That Little Ol' Brewmaster...You!
While it may not be legal everywhere, many countries have no problem with the head of a household making a fair quantity of beer or wine for personal consumption and it's not all that hard to do.
There are many home brew supply shops and groups more than willing to spend hours talking your ears off about good ways the make wine and beer. There are even short cut methods, such as using pre-cooked concentrates, although a lot of people prefer to work with the raw ingredients.
There are some dos and don'ts for both wine and beer making: Do have spotlessly clean equipment. Contamination is the enemy of the home brewer. Don't ever use sugar to speed the process up. All you will get is a nasty hangover caused by the sugar-cured alcohol. Don't expect to find lager yeast that really works at every location either.
There are two basic kinds of beer:
Most of the commercial beer you buy is a lager, which takes longer to make and the prime ingredient -- the yeast -- may be hard to find (even if they claim it's lager yeast, it may turn out to be ale yeast). Lager is identified by its thick and creamy head of small bubbles, which comes from the bottom fermenting yeast. One home brew expert told us that the only way to be sure you get the real thing is to make friends with a commercial brew master and get some from that person.
The second kind of beer is called ale and the yeast for this one (that ferments on the top) is readily available. Ales have bigger bubbles and practically have no head at all.
Is there much of a taste difference? Probably not! Most of the taste in beer comes from the other ingredients: barley malts and hops.
Originally beer was discovered by native cultures in Africa and South America (the oldest recipe we have seems to date from Egypt). The product was originally made from roots, fruits and berries and is a sweet beer often called "mead." Eventually as grains were cultivated and harvested, man started experimenting and eventually found that fermented drinks could be make from grapes, corn, wheat, barley - almost any grain can be fermented with yeast into an intoxicating beverage.
Real root beer is a type of mead. I've tasted it and it's great. It is brewed and fermented much like beer (but not really alcoholic).
Throughout Europe local brew houses sprang up. The beer we drink today is actually a descendent of two countries: Denmark, who added the tart ingredient of hops (from which the English get their special brew called "bitters" which is a very hopsy concoction) and the city of Pilzen in Eastern Europe from which we get the familiar light amber colored, brew often called pilsner.
The ingredients control the color, body and taste of any beer. Americans drink "light pilsner" style of a lager with just a hint of hops. Many Europeans like a blacker, thicker, sweeter brew such as a stout or porter.
You can get these flavors directly out of a concentrate can of malted barley liquid (or wort, which is what beer is called until the yeast is added and fermentation begins). Or you can buy the grains and cook them into "wort" with a clean utensil (generally stainless steel pot or some people even like copper cooking vessels). Darker beers (such as a Porter) may require a combination of several different grains or cooking methods. Some people also use adjuncts (flavor enhancers, like spices in food) while others swear at them. Adjuncts are generally added by enclosing them into a cloth (sort of like a tea bag concept) and placing this into the wort mixture while it stews.
Beer is best fermented in glass and many brew shops collect those old glass 5-gallon "Sparklets" water bottles and sell them to home brewers or stainless steel (which is expensive and used by most commercial breweries).
After you cook and ferment the mixture it sits for a while and develops that natural carbonation (they say two weeks, but it can actually take much longer to brew a beer to perfection). Lager beer takes much longer to ferment and requires colder temperatures (most ales can be fermented in a cool spot anywhere in your home).
Real beer contains active, living yeast. The only thing close to real beer you find in stores would be something like Miller Genuine Draft, which is a cold filtered lager or Molson from Canada, which is ale. You can also find microbrewery offerings. Real, honest beer will have a small layer of silt (yeast) on the bottom of the bottle. In fact, if you don't want to brew it yourself but still want a homebrewed taste, microbreweries (often combination restaurants) are springing up all over the U.S. these days!
You don't drink real beer out of the bottle. You gently pour 95% of it into a glass and leave the bottom layer of yeast with a little beer in the bottle.
The best bottles for the home brewer are the ones with the attached cork cap that are imported (from Grolsch). You can also buy a capping machine and put on traditional metal caps to any beer bottle.
Real beer generally has more alcohol, there is a limit to how much, roughly 4% tops -- to get more you must inject pure alcohol into the beer. For those who are interested, most beers in the U.S. have an alcohol rating from about 2% to a general maximum of 3%, with some states like Texas having the highest percentage. Foreign counties do not reduce the alcohol content in beers like we sometimes do in America. No preservatives, (some commercial breweries even use formaldehyde to preserve beer), it is not pasteurized (heated to kill the yeast so it can be stored for a long time in heated rooms), and is very filling. You can literally live on good beer, but I wouldn't go that far!
Real beer may also have more calories (the average commercial beer actually has fewer calories per serving than a soft drink or orange juice in the same quantity) as they water commercial beer down (as compared to the offerings in Europe).
For more information and supplies here are some links. Make sure you determine if beer or winemaking is legal to do where you live!
And ask about local home brewing clubs in your area. Many of these clubs sponsor "spring" and "October" fests each year with members sharing a taste of their wares. Also many larger brewing suppliers import and press grapes so you can make real wine from real fruit instead of a concentrated juice.
The Samuel Adams Beer Glossary