[2014-07-07] I have been home brewing since 1996, starting with a wine kit. It is a hobby that can easily get out of hand, but I try to keep it relatively simple and inexpensive. This means not much special equipment, and using ingredients from the local market, trying to avoid specialty stores.
It is really a budget issue for me — I hate paying something like 7 € for a mediocre pint at a noisy bar, when I can make something better for 1 € or less. Much like cooking and any "maker" activity, there are a lot of simple and cheap options for improving and experimenting with your brew.
Do not underestimate beer kits like Cooper's. They are a great way to start your brewing career, and make a nice basis for further experiments. I use them a lot even after all these years, with a few modifications.
A basic idea is to reduce the amount of water, such as making a total of 16..18 L instead of the suggested 20..25. You can keep the same amount of sugar regardless.
For the best brew, make an all-malt version with no sugar, and half the water. I do this a lot, resulting in about 12 L of excellent beer. Some of the cheap kits can give you a real surprise this way, for example Cooper's Dark Ale. To further experiment in the all-malt world, use 2 different kits for a 25 L batch. Even if one of them is a cheap lager kit, it's immensely better than sugar, being extra malt.
Despite the name, the same idea works great for cider as well.
Some "premium" kits such as Brewferm will generally give good results with the default config. Sugar is an integral part of many Belgian beers, rather than a cheap substitute for malt.
For a light summer drink, start with the cheapest lager kit, or even a small beer (kotikalja / svagdricka) kit. Use about 1 lemon per 10 L, or half of the amount in mead, to maintain balance with the malt side while compensating for the lack of hops. I recommend using the whole of a lemon and crushing it thoroughly, as the fermentation is quite fast, so there is little decomposition otherwise. Alternatively, try grated ginger.
This is not your grandmother's mead. My style is to brew it like beer or cider, complete with proper bottle fermentation. What you get is comparable to cider or cooler (Finnish "long drink").
In July 2015 I started experimenting with wild herbs to replace hops in beer, also known as gruit in beer parlance. So far, I have limited myself to yarrow and mugwort, being the two species I can easily find and identify around here. The experiences have been generally rather bland, probably due to using too little of everything, and improper handling/drying. There are some faint and interesting aromas, and the only negative aspect is a bitter aftertaste of yarrow leaves in some cases.
Mugwort has proved my favourite of these two for a number of reasons. The flowers are easy to collect by pulling along the branches, and the natural terpenes keep insects at a minimum. They also provide a nice indoor aroma while drying, and the flowers also make a nice cup of herbal tea.
Drying herbs without special equipment is an artform in itself. One simple trick is to use the oven with only the light on. This will keep the temperature a few degrees above room temp, with no danger of overheating. A fan oven is particularly good for this. Alternatively, many herbs can be also used fresh or frozen.
During my career, I recall only three incidents of bottles exploding while bottle fermenting. All of which, fortunately, took place while stored in cardboard boxes and me being away. The first time was one of my very first batches, and probably more than one bottle; the following two were single glitches in otherwise perfect batches. So even after doing everything properly, a single bottle can still fail.
(Generally, the bottom comes off, being a large surface supported by corners where the stress easily concentrates — a nice combo of hydraulics and material science. Not a huge explosion but plenty of spillage nevertheless.)
The amount of BFS recommended varies considerably between kits. My current rule of thumb of 1 dL per 10 L verges on the lowest ones, just to be safe, and it has worked fine so far. I also used 100 g per 10 L quite a lot, without too many ill effects. A larger variance probably lies in the extent of the main fermentation.
Beer is generally easily fermented, especially when it is all malt, so even baking yeast can be used in a pinch. I would not recommend it, and it will require a longer period of bottle fermentation to lose that bready feel. Half a satchel or about 5 grams is enough, too much and it makes a doughy layer on top.
Other drinks are generally more picky, as mentioned for mead above.