Despite an undeserved reputation as a mundane drink, beer has a noble ancestry. By 4000 B.C., ancient Babylonians were making 16 varieties. Egyptian mothers are believed to have brought beer to their sons in school. One pharaoh, according to temple inscriptions, consecrated 466,303 jugs of beer to Egyptian deities.
Indeed, American history might have been radically different but for the ardent thirst of the Pilgrims. Plymouth was chosen as a landing spot, according to one Mayflower passenger, because " . . . we could not take time for further search or consideration; our victuals being much spent, especially our beer."
By 1634, the Massachusetts colony had fixed beer at the enviable price of "a penny a quart at most."
After 350 years of relentless inflation, today's home brewers cannot hope to compete with those prices. But home brew is still a bargain, and can yield beverages that would make even Arthur Guinness proud. All you need are some basic devices and equipment, the right ingredients and a few hours spare time.
Equipment and ingredients can be purchased at, among other places, The Cellar, a specialty store for beer and wine makers in Fairfax, and the Wine Hobby Shop in Annapolis. There are dozens of recipes for different varieties, such as ale, porter, stout. For beginners, two good books: Better Beer and How to Brew It by Marvin Reese ($5.50, Gardenway ) and A Treatise on Lager Beer by Fred Eckhardt ($2.75, Hobby Winemaker).
Your biggest expense will be the initial, one-time cost of basic equipment: hydrometer, capping device, five-gallon jug, siphon hoses, fermentation lock (allows gases to escape without letting air in) and two cases of returnable bottles. Total: about $35. From there on out, the cost of making two cases of beer is about $13, for malt extract, hops, yeast and bottle caps.
When you consider that your home brew (at about $6.50 per case) can rival a fine, imported variety such as Bass Ale (about $28 a case), your effort can result in a truly potable bargain.
America's most popular brand of beer is lager, introduced by German immigrants in the 19th century. Lager is German for storage or warehouse; beer was brewed traditionally in autumn, stored over the winter and consumed in the spring. Many home brewers prefer making dark ales, which have a richer taste.
Both lager and ale use essentially the same ingredients, with variations. Both start with malt, or sprouted barley. The degree to which the barley is roasted determines the beer's ultimate color, with the longer roasted grains yielding darker brews. Specialty stores sell malt extract in cans, which greatly simplifies brewing. The extract is boiled with water -- most recipes call for five-gallon batches, or about two cases -- and hops, the fruit of a perennial vine that gives beer its distinctive clear, bitter flavor.
After the mixture (the wort) of malt water and hops has cooled, sugar is added, but not the kind usually bought in grocery stores. Home brewers use corn sugar, which differs slightly in chemical structure and can be converted into alcohol by the final vital ingredient: yeast.
After this heady mixture has fermented for about two weeks (depending on the recipe), it is ready for bottling. Only returnable beer bottles should be used as they are designed to withstand high pressures. The dark green and brown colors of the glass also protect beer from sunlight, which spoils beer's color and flavor. Empty returnable bottles can be purchased at many area liquor stores for about $1.75 a case.
Timing is critical at this stage. If the beer is bottled too soon, it will ferment vigorously inside the bottles, causing them to explode. But some bottle fermentation is necessary to produce carbonation. Fortunately, the hydrometer (about $3.25 to $10.50) allows home brewers to measure precisely the sugar-to-alcohol conversion.
Depending on the recipe, home brew is ready for drinking anywhere from two weeks to six months after bottling. If you have followed directions carefully, you will uncap a high-quality beverage.
Should you become hooked on home brew, you can learn more by subscribing to Zymurgy, a national newsletter that prints recipes, information about different varieties of beer, contest results and activities of local clubs. Among them is BURP (Brewers United for Real Potables), a club operating out of Wheaton, Md. Zymurgy costs $12 per year and can be ordered at Box 287, Boulder, Colo. 80306.
A final note of caution. Federal law forbids the sale of home brew, and limits its production to 100 gallons per family member per year, up to 200 gallons. Like the moonshiners of old, you might find revenuers on your doorstep, and their notions of home brew may be considerably less jolly than your own.