The Art of Homebrewing

Posted on March 13, 2013 by

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Writer: Darren Sweeney

There are probably still a lot of people out there that think of “bathtub beer” when it comes to home brewing. However, the stereotype of undrinkable brew made in your neighbor’s bathroom is quickly being disproven as the art of home brewing is gaining popularity and respect.

I’m sure there were several people that had their doubts when one of my groomsmen volunteered to home brew all the beer for my wedding this past summer. The cases of empty beer bottles and the multitude of compliments he received confirmed what my wife and I already knew – his homebrew was as good, if not better, than anything we could’ve bought from the local distributor.

Since moving to Charlottesville from North Carolina a few months ago, I quickly realized the passion for this tasty hobby has not been lost on those in this area either. There’s a store full of ingredients and supplies that caters to home brewers, as well as a club known as the Charlottesville Area Masters of Real Ale (CAMRA) that meets monthly to discuss and taste various recipes.

Just like most hobbies, the main reason people decide to take up home brewing is because it’s relatively simple and fun, and the finished product is often rewarding.

“It’s the only hobby where you can make something at home that’s as good or better than what you can buy,” said Adam Rihner, a home brewer and resident beer expert at Fifth Season Gardening Co. on Preston Avenue.

Fifth Season sells equipment and ingredients for all levels of home brewers. The store recommends ingredient kits for first-time brewers. The kits typically include the grains, hops, yeast and malt extract needed to make the beer, as well as step-by-step instructions.

“If you can follow directions, you can make a decent beer,” according to Katie Silberger, an employee at Fifth Season.

Rihner contends anyone with a couple hundred dollars to spare for equipment and ingredient costs is ready to make their first homemade beer. He said brewers can have a good beer in about four weeks. Rihner added that the process of making beer at home doesn’t save brewers a whole lot of money, but “it is fun.”

“I liked the first beer I made,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to mess up.”

Rihner, who has been making homebrew for about seven years, said he is now making all-grain beers, which means doing everything from scratch.

“It’s a lot more fun. It’s a lot more rewarding,” Rihner said.

Bonding Over Beer

In addition to the entertainment and palate-pleasing value of home brewing, the most resounding impression I received when meeting with those in the home brewing community is it truly is a labor of love.

This love was quite evident when I attended the November meeting of CAMRA at the Timberwood Grill on the northern outskirts of Charlottesville. More than 30 brewers gathered to discuss their latest recipes and taste each other’s creations.

After a presentation on cider making, the brewers milled about offering anyone in the room with a sampling glass in hand a taste of their homemade beers and ciders. They talked about their ingredients, which ranged from kits to random pantry items, and sought advice on how to improve their concoctions.

It was at this meeting that I met Anne and Edrick Deery, a couple from Fluvanna County that is fairly new to the local home brewing scene.

Anne said she has only brewed using ingredient kits, while Edrick likes to alternate between the kits and his own recipe. Edrick invited me to the couple’s Kents Store home in early December to observe this labor of love in person.

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While a lot of home brewers use their stovetop to boil their water and wort, Deery and Parsons decided to rig their propane-fueled turkey fryers into beer cauldrons. This way, the brewing can take place outdoors, generally creating less mess than brewing in the kitchen.

On a relatively mild Saturday afternoon, I arrived at the two-story farmhouse the couple rents to observe and taste the art of home brewing. Edrick set up a propane turkey fryer on the side of the wraparound porch as he waited for his friend and occasional brewmate Chris Parsons to arrive so the brewing could begin.

Deery said he enjoys brewing with Parsons. He even bought his buddy his first ingredient kit for his birthday about a year ago. “It gives us an excuse to hang out once a month,” Deery said, noting part of the fun is drinking each other’s homemade beers.

Homebrew 041Deery, who used a “very hoppy homemade recipe” to brew his previous batch, said this time he opted to use a limited edition extract kit from Northern Brewer to create a Belgian brew known as Saison de Noel. Parsons, a school psychologist who lives in Richmond, spent the afternoon brewing an Australian Dark Ale, also from a kit.

As they heated their 5 gallons of water to the appropriate temperature to steep their grains, about 170 degrees, the next crucial step was to retreat inside to taste a flight of four homemade beers Parsons had brewed.

The concoctions ranged from a strong ale affectionately referred to as Head Wound (my personal favorite) to an imperial brown ale known as Lady Bug and Wasp. Parsons said he came up with the name for the brown ale after a lady bug and a wasp ended up in his brew pot during the boiling process last summer. He didn’t fish them out since they didn’t affect the sanitation and just let them settle to the bottom. The beer had little sting and no buggy aftertaste.

Homebrew wort poutAfter about three hours of brewing and a few pints of beer, Deery and Parsons were ready to start the fermentation process. They poured each one of their brews into separate fermentation buckets, added the yeast, used a hydrometer to measure the gravity and density of the beer, attached the lids and inserted airlocks to control the air flow.

The brew day was done and the fermenting had begun.

Deery said he awoke the next morning to the sound of both fermenters bubbling through the airlocks, which means the fermentation had started successfully.

“That is typically an exciting point in the process for us brewers because until you start hearing bubbles, you’re not sure if something went wrong or not,” he said.

After a week of fermenting, Deery transferred the beers to their secondary fermentation containers and even sampled them. He said the Saison was really tasty with an alcohol content of about 7.6 percent, while the dark ale tasted more like mead than beer with an alcohol content of about 4.5 percent so far.

Deery waited about four weeks before bottling the beers and said it would be about another two weeks before they were ready to be consumed.

So, as I savored my first taste of these homemade beers, Deery said it may not be long before I catch the brewing bug myself.

“I predict that you’ll be brewing on your own by next summer,” he said.

After sampling the Saison with an alcohol content of about 8.4 percent in mid-January, I definitely could see why many people have latched onto this hop-filled hobby. The beer had a nice dark body with a bitter first sip, but the more I drank it, the more I liked it.

Even the dark ale, which Deery was not very impressed with no matter how much he tried to tweak the ingredients, had an alcohol content of more than 6 percent and a smooth finish.

While it may take the right mix of ingredients to please Deery’s palate, it’s clear he has a passion for home brewing.

A Personal Passion

Deery, who moved to central Virginia from Maryland, said he first got involved with home brewing about seven or eight years ago.

“A friend of mine was a home brewer and would invite me to his place for some guy time. We’d make dinner, brew up a batch of beer, then head to his basement to his music room and jam out for a while,” said Deery, who likes to play guitar when he’s not brewing beer.

Deery said he was mainly helping his friend brew, but they would come up with the recipes together.

Then, as a birthday present one year, Anne bought him and Parsons a trip to the now-defunct Shenandoah Brewing Co. in Alexandria, where they could work with the brewmaster and use the brewery’s equipment to create their own beer.

Deery said he brewed a beer that was a cross between a Hefeweizen and a hoppy India Pale Ale (IPA). “That beer came out amazing,” Deery said. “I still think that it was probably one of the best beers I ever made. I even had an artist friend of mine design the label.”

Deery added, “After making a beer that I and the other people I shared it with loved that much, I bought my own homebrew kit and have been brewing ever since.”

Deery noted that beer-making takes a lot of patience. He said he brewed a pumpkin beer once that he didn’t like initially, but after a year, it tasted just right. “Sometimes, time is just so good for these beers.”

Now, with no sign of slowing down, Deery’s passion for brewing could even turn into a career one day. He said he is working on two business plans to open a small brewery in the near future.

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