On Saturday we packed the Darwin family into the car and drove down to Houston to bottle the latest batch of homebrew, which has (given all of the family events lately) been aging rather longer than necessary down at a friend's house. The latest production (which is tentatively called Smokestack Porter) is a stronger variation on an English mild dark style that we tried a while back. This incorporates peated malt to give it a distinctly smokey flavor. Have to wait a week or two for it to finish carbonating before I can test it, but the initial taste seemed promising.
For those of you out there who seriously care about good beer (especially if like me you have a tendency to want to dig in and do things from scratch) I strongly recommend homebrewing. The initial equipment is fairly cheap (probably around $100 to get you well and started) and the cost for producing the quite high quality beer is $30-60 per five gallon batch. (That's about 50 bottles.)
Here's the five minute rundown on brewing:
Beer has four basic ingredients: malt (a form of sugar extracted from grain, usually wheat or barley), hops (a herb which adds the characteristic, slightly bitter "beer" flavor), yeast (which turns the sugars into alcohol) and water.
(NB: You "malt" grain by soaking it in water and allowing it to germinate, then drying it. Drying it often involves roasting it, so the primary differences you'll get between malts result from the type of grain and degree of roasting. The enzymes active during germination break down the starches in the grain to sugars, which the yeast will later be able to process.)
Making a batch goes like this. You go down to your friendly homebrewing store and pick up 5-8lbs of malt syrup. You also get 0.5-3lbs of malted grain. There are various kinds of grain, each of which provides a different flavor, but some of the basics are:
Chocolate Malt -- makes your beer dark and provides a slightly burnt, cocoa-ish kind of flavor
Pale Row Malt -- your basic, not-too-roasted malt that goes into pale ales and pilsners
Crystal Malt -- has a sweeter "maltier" flavor profile, such as you'd find in a Scottish ale, Irish Red or Belgian ale
Roasted Barley -- provides a bitter, burnt taste such as in Guinness Stout
Peated Malt -- provides a smokey flavor (think Islay Scotch)
You also buy hops and a vial of activated yeast in liquid form.
Going home, you put 2-3 gallons of water on to heat. When it's up to around 160F, you put your grains in a mesh "grain bag" -- think of it as a giant tea bag. You let those soak for 30min or so, which gets the sugars (and color and body) out into the water. Then you drain it and bring the water up to a boil. You pour in the malt syrup. (This is basically a much concentrated version of what you just did with the "tea bag" -- but you'd have to pour your water through about 15lbs of grain to extract that many sugars, so you cheat.) You stir it up and bring it back to a boil. When it reaches a boil, you put in the hops (which usually come in little compressed pellets that looks like rabbit food). Now, you keep your water boiling for a hour. Near the end, you add some more hops. (While the hour-long hops will provide the bitterness, the ones added near the end provide aroma and flavor.)
At the one hour mark, you take your pot off the heat and let it cool. You can't pitch yeast till you get the wort down to 80F, but bacteria can get into it starting around 120F, so the trick is to cool the wort fast. Personally, I freeze spring water (or some other known clean source of water) and pour the near-boiling wort over that. The aim is to end up with 5gal of finished wort, and at this point you have about 2gal.
The key is cleanliness. You don't want nasty stuff to grow in your beer and turn it sour, so everything the beer goes into after the boiling (fermenting bucket with bubble lock, which allows air out but not in, syphons, etc.) needs to be sterilized.
Once your beer is down to 80F, you pour in the yeast, stir it up, put the lid on the fermenting bucket, and put it away for about a week. During that time, the yeastie beasties will turn most of the sugars into alcohol. Then they die and fall to the bottom of the fermentor in a thick sludge. So you siphon the beer off into a 5gal glass bottle (so the dead yeast won't make it sour) and let it ferment slowly for another 2-6 weeks until it stops putting out CO2. (You watch to see if bubbles are coming up through the fermentation lock.)
When it's done fermenting, you siphon it one more time -- back into the bucket where its started out. There you mix in some corn sugar. This will give the yeast some more food to produce Co2 for carbonation. You sterilize 50 bottles (this is one of the biggest pains in the whole process) and you siphon the beer into bottles and cap them.
Now you wait for 1-2 weeks, and if all goes well (and I haven't ever really had it go badly) you end up with a you end up with a great homebrew you can crack open when you get home from work.
Various companies sell "beer making in a can" or "beer making in a bag" kits. I haven't tried them, but from what I've heard these are usually not nearly as good as the product you can make from scratch as described above, and they're not really that much easier of cheaper.