The pursuit of hoppiness

There are some beers money can buy. For everything else, there’s homebrewing.

During the school week, James Ramirez is a third-year aerospace engineering student at Ryerson University. But in his spare time, he is founder, packaging manager and brewmaster of his very own home microbrewery.

Ramirez first got into brewing after his brother received a beer kit for Christmas, but never used it. After watching his parents make their own sub-par suds with the kit, Ramirez decided to give it a try.

“I watched them fail and I was like, ‘I can do that way better,’ so I just gave it a shot.”

Photo by Trevor Hewitt.

He says that at first he spent a lot of time educating himself on the subject: reading books, spending time at the local brew shop, and learning about the chemistry behind brewing. Before he knew it, Ramirez had caught the brewing bug.

There are different methods of making your own beer at home. Some people follow beer kit recipes, which include all the necessary ingredients and instructions needed to make a specific type of beer. While it isn’t very creative, Ramirez says it’s a pretty reliable method of brewing, because all you’re doing is following instructions.

But Ramirez is more adventurous. He does what’s known as “malt extract brewing,” purchasing already malted sugars that are ready to brew with, but creating his own recipes based on what sort of beer he wants to make.

A darker beer, for example, requires more sugar than a light beer since it has a higher alcohol content.

Ramirez says that buying pre-malted sugar cuts out on a lot of the equipment he’d otherwise have to buy.

“I have a 30-litre (brewing) pot that I borrow every two weeks and a big glass fermenter and just basic tools that you have in your kitchen, like a candy thermometer.”

But what about the law? Making your own beer is legal in Ontario.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario states that “you may make beer or wine at home as long as it is only for your personal consumption or to be given away free of charge.” Homemade beer or wine cannot be sold commercially.

According to Ramirez, making your own suds at home is easier than people think.

“If you can make Kraft Dinner you can make beer,” he says.

It’s also much cheaper than at the LCBO. Ramirez says it costs him around $40 to produce approximately 24 litres of beer.

That’s around 50 standard 16-ounce cans, which usually range in price from $2 to $3 a can or $100 to $150 for the same amount Ramirez makes at home — hardly a bargain.

Ramirez says that he often likes the beer he makes more than what he’d get at the LCBO.

“I don’t only like it, I drink it all the time and I’m very proud of it.” And he’s not the only one. “(It’s) not just for myself, but for my friends, I like giving it to people.”

But good things take time. Ramirez says it takes about four weeks to make a batch of beer from start to finish.

First he begins by sanitizing his entire workspace. Then he boils the water and grains, steeping their flavor into the mixture.

After it’s cooled, yeast is added and the fermentation process begins. This usually takes around two weeks, after which the beer is added to bottles and a little extra sugar is added to help increase carbonation, also known as “bottle conditioning.”

After it has sat for another two weeks, the beer is ready to drink. Not bad for $40 and a few hours of cooking.

Since beer takes about two weeks to ferment and two weeks to bottle condition, Ramirez will often start a new brew every two weeks, right after bottling his previous one. Ale in a day’s work.

Photo by Trevor Hewitt.

Brewing is not an exact science. Ramirez had lots of success, such as a Rickard’s Red clone he said turned out really well, but also many learning experiences.

He recalls one batch that got infected with bacteria and became extremely sour.

“Astringent flavours and chemicals get into it and that causes (sour) flavours,” he explains. “That was the one batch I hated, I was just drinking it to get the bottles back. I didn’t want to pour it out because I spent so much money on the sugar water.”

But aside from the possibility of a bad-tasting batch, Ryerson professor Joseph McPhee says that homebrewing is a relatively safe hobby.

“Most enteropathogens can’t survive in alcohol over one per cent … even if you had pathogens in your beer at the start of fermentation, which aren’t typically found in the majority of homebrewed beer, they would be killed during the fermentation,” he says. “From a food safety point of view, homebrewing is a very safe hobby.”

McPhee is an assistant professor with Ryerson’s Faculty of Science who specializes in microbiology.

Ramirez currently has a basic, light Pilsner in the works. Nothing fancy, but he says that sometimes the simple styles are the best.

“It’s the cheapest beer I’m going to have ever brewed and it’s just going to be super simple because I did a super simple one last time and everyone loved it. It was just a big hit.”

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