Visiting the grocery cooler used to be so easy. Reach in and grab a six pack of Long Trail and be off, glad to have my hands on some tasty fresh ale heads above the flanking factory beers. Then the craft beer revolution exploded. Craft pioneer Long Trail had to shove over for Magic Hat, Otter Creek, Rock Art, and a dozen other new brews. And that was just here in Vermont. I tried to stay loyal, but the new brews were too tempting. I tasted most, decided I still favored the old flavor, and doubled back to Long Trail.
Then another wave of Vermont beer hit. I tried this, that, and the other. If a beer didn’t measure up I’d pour it out. That got old fast. And expensive. Was I ever spoiled! That’s what happens when there’s so much new craft beer coming online, you keep switching brands, never satisfied. I started making road trips all over the state chasing down rare beers. I tried brew pubs. I bought from brewers who sold growlers only. Sometimes the lines were so long you’d need a ticket to be sure they wouldn’t run out.
I get that making your brand hard to find can be part of the marketing ploy: Create a mystique. I wanted a beer, not a bit part in a suds campaign. I was a victim of craftfluenza. Too much fermentation. Everybody in the family tree was getting into the craft brew biz, which left me confused and drooling in front of all those bottles and cans in the cooler, unable to decide. I became the wandering brew hunter.
I decided that I had three options. One, resign myself to a life of uncertainty and endless beer tastings, denying the easy grab from the cooler. Two, switch to wine (not likely.) Three, flashback to those golden days of yore: Make my own beer.
I knew how to make beer and had the basic hardware for brewing, although it had been a while thanks to the flood of craft brews. I did a quick calculation on the back of a coaster. Enough malt extract, hops, yeast, and caps to yield 5 gallons (19 L) came to about 55 cents per 12 oz. bottle. A very nice savings compared to the $2–$3+ brews with the funny names. I found there were enough recipes in books, magazines, and websites to make everything from basic ales and lagers to premium clones or V-2 rockets.
Among my first brews was an experimental ale inspired by climate change. I’d noticed over the past decade or so that the balsam trees I cut for Christmas were losing their pitchy sweet aroma. It was a scent that blossomed when a tree came inside and thawed out, but lately had diminished. I talked to a local forester who suggested it might be due to the warmer winters and higher amounts of ground water at the roots, which could be diluting the sap. Inspired to regain the tree magic, I tossed some balsam tips into a Christmas ale I was brewing and let them steep in the boiling wort for 15 minutes or so. The house filled again with aromatic holiday breezes. Then I added maple syrup to deepen the woodsy mood.
The way I figure it, the satisfaction of making my own beer offsets any shortcomings against the pro brews. And speaking of offsets (and climate change), homebrew is a carbon winner. Consider the energy saved. Commercial brewing uses slews of energy and water for brewing, packaging, and trucking. Even compared to the energy sipping brew pubs, I know I can turn out the very greenest of beers. Though, hopefully, not in the taste department.
Tim Matson is the co-author of "Mountain Brew, A High Spirited Guide to Country Style Beer Making," recently published in a 40th Anniversary Edition by The Countryman Press/W.W. Norton. Find out more about Mountain Brew at www.timmatson.com.