Craft(ing) Beer on a Budget: Five Questionable Recipes

by Sarah Fox

It seems like everyone these days is brewing their own beer — except for me. This is easy to blame on my lack of space in a tiny New York apartment. I like to think that with enough room, I’d be the type of person who would brew and bottle their own delicious creations, but the truth of the matter is that I’m extremely intimidated by the “sterilization” step. I tried to preserve lemons once — a process that really only requires lemons, salt, and waiting — but by the third week there was a mysterious pink mold growing in the bottom of the canning jar. So while I’d love to brew my own beer, I am not up for risking botulism to do it.

But recently I read about a new trend of flavoring beers by using a French Press. Finally, I thought: here is how I am going to make my own craft beer. By forcing the beer through the French Press’s filter, you can effectively infuse it with spices, fruits or anything else you can imagine. The best part is, this craft beer will be done in five minutes, instead of five weeks. If it sounds bootleg, that’s because it is. It’s sort of the point.

My roommate Alex and I threw a party a few months ago, and we still had a case of Bud Light bottles sitting in the back of our fridge. I’ve been spending wildly lately, so this 12-pack was perfect for my experimentations. To keep myself on budget, I decided to only use ingredients I had in my pantry, or things I could buy at the corner store for under a dollar. I invited Alex and my friend Jenn to help me try out the infusions. Alex is a true beer aficionado and actively seeks out bars and events where she can sample offerings from different craft breweries. Also, the French press is hers. I met Jenn while studying abroad in Germany, which is where I acquired my own taste for beer.

(The basic process can be repeated with any beer and combination of flavors.)

Step 1: Add infusion ingredients into an empty French press.

Step 2: Pour beer gently over ingredients. I tried to release as little of the carbonation as possible.

Step 3: Let the mixture sit for 2–3 minutes, then press like coffee.

Beer #1: Zest of 1 Lime, Juice of ¼ Lime, ¼ tsp Pink Hawaiian Sea Salt

I bought the sea salt while I was visiting my sister in Hawaii last year. It’s very fancy and I put it out on the table every time I want to impress guests. The limes were four-for-a-dollar at the local grocery store. After pressing, the color is slightly darker than a normal Bud Light. It has an aroma of limes and the smell reminds me of something you’d drink on a hot day at the beach.

Me: It tastes like a margarita, or, more accurately, like the kind of “margarita” you make with frozen limejuice and a beer. Actually, it pretty much tastes like a Bud Light Lime.

Jenn: It tastes like Bud Light Lime with a salted rim. This is the kind of beer that just makes you want to drink more beer.

Alex: This is definitely the most I’ve ever enjoyed a Bud Light.

Verdict: When we open our beer infusions bar, this will be on the menu. Next time I’ll use slightly less salt.

Beer #2: Pinch of Le Hing Powder and 2 tbs Dole Crushed Pineapple

The Le Hing Powder is another thing I picked up in Hawaii. It’s a pink, salty, sweet and sour powder made of pickled ground plum skin. I bought it thinking that I would put it on everything, and I have used it on exactly zero occasions since. In Hawaii, they dip fruit — especially pineapple — in it. The price of the crushed pineapple was a little over budget ($1.50) but I really needed to find a way to use this Le Hing powder. We pressed this one and it had a strong aroma of fake pineapple, like the sickly sweet smell of a flavored chewy candy. The beer’s color came out a dark reddish yellow. Not one of us wanted to try it.

Jenn: This one looks like pee when you’re dehydrated or watery vomit.

Alex: The color is pink adjacent.

Sarah: This tastes like a sweet Bud Light.

Alex: it tastes like medicine. I don’t want to have any more.

Verdict: This one is reminiscent of an overly-sweet girly cocktail — the kind that you drank when you were underage, but which now gives you heartburn. Had fresh pineapple been in the budget, maybe this would have been more of a success.

Beer #3: 1 Black Tea bag, Orange Zest, Orange slice

I used my favorite tea, Harney and Sons Paris. I cut open the bag and poured it in like loose leaf tea. The tea has undertones of bergamot, and I was hoping the orange would bring out that piney citrus flavor. I had high hopes for this one because I love tea-flavored liquors. I am no longer allowed to drink Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka because it’s dangerous, and I’m looking for a replacement with lower alcohol content. After pressing, it smelled like oranges.

Alex: Reminds me of a Blue Moon. Now you too can recreate the fancy beer of your college days at home!

Jenn: There’s a strong orange flavor, not overly sweet, with a vanilla finish.

Me: I’m drinking more of this one!

Verdict: High Brow Bud Light, or, the beer you never knew you wanted.

Beer #4: 2 Crushed Green Cardamom Pods, 1 tsp Ground Coffee and ¼ teaspoon Vanilla Extract.

I got the cardamom pods from my friend who was cleaning out her apartment before she moved to London. I don’t actually know what you use them for, but I suspect it’s some type of Indian food. I looked up flavors that matched well with cardamom on the internet and came up with coffee and vanilla. Before adding them to the French press, I crushed the pods with the flat side of a chef’s knife to release their flavor. After pressing, we noticed a sheen on top of the beer, which we assumed came from the coffee bean oil. It had a strong tobacco scent.

Jenn: It tastes like someone spilled coffee in the Bud Light

Alex: It’s like the morning after a big party. I’m imagining picking up solo cups.

Sarah: [No comment, just gagging.]

Verdict: This tastes like waking up in a frat house after a party where people were putting out their cigarettes in half drank beers, and as you’re walking out you can smell that someone has started brewing coffee. Yum.

Beer #5 ¼ tsp Cayenne Chili powder, ½ tsp Hot Chocolate Mix

I used the hot chocolate mix that Santa left in my stocking this Christmas, which is a step up from the other option — Nestle mix with mini marshmallows. After pressing, this smells very faintly spicy and chocolately.

Me: I’m getting a hint of chili on the finish, but not the cocoa. The cocoa is on the nose. I can smell it.

Jenn: Maybe we’ve done something really subtle here? The chili is interesting.

Alex: This makes me want to add chili to the lime-and-salt beer. I’m digging the chili.

Verdict: Mexican Hot Chocolate Light Beer is not as bad as you think it’s going to be.

The best part about this kind of beer crafting is that both the financial and time investment is quite low: it’s just one bottle of beer and five minutes. If I did it again, I would probably use a beer that is a step up from Bud Light, but I’m going to have to wait for payday to try that.

My sister, meanwhile, is one of the many people who brews her own beer — and drinks it! — with no concern for botulism. She recently made a batch of jalapeño ale with too much spice, and now she is forcing herself to drink it all. Five weeks down the drain, and months of spicy tears to look forward to. My batch was taken care of same-day. Who’s the clever beer crafter now?

A native Midwesterner, Sarah has spent time living in Boston, Auckland and Berlin. She is currently grounded in Brooklyn, N.Y. where she spends her time drinking craft beers, cooking in her tiny galley kitchen, and writing.