief to pry open the fermenting barrel (I’d taped it shut in a panic–no oxygen allowed!) and to smell, not skunk, but an aromatic tinge like a flower in bloom. Hops!

Into the bottles the gallons went–everything sanitized with rinse-less bleach, of course (wort and beer are spawning grounds for bacteria)–and then capped, set aside in a dark corner of the pantry, and … and … and why doesn’t everybody in Brooklyn do this?

Will they? The times are tough now, just getting tougher …

The cost of a pint of craft beer in one of Brooklyn’s craft-beer pubs (most with lives that commenced since the mid-1990s) runs from $5 to $7. You get the math.

So will others. In an October column, I noted the historic buoyancy of beer sales and production during bad times: In 2001, during the last recession, America’s craft breweries pumped out 5.58 billion gallons of beer, more annually than in any of the seven years before.

The demand was there. It’s there now. Paul Gatza, the director of the Brewers Association (which provided the stats), back in October: "Through August, we still saw beer drinkers trading up to craft-brewed beer and the higher-priced items of large brews."

But I have to wonder–and I wouldn’t had I not capped those 24 bottles last week–how much longer until … the beer snobs kick it old school. Cook that wort. Ferment it. Age it. Do it.

Skoal, and happy New Year, too! Brew Knew? Beer-Making As Sharp Financial Move