If you’ve visited any of D.C.’s stellar breweries, odds are you’ve peeked into the brewhouse, taken a tour or simply marveled at massive steel tanks through the window. Rows and rows of gleaming fermenters, Brite tanks and funnels connect to miles of pipes, forming the serpentine system of the brewery.
Looking at all this plumbing, it’s sometimes hard to connect what’s in your snifter to what occurs during the brewing process. It’s actually much more straightforward than you might think: Brewers blend water and fermentable sugars from malt with hop extract or cones, then use yeast to convert sugar into carbon dioxide. The whole mixture is topped off with a tiny dose of sugar before going in the bottle, so the beer will have that refreshing carbonation when cracked open. Obviously, this is the elementary version, but it goes to show how easy it is to make the stuff. So easy that you can create this miracle of chemistry from your very own home.
The process is called “homebrewing,” and while the practice dates back to the introduction of beer to America in the 1850s, legal restrictions on homebrewing were only lifted in the United States in 1978. Currently, one single homebrewer can legally make 100 gallons of beer per year (that’s roughly three 12-ounce beers, per day, every day for a year). Since the government gets money in the form of an excise tax on alcohol, homebrewers can’t bring their stuff to market without jumping through a bunch of hoops, so most homebrewers make beer to drink themselves and to share.
To start, one needs a modest investment in equipment and ingredients, available either online or at specialty outlets. Homebrew equipment ranges from a simple set of jars and tubes to complex machines, regulators and chillers. Fortunately, starter kits are a common way to begin making basic styles. With experience, homebrewers can control all aspects of the process, and great precision can be obtained in flavor, ABV, ingredients and a host of other technical concerns, like original gravity. Brewers can custom-order thousands of varieties of ingredients to perfect their creations.
Since beer is a communal sport, so to speak, there are plenty of groups that come together to brew, share and compare notes. The American Homebrewers Association (AHA), the nonprofit group that represents homebrewers, serves as a resource to share best practices and recipes while also advocating for the rights of homebrewers.
One project of the AHA is the Hill Staff Homebrew Competition, a friendly bipartisan homebrewing contest in D.C. held between Congressional offices. In between votes and the midterms, individuals and teams of Congressional staff and adjacent employees boil, brew and bottle their home recipes for the contest’s judgment at D.C.’s own Right Proper Brewing Co.
Upwards of 50 teams entered to win, and last year’s top prize went to Joshua Sizemore, a senior legislative assistant in the office of Senator Steve Daines (R-MT), for his strong bitter ale named “Stuck in Committee,” a nod to the frequent fate of bills in the legislative process.
“I started over 10 years ago,” Sizemore says. “I have always been fond of trying new beers and making things myself. And since I had just started doing my own jerky, I figured I’d take the next step.”
He started out with a small, five-gallon starter kit. For his award-winning brew, Sizemore brewed an all-grain recipe of his own design, sticking to the time-tested English style while using American hops to give it a star-spangled twist. It’s a malty, earthy and “chewy” brew, perfect for the winter months.
Runners-up in the contest also chose darker beers: Second-place winner Molly Ryan with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) made a “Hot Toddy Ale,” and the bronze medal went to Nathan James of the Congressional Research Service for his Belgian strong ale, “Santos L. Halper.”
If this sounds intriguing and you’re ready to make your own brews at home (and start thinking of clever names), I’d recommend checking out the DC Homebrewing Club. That network, in conjunction with vast online resources, is more than enough to get you on your way to being D.C.’s next homebrewer.
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