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Raise a pint: Home brewing hobby has seen a resurgence over last decade

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LONDON, Ont. - In terms of Canadian traditions, there may be none more long-standing than a cold beer on a hot afternoon, and potentially even more satisfying if you brewed it yourself.

But the reasons for home brewing have changed since the first European settlers did it because they couldn't trust streams to be free of animal waste, says Jordan St. John, co-author with Alan McLeod of "Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay" (The History Press, 2014).

The temperance and prohibition movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s probably encouraged it. In the mid-1980s, some consumers turned to "on-premises" brewing facilities that provided the equipment and ingredients for customers to make beer. It wasn't particularly inspiring beer, but for several years it was tax-free and a fraction of the price of commercial brew.

Home brewing was never outlawed in Canada, as it was in many American states. Alabama was the last state to legalize it, just last year. In Canada, the closest thing to government control was for several decades in the 1900s when Ontario required would-be home brewers to get written government permission. That ended in 1985.

But the last 10 years or so have seen a resurgence in home brewing few would have predicted.

"Brewing technology, at its basic level, hasn't really changed" in millennia, says St. John. But with the advent of craft and microbreweries, beer drinkers were exposed to a beverage with multiple layers of flavour. Some who used to quaff a cold one without paying much attention to the flavour started to develop a beer palate.

"It's hard to argue that people need to brew beer at home," St. John says. "The only reason to do it is because it is creatively satisfying and a fun activity."

Gavin Hawthorne agrees. "It's a great hobby," says the director of sales and marketing for Global Vintners, based in St. Catharines, Ont., which sells home brewing kits under the name Brewer's Best.

"The beers home brewers make don't tend to be in the style of Labatt Blue or Budweisers. They tend to be much more flavourful. You can customize your beer and make it any flavour you want. Customization is a huge part of home brewing. If you do it properly, it can match anything you can buy at the liquor store."

He says the company has seen "double-digit increases" in home-brewing product sales in the last three or four years.

For an initial investment of about $70, he says, you get instructions and most of the equipment needed, including a fermenter (a big bucket), cleaner, siphon, bottle filler, hydrometer to measure specific gravity, brush, airlock, crown caps and a bottle capper. The kit doesn't include bottles and you need a large pot, like a soup pot, in which to boil the "wort" (unfermented beer). The equipment can be reused.

Each ingredients kit, costing about $40, includes grains, hops, yeast to get the fermentation started, flavourings, maybe some spices, and sugar to initiate carbonation.

"My recommendation is that you don't brew your beer in the kitchen if you're married because your spouse might get a little cranky," Hawthorne says with a laugh. "It does smell like a brewery." The boiling should be done in a garage or on a propane burner outside.

From start to finish, it takes about a month: two hours to get to the point where you add yeast, two weeks for fermentation and two more for carbonation.

During this time, storage at a fairly constant room temperature is recommended.

"With the kits we're selling, that would get you 48 bottles of beer," Hawthorne says.

Not counting the cost of the equipment, "It's roughly half the price of what you would pay for craft beer at the liquor store. So there definitely is a cost advantage, although for a lot of those who make their own beer, saving money is not necessarily the No. 1 priority. They just love to do it."

Brewer's Best carries 21 flavours of beer. Its biggest seller is India Pale Ale and second is gluten-free ale.

Other types range from "kind of a Coors Light style" to brown and red ales, a Scottish ale that's "really caramel and chocolatey and smoky," a wheat beer and stouts.

Beer is "shockingly versatile" for pairing with food, says St. John, a certified cicerone, the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier. "Ideally what you want the beer to do is increase your enjoyment of the meal and there are a number of ways to do that. You can find a beer that complements the flavour of whatever you're cooking or one that contrasts the flavour."

Beer "does something for food that wine can't do," he says. One way malt for beer is made is in a kiln where it goes through a process akin to caramelization.

"So beer has a built-in layer of flavour that really doesn't exist in wine."

The best way to acquire the "vocabulary" of beer is simply to sample various kinds and become familiar with their flavour profiles.

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To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.

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