Emma Christensen, a former recipe editor for Apartment Therapy's The Kitchn, caught the fermentation bug after brewing a batch of homemade ginger ale with regular old baker's yeast. Soon, she was brewing beer, kombucha, cider, kefir, sake, and even wine--all in her home kitchen.
Hoping to bring homebrew to others' kitchens, Christensen wrote a book: True Brews, a beginner's guide to making fermented beverages. But she says she had another book in mind before she started True Brews. That book became Brew Better Beer: Learn (and Break) the Rules for Making Ales, Porters, Stouts, Lagers, and More, the most accessible guide to home brewing we've ever read. Christensen breaks down beer by style and provides basic recipes for each. Unlike most homebrew recipes, Christensen's are for 1-gallon batches, as well as the more common 5-gallon batch.
But as anyone who's ever homebrewed understands, 5 gallons is a lot of one kind of beer. Brewing smaller batches makes it a much more manageable process that you can do on your own, without the help of a partner, in far less time than it takes to make the standard 5 gallons.
Christensen is currently working on a book about making cider at home, which we know we'll be adding to our bookshelves as soon as it comes out.
Let's talk a little bit about breaking the rules. Stereotypes about who homebrews abound. As a woman, you're already breaking that rule.
I have to admit, I am not unaware that I'm a woman and that I homebrew. I would say I brew beer, because I love bringing beer. I'm not trying to break a stereotype or anything like that. These days, plenty of women are brewing.
It's a funny world. It is an old boy's club. I've tried to join homebrew clubs, and I've tried going on some of the homebrew forums, and I just can't hack it. I don't know if it's the male or female thing. Definitely, it takes a little while for people to understand that I'm serious about homebrewing and actually know what I'm talking about.
Despite that you've written two books about it?
I know, I know. Well, people are funny. I guess I don't know if this is necessarily a male thing. I don't want to pin it on the men, but homebrewing can feel like a club, and if you're not in the club, it’s like you're not a homebrewer.
It feels like there are gatekeepers sometimes. People who want to challenge you, people who want to test your knowledge and see if you're really a homebrewer, if you really know what you're talking about. And I am so not about that. That kind of conversation turns me off immediately.
A huge reason why I wrote Brew Better Beer--and I've had this book in the back of my head for a long time, even before True Brews--was that I wanted to get rid of the gatekeepers. I wanted to lower the barrier to entry.
Homebrewing is totally fun. It's not easy, but it's also not so crazy hard difficult that you can't do it at home. I just wanted to show people you don't have to go to an extreme place in order to brew some beer at home.
You can brew beer once a year if you want--and you're still a homebrewer and you can still brew good beer. You can brew beer using your pasta pot that your mom gave you. You don't need to go buy a super fancy thing. You can brew a one gallon batch. You don't have to go all crazy and brew five gallons or start your own mini brewery in your garage. You don't have to do that.
There are lots of ways to get into this and lot of ways that you can love homebrewing. Hopefully, people get that.
I was in an interview a month or two ago with a bunch of homebrewers on a homebrewing podcast. One of the guys said to me that the first thing they said about my book: "It feels like a cookbook."
That was such a funny moment to me, because I'm like, "Well, of course it's a cookbook." I've been a recipe editor for many years now. I wrote recipes for The Kitchn. I live and breathe cookbooks. This is a cookbook.
I realized that most, if not all, of the homebrewing books out there, they aren't really cookbooks. They are like manuals. They're very different. Until that interview, I hadn't made that distinction between my book and the other books on the shelf, so that was interesting. It's true. I brought cookbooks to the beer world.
There are at least 60 beer recipes in Brew Better Beers. Tell us about the process of developing them.
That year of testing was insane. Insane. I would work my full-time job, then I would take a break at five in the afternoon several times a week, and I would get a batch of beer going. While it was mashing, I would go back and finish my work, answer some emails, and then I would brew until nine or 10 at night, or until it was done.
At first, that's fun. It's like, "Dude, this is my job! I'm brewing three times a week, sometimes more." But it definitely got a little wearing after a while. That's a lot of brewing. At the same time, I learned a lot. If you want to learn really how to brew beer on an instinctive level, I challenge yourself to brew a beer a week, or more if you can. If you want to brew three beers a week, brew your way through my cookbook. You will learn a lot about beer.
It is amazing. Probably half way through testing, I would go to the homebrewing store to pick up ingredients and just have an instinctive feel. I would start to go for the pale malt, and then I would be like, "No, the Pilsner malts are what I want." Or they'd be out of some malt, and I would instinctively sub in the malt that I knew was going to be the closest. Or hops, starting to understand, if I add the hops at this point, this is what's going to happen.
Also, understanding the connections between the different styles of beer like really getting how American styles of beer grew out of British styles of beer. Understanding how the British styles of beer are all interconnected with each other, and how the American styles are all interconnected.
As exhausted as I was--I was happy as I was when I finished the testing phase--I was also a little sad, because brewing like that feels a little like learning a language. The more you practice a language, the more fluent you are. I knew I wasn't going to be practicing this language nearly as frequently as I had been for this intense period of testing, and I knew I'd lose some of that instinctive knowledge.
Do you harbor any dreams of becoming a professional brewer?
No, not at all. I'll never say never. You'll never know. But it's the same reason I'm not really interested in being a chef. I like to experiment and to do different things all the time.
I could maybe see being a gypsy brewer or one of these brewers who go around and do special projects. But no, I like to experiment, and there's too much pressure when you're having to brew the same thing and pay the bills and all that stuff. I'll keep it a hobby, thanks.
What do you think prevents women from getting into homebrewing beer?
Homebrewing isn't for everybody. I talk to plenty of people who just think it smells bad. They don't like it when their partners brew beer, because it makes the whole house smell like hops and grains. Personally I don't get that. I love the way it smells, but to each his own.
That's a tough question. It's a hard question to answer. Why do any stereotypes exist, and why do they get perpetuated? Right now, I feel like it's a really interesting time, because the stereotype is starting to wear away.
All sorts of women are homebrewing, and all sorts of men are homebrewing. People who you would not suspect homebrew, they are not bros. It's not just the nerd girls who want to nerd out about it, and it's not just the girls who are trying to support their boyfriends or whatever. People are really engaged with it. Homebrewing is cool now, man.
Maybe it's part of a larger, wider acceptance of DIY culture and the fact that we can do things our self at home. Part of that being the internet and blogs and all of this information that we have access to and talk about with other people online.
It's also access to ingredients. Up until maybe 10 years ago, people only ever brewed kit beers, kit brews, because you didn't have a wall of grains to choose from. You had what you had, and it was usually old and stale. It wasn't that good. Ingredients have come so far recently.
All the different kinds of hops we have now, all the different kinds of yeast that we have, it makes it much more intriguing and engaging to a lot of people. I also think it's the cultural shift overall: craft beer becoming big. Drinking craft beer is not just a guy thing anymore. Women are totally getting into it, have been for a while. That's not necessarily a super new thing, I'd say.
Everybody's been getting into it for the past 10 years or so. Getting back to cooking being a trendy thing. It sounds bad to say it's a trendy thing, but cooking being something that people do at home and enjoy and do for more than just getting dinner on the table.
All these things, I think, feed together, because beer is just another DIY project. It's just another thing to cook. It's just another reason to be in the kitchen. It's another way of preserving if you are into preserving.
You've managed to turn your love of beer and brewing into two books. What would you recommend for a fellow brewer interested in taking her love of beer to the next level?
I learned a lot by reading books. I am a total nerd, so I've got a shelf full of books. Don't look just at the beer books. There are a lot of really good beer books out there that can get as science see as you want.
I got this one that was about beer chemistry that I was like," I'm going to do it. I'm going to read the beer chemistry book," and I can't get pass to page 30. It's really hard. It's really, really scientific. Anyway, don't just look at those books. Look also at books that might inspire you. For instance, I really like the, The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. That one is super inspiring. It's basically an encyclopedia of all the plants, fruits and vegetables, any plant, I think, that has gone into any kind of alcohol over the course of human history, and it's fascinating.
There' another one I really love called Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. There's not a lot in there that you can just go take into the kitchen and make, but it's inspiring, and it's interesting to think about.
What would you tell someone who wants to start homebrewing before she heads to a local homebrew shop for the first time?
Honestly, if it was a friend, I would say, "Come over, and I will brew beer with you." You can see how it goes and what equipment you need, and I can help you know what to get ready for going into a homebrew store.
Other than that, I would just say do a little bit of research before you go in. As a general rule, people who work in homebrew stores are really super awesome people who do know their stuff. They're generally going to help you to figure out what you want to get.
But I think it's good to have at least an idea, like know if you want to do one gallon brews or five gallon brews. Or if you aren't sure yet, maybe have a couple of questions that you want to ask the guy at the beer store. Maybe have an idea for the first beer you want to brew. Just the style, like do you want to brew wheat beer right now, or do you want to brew an IPA?
Do some research before you head into the wild of the homebrew store. But a homebrew store is just like any other store. The first time you go, it's going to feel weird and intimidating. It's a store like no other. But one trip is all you need, and then it feels like home. You'll never feel intimidated again.
Same with brewing. Brewing one batch is just going to feel weird and awkward, and you're not going to know what's happening the first batch of beer you brew. Every batch after that, you'll progressively learn a little more and get a little better and feel more confident.