Blame it on beer, that gateway drink for the DIY homebrewing set. Emma Christensen started innocently enough with beer, but then the recipe editor for The Kitchn quickly discovered the high that comes with crafting your own yeast-fermented ginger ale. That got the Sunnyvale resident hooked on making homemade sodas. And then someone let on that homemade sake was pretty great, and, like all Domestic Arts addicts, she had to try that too.
You know where this saga is headed. It was only a matter of time before she started dabbling with kefir and kombucha. At that point, there was simply no turning back from brewing for Christensen; the thrill of fermentation had her in its tangy, effervescent grasp. While some swear by these drinks’ health benefits, Christensen is clear: She goes back for more because of the taste.
To make sense of her obsession for bottling brewed beverages, Christensen decided a guide for the curious was in order. The result: True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Kefir, and Kombucha at Home. There’s potential for dependence in those pages. Don’t say you weren’t warned. For those jonesing for more, Christensen shares what she wished she’d known before she developed her homebrewing habit.
How did you get hooked on homebrewing?
Some friends (and fellow homebrewers) gave me and my husband a gift certificate to a homebrewing store right after we were married. We brewed our first batch right away — a porter — and….it was awful. But there was something about that almost-magical process of creating beer out of just a few ingredients that I completely fell in love with. If anything, the awfulness of that first batch just made me even more determined to get it right.
What advice do you have for homebrewing newbies?
Dive in. Whether you want to make root beer or a mocha stout, just figure out what you need and do it. You really don’t need a lot of equipment to get started, especially if you stick to one-gallon batches or smaller when you’re first starting. If you’re nervous about committing to brewing something like a beer or a wine, get your feet wet with a soda pop.
It’s important to clean and sanitize, when needed. Following a recipe is important (at least until you know what you’re doing). Using bottles that are specifically made to withstand pressure is important (like recycled soda bottles and glass bottles from homebrew stores). Keeping an eye on your brew as it’s fermenting is important so you know right away if something is off.
Can you describe what happens in the fermentation process when making drinks?
It’s really simple: take a sugary liquid, add some yeast, wait for a while, and then you have a tasty fermented beverage. The sugary liquid can be anything from fruit juice to beer wort to honey diluted in water. During that waiting period, the yeast are snacking on the sugars in your beverage and creating carbon dioxide and alcohol as a byproduct. (Even soda has a tiny smidge of alcohol when it’s homebrewed, but it’s such a quick-fermenting drink that it’s nothing that will make you tipsy).
Do you have any homebrewing disaster stories to share?
There was the Great Grape Soda Incident of 2011. During said incident, I got up in the middle of the night and decided I was thirsty for a swig of a grape soda I’d made earlier that day. Now, the first time you open a bottle of freshly-brewed soda, the carbonation build-up can sometimes cause the soda to gush out the top. I always tell first-time soda makers that they need to open the caps slowly to release the pressure gradually and avoid gushers. But there I was — it was after midnight, I was groggy with sleep, and I went straight for the bottle and unscrewed it all in one go. Grape soda went everywhere. It was on the ceiling, dripping down the cupboards, in sticky puddles on the floor. My advice: stick to drinking soda during daylight hours when you’re actually awake.
Does homebrewing have a seasonal flavor?
Definitely. Many homebrewing projects involve fruit — soda, wine, even some beers and meads — and whenever you’re working with fruit, you want to get the freshest, ripest fruit you can. This means that you end up brewing with the seasons. You also end up brewing what you want to drink: dark beers and meads with spices in the winter and lighter, fruitier drinks in the warmer months.
Are you a fan of other fermented foods?
Yes. I make my own yogurt and sourdough bread. I wish I had more time for projects like kimchi, sauerkraut, and cheese-making. Right now I just have to enjoy the fruits of other people’s labor when it comes to those.
What are some of the misconceptions about homebrewing?
Everyone knows of a college friend whose bottles of homebrew burst one hot summer night or whose partner banished their brewing obsession to the garage because it was taking over the kitchen. Exploding bottles and funky brews (and the occasional exile to the garage) do happen. But it’s important for new homebrewers to know that all these things are the exception rather than the rule.
In terms of health and safety, know that anything that would actually make you ill cannot survive the fermentation process (the alcohol in the brew and low pH after brewing prevent harmful bacterias from taking up residence). You’ll get the occasional batch of homebrew that has picked up some unsavory bacteria, but all that will do is give your brew weird, funky, unappetizing flavors and aromas. It won’t actually harm you if you accidentally drink it.
Do you have a favorite brew and, if so, what is it and why?
I brew kombucha every week and fell in love with ciders while writing True Brews. That said, beer really feels like my old buddy — the one you’ve known forever and who is always there for you.
Do you have any interesting tidbits to share that you learned while writing the book?
Ginger goes with everything. Seriously. I could have added ginger to every single recipe in the book and they would have been all the more fantastic for it. I’m not even a big fan of ginger normally, but there’s something about ginger and fermented beverages that just clicks.
Recipe: Watermelon-Mint Soda
Makes about 8 cups (enough to fill a 2-liter plastic soda bottle)
4 pounds seeded and cubed watermelon
(11 to 12 cups, from a 6-pound watermelon)
1⁄2 cup packed fresh mint leaves
1⁄2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 4 limes), plus more if needed
1 cup water, plus more to fill the bottles
9 tablespoons / 4 ounces white granulated sugar, plus more if needed
Pinch of salt
1⁄8 teaspoon dry champagne yeast
Combine the watermelon, mint leaves, and lime juice in a large bowl.
Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan on the stove top or in the microwave. Remove from the heat. Add the sugar and salt, stir to dissolve, and pour over the watermelon. Let this stand for 10 minutes to macerate the fruit.
Working in batches, puree the watermelon and mint with their liquid in a food processor or blender. Strain the puree into a bowl, collecting as much juice as possible without forcing any solids through the strainer.
Pour the juice into a clean 2-liter bottle using a funnel. Top off the bottle with water, leaving at least 1 inch of headspace. Give it a taste and add more lime juice or sugar, if desired. The extra sugar will dissolve on its own.
Add the yeast. Screw on the cap and shake the bottle to dissolve and distribute the yeast. Let the bottle sit at room temperature out of direct sunlight until carbonated, typically 12 to 48 hours, depending on the temperature of the room. Check the bottle periodically; when it feels rock solid with very little give, it’s ready.
Refrigerate overnight or for up to 2 weeks. Open very slowly over a sink to release the pressure gradually and avoid bubble-ups.
Reprinted with permission from True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Kefir & Kombucha at Home by Emma Christensen, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.