Beer-ly legal: A beginner’s guide to Santa Rosa homebrewing


William Rohrs / Oak Leaf

Joe Hanson-Hirt uses display hops like these as teaching aids for his beginning brewing class at the Beverage People.

William Rohrs, Layout Editor

When Fourth Street’s sidewalk overflows with locals and foreigners waiting for a sip of Pliny the Younger, downtown Santa Rosa turns into the city equivalent of a heart attack: out-of-townies drive haphazardly through the street. Jaywalkers clog the sidewalks. With popular pubs like Sprenger’s Taproom, Third Street Aleworks and Stout Brothers blocked off by the growler-hunters, it might be easier to make your own beer.

Beyond a 100-gallon per annum limit, there is no law that prohibits citizens from brewing beer for themselves. Gary Quast, a Santa Rosa resident brewing for 15 years with a set he bought when he started and continues to use today. “It set me back about $50 back then,” he said. “But for fancier setups, you can get equipment for a couple hundred dollars.”

All starter kits have three important pieces of equipment: a kettle for seeping grain, a second kettle for boiling and a carboy for locking in the beer while you let it ferment. Quast advises that when looking for kettles and buckets, try to find ones made of copper or stainless steel. “Try to avoid aluminum. It can leave a metal aftertaste in your beer,” he said.

Eric McCafferty, a Cotati brewer in his fifth year of home brewing, started with an interest in distillation, but because distilling spirits is illegal, he jumped to home brewing instead. “I like going to Whole Foods for grain. Their selection is pretty robust,” he said.

Grains of sand on the beach look scarce compared to the nearly limitless combinations of hops and yeast.

Locally, the Beverage People, a corporation owned by Nancy Vineyard and Bob Peak located on 1845 Piner Road, sells a wide selection of hops of various bitterness and strains of yeast tailored to making specific beers.

Vineyard and her ex-husband, Byron Burch, used to teach home-brewing classes at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“Eventually, it wasn’t worth the money,” Vineyard said. “Home brewing is meant to be shared. No one makes a five-gallon batch of beer for themselves. We taught, and the people who came taught their friends. We’re considering teaching [at SRJC] again. There seems to be a resurgence in interest.”

The Beverage People start their beginner brewing class in April. They also teach cheese making, winemaking and honey fermentation for mead.

“We love brewing. I’ve been brewing before I got here, I’m going to be brewing after I leave,” said Joe Hanson-Hirt, who teaches the beginning brew courses. Hanson-Hirt, like all other Beverage People employees, had home brewing experience before he started working at the Beverage People. Hanson-Hirt’s interest in everything beer came from studying abroad in Austria; sampling beer from some of the most sacred brewing countries in Europe, including Hungary, Bavaria and Belgium.

“The best resource to make beer is to talk to us,” adds co-worker Kimi Wilkinson. “There’s bad information on the Internet. People make 1-gallon batches of beer using 5-gallon’s worth of materials. If they just talked to us, we can help clear up the misinformation.”

For buying online, sites like “More Beer” in the East Bay or “Northern Brewer” in the northwest provide specific ingredients.

“Be careful when ordering online,” McCafferty warned. “Shipping could expose your hops and yeast to heat, and that can affect the quality of your beer.”

Every brewer has a favorite kind of beer. For Hanson-Hirch and Wilkinson, that would be California common, a process that uses steam to cook grain like Anchor Steam Brewing Company. Co-worker Alex Pontig’s favorite beer came from a competition to see which employee could make the best beer recipe under $20, which his extra-special bitter won.

Fellow employee Preston Malm enjoys drinking homemade stouts and porters with his girlfriend. “It’s not something that you see in a lot of local beer pubs,” he said. “I know Russian River has a great porter, but I haven’t seen it in a year and a half.”

Two disciplines exist in the arena of home brewing. In the all-grain method, brewers use up to 15 pounds of grain (in a 5-gallon batch) to create various malts for mash infusion. In the extract method, store-bought malts simulate the all-grain process with concentrated agents. “I prefer using extract because I have a small operation. I don’t want to deal with lugging and cooking all that grain,” Quast said.

“You should start with extract brewing, it’s where everyone begins,” McCafferty said. “But I’m an all-grain brewer. There is certain snobbery in the brewing world concerning all-grain versus extract brewing, but all-grain gives a more body-and-mouth feel to your beer.”

The mash is boiled for an hour after infusion. Hops come shortly after. “The earlier you put your hops in, the more bitter your beer will taste. The later you do it, the hops will impart flavor. Generally, I add hops twice: once early, and once late so I can get a full body from my beer,” Quast said.

When the hour-long boil is finished, the mash needs to cool. Afterwards, the mash enters a carboy: a container designed to let air out but not in. Brewers introduce yeast to the mixture during this period. “Temperature is the most important tip I can give for starting brewers. If you want a bottom-fermenting lager, then keep your carboy at around 40-60 degrees. For top-fermenting ale, 70-80 degrees,” McCafferty said. Depending on the beer, this process can take up to a week.

The completed fermentation process yields flat beer. Brewers inject carbon dioxide directly into bottles, similar to pouring beer out of a keg. Alternatively, adding sugar to the bottles allows the yeast to create carbon dioxide naturally.

“Be patient. There is a temptation to bottle too early, and that temptation could lead to a bad batch. Let the yeast do the work, and use the downtime to clean up. Having clean equipment is very important so you don’t impart unwanted flavors into your beer,” Quast said.

McCafferty added, “Remember to keep your temperature constant. This is where you’ll find the biggest improvement in your beer. And try pouring into a glass. Aroma plays a huge role in rating beer, and half your taste comes from your nose.”