Thirty dollars will not buy you 50 beers at any bar anywhere. Even if they're dollar beers, you'll still only get 30 of them, and that's not including a tip. And you should always tip. But $30 worth of supplies gets homebrewer Josh Labovitz 50 beers of various shapes and sizes, bottled and capped on a towel on his kitchen floor. Of course, that $30 doesn't include the $600 or so he spent on buckets and funnels and jugs or on fashioning the various pieces of equipment he needs to brew, but considering that some other homebrewers pay thousands for their own systems, he's still coming out in the black.
Labovitz credits his mom for introducing him to good beer — and blames her for his tastes in expensive ones. "I more or less like to think of myself as a DIYer. There's no project too big and none too small," he says. "Homebrewing is a process that after each batch you make, the more you learn about the process and your equipment in order to make the next batch even better." And once he tries a beer that intrigues him, he'll set out to recreate it in his Mt. Pleasant townhouse.
On a recent late-November afternoon, Labovitz made a kriek-style beer, a sour Belgian, and he was dressed in his Sunday best: a New England Patriots Jersey, No. 39, Laurence Maroney. The mustache roosted on his upper-lip was a product of Movember, the men's health awareness month, and it will most likely be gone by the time you are reading this. Labovitz works in finance for a government contractor, Atlas Technologies in North Charleston, and he keeps promising he'll bring beer in for his co-workers to try but hasn't yet. "I'm getting married in October of 2013, so for the rehearsal dinner I'm brewing all the beer," he says. "And I'm thinking for the gift, I'm going to do a barley wine, which is a good beer to age. I'm going to give everybody two bottles, one that they can have pretty much immediately and one for our one-year anniversary.
"I used to keg," he adds, motioning toward his homemade kegerator, a chest freezer equipped with three taps. "I don't keg anymore, because I don't drink beer fast enough, so I found out beer was going bad." He's selling the kegerator, if you're interested.
Labovitz moved to Charleston from Washington, D.C. two years ago. He knew people up there who brewed, but never had the space personally. Conveniently, the first couple of friends he met in Charleston, at a beer tasting at Triangle Char and Bar, were homebrewers, so he was able to learn hands-on from them. "There is literally no beer in the world that a homebrewer couldn't recreate with the proper equipment," he says.
On his own, Labovitz started with extract brewing. "You skip all of this step," he points to a pile of mulchy bags of grain, "and you pretty much just put syrup into the boil kettle and that's it and you're done." He was churning out good beers, but after three extract batches, he was ready to move on to the next level: all-grain brewing. He had a cooler lying around, the usual kind you'll find at any tailgate party or cookout, and after fitting it with an output and buying some piping, he was ready to go. His first batch was a hefeweizen.
Basically, if you can brew a cup of tea, you can brew your own beer. You just need a bigger spoon. In simplest terms, all you do is steep your choice of grains in hot water at a set temperature for about an hour. This is your mash. After the hour has passed, you recirculate the wort — the brownish liquid that results from the steep — a few times. The grain bed acts as a natural filter, straining out any sediments, which you do not want in your wort. You boil this wort for another hour, adding in the hops at certain increments to infuse bitterness, flavor, and aroma. After the wort chills, it's transferred to a fermentation bucket, yeast is added, and the beer goes into primary fermentation for two weeks. Then it gets bottled; at this point the beer is technically ready for consumption, if you like your beer flat. But if you add some additional sugar and wait another two weeks, carbonation will take place. Then you drink and drink until it's time to brew the next batch.
Labovitz only did five gallons on this day, since a typical 10-gallon day would have had him running frantically around his house, trying to keep the timing perfect so he doesn't have to use the same equipment for different steps at the same time. "A couple of weeks ago, I did 10 gallons by myself and it was terrible," he says. "It was eight in the morning to seven at night, and I was so exhausted afterwards."
His fiancee, Paisley Boyd, lives with him in the townhouse, and she is very understanding of her future husband's hobby. She used to drink Michelob Ultra, Labovitz says in that disparaging tone that beer aficionados use for such mainstream beers, but he's gotten her into white ales and sours. "Josh is pretty good about cleaning up after himself," Boyd says when she returns home from work. "If he didn't clean up after himself, that would be a different story." And since the cleaning process is the most tedious of the day, the house is usually neater following a brew day than going into one. Labovitz hammered in that cleanliness is key in homebrewing: Some people buy kits and don't care about sanitation, and that's when you get really bad beer.
Most of the homebrewing process is a waiting game, and Labovitz promises that it's very boring. So it's no accident that brew days are typically football Sundays. On a standard one, he'll invite over some friends, like Rob Davis, one of the owners of Mt. Pleasant's House of Brews, and Eric Doksa, a City Paper food writer and beer fan. They all know each other through beer: Labovitz met Davis when he spent half his paycheck at House of Brews, and Doksa first through the Mellow Mushroom Beer Club, then again at this year's Brewvival. When the three guys were not confirming temperatures or watching a football game, they were checking into beers with apps on their smartphones (and debating the politics of checking into a two-ounce sample), gossiping about breweries and beer celebrities, or studying their fantasy team lineups. And popping open craft brew after craft brew, everyone drinking from a pint glass from Labovitz's mismatched collection, each labeled with a different brewery logo. All three agreed that the No. 1 rule of homebrewing is you've got to be drinking beer while you do it.
There are homebrewing books positioned on various tabletops in Labovitz's living room, scattered among mail from the American Homebrewers Association, copies of Zymurgy (a journal published by the AHA), and issues of I Do magazine. "Whenever I have the opportunity, I grab a book on brewing and I read something and it helps me fine-tune pretty much everything I do," he says. "Everybody brews totally differently. I was at a home brew meeting yesterday, and I can guarantee if you went to every person's house and watched them brew, everyone would be different. Everyone has different styles, different equipment, different tricks of the trade that they use to make their day go easier." He says his process is as bare bones as possible, relying on gravity as its main tool.
The supplies for Labovitz's batches come from the Brewmaster Warehouse out of Georgia. It's a good and quick resource, with a large selection, and you can put together a recipe on their website that will tell you exactly what you need. His personal recipes are fastidiously kept in a white legal pad, with precise ingredients, ratios, and dates dutifully noted. He's lucky he hasn't lost it or stained it too terribly. And he's even luckier that he hasn't had any disasters, yet. Once, a bottle exploded. Just one. It was in a bathtub, and there was glass everywhere when Labovitz got home that day. That'll happen if you're not careful adding the sugar when bottling. Too little, and it won't carbonate. Too much and it'll burst. Labovitz calls them bottle bombs.
Bottling is Labovitz's least favorite part of homebrewing. The four-and-a-half gallons of the maple brown ale that he brewed a few weeks ago will yield about 40 bottles, funneled into the mismatched vessels with a bendable silly-straw looking tube. The bottles were run through the dishwasher, and he doesn't bother taking off the old labels. Maple syrup was used for the sugar, something Labovitz has never done before, and he hoped that nothing goes wrong.
As for the kriek, it'll sit in a fermentation bucket for two weeks as a wild yeast strain digests the sugars. Then a cherry purée goes in, and it's a full year of sitting calmly in a closet in Labovitz's living room before it reaches its sour taste. And that means it'll be a full year before we know if Labovitz's beer is even drinkable or if this time he should have just spent his $30 elsewhere.