John Ray has a rating scale for the beers he brews at home. Actually, it's his grandmother's scale.
Glenda Hart, who frequently helps Ray brew the beer, judges the end result on whether she'd pay $3, $4 or $5 for a 22-ounce bottle in a store.
"I've gotten the $5 rating about 70 percent of the time," says Ray. "They have all been judged as good. She emails me and calls me when she finds something neat to try."
Ray says brewing buckets of beer wasn't on his bucket list, but only because the Grants Pass resident doesn't keep a bucket list.
"It had become something I was interested in doing," says Ray. "My wife's father gave me the push."
Ray received the ingredients and most of the equipment for home brewing from his father-in-law at Christmas 2010.
"The kit he sent me contained all of the ingredients as well as instructions," says Ray. "It was all pre-measured. I was very happy with the result. It was an Imperial Russian stout.
"I wasn't much of a beer drinker early on. It was something I kind of acquired," says Ray. "I notice the difference in the ingredients stands out more than in wine."
While it's time-consuming — making a 5-gallon batch takes about 10 hours — Ray says he enjoys creating his own brews and sharing them with others.
"There's not a huge savings because you spend all the time," says Ray. "It's just fun to get to create different flavors, probably something you can't buy in a store."
The 10 hours reflect only the hands-on time — the entire process takes weeks.
Ray and many home brewers purchase grain extracts to start the process rather than beginning with basic grains, which require more steeping time.
Only about 5 percent of his customers go the all-grains route, says Bob Barcolas, owner of Grains Beans & Things in Medford. Most of the rest use malt extracts that still require boiling and the addition of hops.
Ray uses a turkey fryer to heat ingredients in a 6-gallon pot. He works either on his back porch or in his garage and tries to brew a batch once a month, depending on other commitments.
Extracts are steeped initially for 20 to 45 minutes, then brewers add more water and boil for 45 to 90 minutes. It's during this boil that hops are added, with bittering hops coming first.
"Different recipes will call for different types and amounts, often in two or three stages," Ray explains.
Hops are added about 15 minutes before the end of the boil for more flavor. After the boil, more hops may be added for aroma.
Chilling follows. Ray uses a copper coil to run cold water through the batch to reduce temperature.
"You have to sanitize everything at this point," he says. "For the next one to three weeks you are going to have this warm, room-temperature sugary residue in flux continually."
Lack of sanitation can lead to an infected batch, a result Ray has so far avoided. He says he's been told a bad batch won't kill anyone, but does exhibit funky smells and tastes.
The batch is then placed in a fermentor, a 6-gallon food-grade bucket that has an air-lock valve to relieve pressure. Yeast is added to begin fermentation. After about six hours, the batch will begin to bubble.
"It's quite gratifying during the first couple of days. It will bubble constantly," says Ray. "You know that the yeast is doing its job. You know the fermentation is going strong."
When the fermenting is completed after two to three weeks, corn sugar is added to carbonate the beer and the batch is bottled. A clarifying agent may also be added.
A 5-gallon batch usually will yield about 55 12-ounce bottles at a cost of about $1 each, says Ray.
Ray, parts manager at Lithia BMW and Nissan in Medford, says he trades bottles with two coworkers who are home brewers. He also shares bottles with fellow members of the Siskiyou Sports Car Club.
Home brewers today can produce quality beer in part because they have access to the same ingredients as commercial brewers, says Grains and Beans' Barcolas. That wasn't the case when he started brewing 18 years ago.
Barcolas' shop features 200 varieties of yeast, 100 types of malt barleys and 60 varieties of hops. A $100 starter kit and $30 worth of ingredients can get a first-time brewer a 5-gallon batch, Barcolas says.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.