Brewing is an ancient art and is fairly easy and fairly cheap to get started with. It's far easier than you think. Brewing encompasses any boiled and fermented beverage, anything between beer and mead.
Fermentation, simply put, is the process of yeast converting sugar into alcohol and CO2. Brewing, at the most basic level, involves giving yeast things to eat. It's a little more complex - you also need to manage what kind of yeast you have, what the yeast has to eat, and for how long.
Different brews require different techniques - if you're interested in making a specific drink see the links below.
The History of Brewing
Brewing was known to the early Chinese, the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and the Babylonians. As best as we can make out, most of these early brews involved thick porridge-like mixes of grain and water that had been left out for wild yeast. The resulting 'beer' was probably not particularly tasty, but alcoholic. Big news.
Beer tended to dominate cultures that lacked wine - the Romans looked down upon those pesky barbarians who drank beer.
It has only been relatively recently that the agent of brewing (yeast) was actually understood to be any part in the brewing process at all. Many of the old recipes call for you to simply put the ingredients into a barrel previously used for the purpose and wait. It was not known what it was that magically caused the alcohol to form in the brew.
Obviously, brewing still worked - mainly because the grapes often carried the wild yeasts upon them, but also because the residue of the previous brews would still be embedded within the grain of the oak casks.
General Brewing Technique
If all that you're interested in is Beer then you should visit a home brew shop or supermarket and pick up a brewing kit. These tend to include most if not all of the following:
- Long plastic spoon
- Fermenter (including lid, airlock and rubber seals)
- Bottle filling valve
This equipment can be used to brew other things than beer and should cost $60-$100 (Australian).
Wine kits are also available - though often much harder to find. However most stores also offer many books on brewing that will give you a wide range of options for your brewing pleasure.
The number one tip I can offer is to do a good job cleaning your equipment. This really does make a huge difference to the outcome.
While many people claim that it is necessary to sterilise, it is more important simply to follow good common sense with regard to basic hygiene. you're basically doing some cooking with some food that will be sitting around for weeks (beer) or months (wine) and so if any greeblies get in - they will breed for that time and you'll end up with an awful mess.
If you trust yourself to be exceptionally clean, then do so, but otherwise, invest in some of the pink sterilising solutions you can get at a brew shop. Alternatively, try Aquashield.
A word of warning: be careful if you use sterilisers that aren't specifically for brewing!
You will be drinking this stuff later, and drinking bleach or other household sterilisation stuff is a Bad Idea™.
The only other thing to be careful about is bottling - read the page on glass grenades to get an idea of one of the more dangerous problems that can occur if you're not patient.