On a Saturday morning, eighteen people file into Bull City Homebrew's "Brew School" and are welcomed with a strong ten o'clock IPA.
"You can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning!" announces Scott Michaels, Bull City Homebrew's co-owner and one of the session's instructors. Another mantra repeated throughout the morning: "Relax, don't worry, have a home brew."
The class's students—largely couples in their twenties and thirties—aren't here just to day-drink, though. They're here to learn how to make their own beer, joining a community that has turned home brewing into a popular hobby in the Triangle. Bull City Homebrew is one of six shops in the area that sells equipment and ingredients, and all of them are thriving. (The others are American Brewmaster in Cary, Atlantic Brew Supply in Raleigh, Fifth Season in Carrboro, Homecrafted in Holly Springs, and Homesteaders Brew Supply in Fuquay-Varina.)
Home brewing sits at the intersection of the craft beer movement and the DIY trend. What it boils down to (quite literally) is combining water, grains, malt, and hops, heating the mixture, adding yeast, and letting it cool and ferment in a closet for a few weeks. Afterward, the beer is bottled and allowed to carbonate, and then it's ready to drink.
"That feeling the first time you pop the bottle, and it goes pssh and you hear that carbonation, and it works—it's just amazing," says Kyle Hefley, Bull City Homebrew's manager, who started home brewing sixteen years ago.
Several home-brewing clubs have cropped up in the Triangle over the last few years and meet about once a month. Members discuss new techniques or styles, swap advice, and sample one another's beer. (It should be noted that selling home-brewed beer is illegal.)
Some home brewers end up opening breweries: Ponysaurus, Durty Bull, Bond Brothers, and many others in the Triangle were all started by home brewers.
However, most people just do it on the side, occasionally entering competitions or participating in local festivals such as Brew Durham or Homebrew for Hunger. Simply having a few beers on tap in their own garage to share with friends is satisfying all on its own.
"There's nothing more fun than pouring your beer for people and seeing their reaction," says Mark Klinger, a professor at the UNC School of Medicine.
Klinger has been home brewing for nearly thirty years, starting out while in graduate school, at a time when craft beer was just getting off the ground. Throughout his decades as a home brewer, Klinger has tinkered with about eighty different styles of beer. Since then, he has seen people's knowledge about brewing skyrocket and the availability of ingredients vastly improve.
"I can get the exact same malt, exact same hops, same yeasts that every commercial brewery is using," he says. "That's one of those things that makes home brewing great."
Novices usually start with a technique called extract brewing and a kit that provides the necessary ingredients and a detailed recipe. Extract brewing simplifies part of the process by providing sugars in the form of malt extract, either as a powder or liquid. All-grain brewers, on the other hand, extract their own malt from grain by mashing it.
Home brewers tend to make five- or ten-gallon batches at a time, with five gallons yielding about fifty bottles of beer.
"It's definitely like having a roommate," says brewer Lea Woodard. A spare room in her house is full of carboys, or fermentation jugs. She makes about five batches simultaneously out of a shed in her backyard.
Woodard started home brewing because it aligned with many of her interests: she'd studied biology and chemistry in college and enjoyed the science involved in cooking, fermenting, and pickling.
"I make everything from IPAs to sours, and I do a lot of mixed fermentation," she says. "It makes me feel like I'm using my degree."
In addition to geeking out about the science of home brewing, another part of the hobby's appeal is experimenting with beer styles and flavors that depart from what's commercially available.
Renee Dubois has been brewing for about five years with her husband, Jesse. She made her first two batches—a lychee wheat and a Kona coffee porter—after returning from a trip to Hawaii, where she was inspired by local flavors. Dubois also brews cider, which she says offers more opportunities to explore flavors and blends than beer does.
"I've played around with wild yeasts, blends such as pomegranate-apple and grapefruit-apple, and also dry-hopping to give that added depth," she says. Her favorite cider she's made included frozen lemonade concentrate.
For many home brewers, the community aspect of cultivating their hobby is also a major draw. Two of the major home-brew clubs in the area are the TRUB Club in Durham and Nash Street Homebrew Club, which meets monthly at Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough. They both bring people with disparate careers and experiences together to talk about the thing they all love: beer.
"It's not so surprising anymore to learn that somebody brews, but it's nice to suddenly have that bond," says Keith Klemp, a research analyst at the Duke University Medical Center. "It's a lot of fun, and the end product, of course, is the great reward."