San Francisco food writer, recipe editor (The Kitchn) and avid homebrewer Emma Christensen’s new book, True Brews, is an essential read for those who want to start crafting their own brews at home. Featuring step-by-step instructions, equipment checklists and dozens of recipes, Emma breaks down the ins-and-outs of making your own kombucha, beer, wine, mead, kefir…even soda. We asked Emma to give us tips for first-time homebrewers–read on for her expert advice.
What inspired you to start brewing your own drinks at home?
Beer was really my first love. Some friends gave me and my husband a homebrew kit for our wedding, and after that first batch, I just couldn’t get enough. I was begging my husband to brew more beers with me on the weekends. It wasn’t too long before I started getting into making yeast-fermented sodas. And then I heard that a friend of a friend had made sake at home, so I had to try that. My obsession with fermented beverages just grew and grew.
Why should someone brew their own beer, kombucha etc. instead of buying it?
Whether it’s something simple like a soda pop or a labor of love like sake, making your own brews is just incredibly satisfying: you took a handful ingredients and transformed them into something completely new! You get to choose the exact ingredients going into the brew and control every aspect of how it was made. There are few things as awesome as cracking open a bottle over your very own homebrew and loving how it tastes. I feel like the happiest mad scientist in the world when I’m brewing something new.
What are the benefits of brewing your own drinks at home?
Sure, there are some real practical benefits to making your own homebrewed beverages. If you make your own soda, you can use fresh fruits and control the amount or kind of sugar being used. Making your own kombucha and kefir saves you a lot of money over buying it in the store. Making beers, meads, ciders and wine, you can play with flavors and ingredients that you aren’t likely to find commercially. You get to control the final product and make it your own.
What are the essential tools to begin crafting beer/mead/kombucha/soda at home?
You don’t need much. You can make your own soda with just a recycled plastic bottle, some fruit juice, and a pinch of yeast! You can make kombucha and kefir in quart-sized canning jars and bottle them in recycled soda bottles or flip-top bottles. For the bigger projects like beer and wine, the essential tools are a big stock pot, a 2-gallon food-grade plastic bucket, and a 1-gallon glass jug. You’ll need an airlock to protect the brew while it’s fermenting and some tubes to help transfer it from one container to a next. That’s about it! All the brewing-specific equipment is very easy to find at your local homebrew supply store or online at places like Northern Brewer and MoreBeer.
By the way, you don’t need a ton of space to start brewing. All the recipes in True Brews are for 1-gallon batches or less, which means that you don’t need a lot of big equipment or very much storage space. Your partner or roommates won’t get mad at you for taking over the shoe closet!
What is a good “starter” drink for home-brewers to try?
If you’ve never brewed before, start with a soda. They’re easy, they take a few minutes to make and just a few days to ferment, and they’re tasty as all get-out.
What is your favorite drink to brew at home?
Don’t make me pick! I drink kombucha daily. I love its sour-tart flavor, especially when infused with fresh fruit. But for sheer love of brewing, I have to go back to beer. Beer is pretty easy to make once you know the basic steps, but it’s endlessly versatile. I learn new tricks and get inspired to try new things all the time.
How long did it take you to perfect your recipes?
I feel like I’m always perfecting my recipes! I developed the recipes for True Brews over the course of a year and had the help of a team of recipe testers to make sure I had each one as “perfect” as I could make it.
Now that you brew your own, do you ever buy/drink wine/beer/soda made by others?
Definitely! I love picking up a six-pack of beer or a bottle of kombucha. It’s fun to see what other people are doing and I often get ideas for things I’d like to try. There’s definitely room for both homebrew and craft brew in my fridge.
Any ideas for how to pair homemade beer or sodas? IE, what food do you serve with your homemade drinks at home?
First, taste the brew you’re thinking of pairing. Think about the dominate flavors in that brew and how they might compliment or contrast the meal you’re thinking of serving. For instance, a cherry-lime soda is sweet, but with a citrusy bite. It would go well with a picnic spread with some grain salads and hamburgers. A chai mead is spicy and rich, so you might serve it like a dessert wine alongside a slice of ginger cake.
What ingredients do you always have in your fridge?
Champagne yeast for brewing sodas, fresh fruit for infusing in kombucha and make kefir smoothies. I keep extra hops tightly sealed in the freezer.
Photos by Paige Green. Author photo by Danielle Tsi.