You don't need a garden to succeed as a home brewer, but growing your own ingredients can give you a flavorful step up.
Much of the creativity involved in crafting a custom beer starts with the plants you select.
"The modern palate pretty much demands some hops in beer, but beyond that, there's a lot of choices available," says Dennis Fisher, an organic farmer from Winterport, Maine. Fisher, who with his brother Joe wrote a popular reference book for beginners, "The Homebrewer's Garden" (Storey Publishing, 1998), says one of the most satisfying aspects of home brewing is producing some or all of your own ingredients from scratch.
"Scratch brewing," the brothers wrote, "refers to the cultivation, preparation and use of hops, barley, malts and other non-barley grains, and adjuncts ranging from fruits to herbs to vegetables."
Growing your own ingredients ensures that the products are as organic, fresh and unique as you desire. Homegrown also is less expensive than store-bought, the Fishers say.
The four basic ingredients for brewing are malt (malting provides the fermented sugar that yeast feeds on to produce alcohol), hops (reduces spoilage and balances the sugar's sweetness with a bitter flavor), brewer's yeast and water (about 90 percent of beer's content).
"Hops are a particularly good (garden) choice because they thrive almost anywhere," Dennis Fisher says. "They are also a great addition to a landscape -- big, attractive columns of greenery."
If the water from your tap tastes good, then it also should taste good in the beer you make, Fisher says. "But if it's chlorinated, then you need to let it stand overnight to allow the chemicals to out-gas before brewing with it."
Adjuncts, in homebrew speak, are plants used to replace or complement hops and give beers distinctive flavors, aromas and colors.
"Just about any flower you can eat can be made into a beer," says Rebecca Kneen, an organic farmer and writer from Sorrento, British Columbia, who writes about backyard brewing in the new "Groundbreaking Food Gardens," by Niki Jabbour (Storey Publishing). "It's useful to experiment with them all, though, to determine how much should be used and when they should be added," Kneen says.
Some common and not so common home brewer's garden adjuncts include:
For even "greener" beer, recycle the brewing ingredients and their by-products, Kneen says. "You can compost them, feed them to pigs and sheep, put some into your chicken feed," she says. "We use them heavily as mulch. ... The graywater (relatively clean wastewater) is used for irrigation on our pastures. That's the bulk of what comes out of our brewery."