Brew it yourself

Homebrewers say beer-making isn't only about the suds

Homebrewers say beer-making isn't only about the suds

February 11, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

If it weren't for sound advice from good friends, Ed O'Bryan would not have been able to salvage his "exploding" beer.

"Put it in the fridge," was the advice, O'Bryan said. And it worked. "It slowed the fermentation process," he said. "Though it did have a fountain effect every time you opened one."

For people like O'Bryan, beer is a big deal - so much so they're willing to make it themselves, mishaps and all. O'Bryan, 46, of Hagerstown, has been brewing beer since the late 1980s.

"My wife didn't like paying $6 to $7 for a six-pack for microbrews so she bought me my own kit," O'Bryan said. "I've been home brewing ever since."


But it isn't just about the brew. Really, it's about the social aspect. Beer is simply what brings them together.

O'Bryan brews with his buddy and neighbor, Matt Staubs, who, on the day of the interview, lugged 5 1/2 gallons of fermenting lager to O'Bryan's home. It will be ready just in time for St. Patrick's Day, they said.

Their favorite is brown ale, an easy yet adaptable recipe, Staubs said. Brown ale, he said, is like the chocolate chip cookie of beers.

"You can get Famous Amos, you can get the Chips Ahoy, you can even get the Weis brand," Staubs said.

O'Bryan also bounces questions - like that of the exploding beer - off local homebrewers clubs in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md.

"I asked them millions of questions and suddenly, I realized I wasn't asking the questions. People were asking me the questions," O'Bryan said. "I guess I figured it out."

Beer: an American tradition

The use of beer as a social lubricant hearkens back to America's founding fathers, who often met in New England pubs and taverns to debate the need to cut ties with the Mother Country.

"That's where our revolution was founded - in pubs," said Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association.

Quashed by Prohibition, homebrewing became even more popular in the 1980s after a federal law passed in 1978 made it legal for folks to brew their own beer.

Today, tradition continues in garages, basements and kitchens across the country. There are an estimated 750,000 active homebrewers in the United States, Glass said.

Camaraderie in the suds

Not only are beer fans taking their love of brew to another level by making their own - they're making an event out of it. They're swapping ideas online, and at beer club meet-ups and conventions - after all, they've all got at least one thing in common: the love of beer.

"The culture of home brewers (is) they want to share their knowledge," Glass said.

Glass said there are 13,000 people are signed up on the AHA's "tech talk" forum, and that's just one of many Web sites out there for homebrewers.

Matt Brophy, vice president of brewing operations for Flying Dog Brewery, based in Frederick, Md., said homebrewers get their start like O'Bryan and Staubs did.

"A friend is even more common than picking up a book," Brophy said.

Brophy said he started brewing after hearing a National Public Radio segment with Charlie Papazian, founder of the American Homebrewers Association.

Brophy went on to buy Papazian's book, "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing."

"I've been hooked ever since," Brophy said.

How O'Bryan got started

O'Bryan and Staubs that anyone can make beer.

"If you can make macaroni and cheese out of a box, you can make beer," Staubs said.

But it helps if you have outside space to do it.

O'Bryan said he first started brewing in a two-bedroom apartment because he couldn't do it outdoors. The exploding-beer incident, O'Bryan said, happened in the apartment. Luckily, he said, it was before they had kids.

"My wife loved that," O'Bryan said.

You also understand how problematic indoor brewing can be if you know what brewing beer smells like, said O'Bryan and Staubs, who described it as "boiling oatmeal with a kick."

"It will stink the house up," Staubs said.

Always room to grow

O'Bryan, who now lives in a house on the North End, has moved his brewing operation outside.

O'Bryan and Staubs say they make between 20 and 25 gallons of beer a year. Sometimes the beer comes out good, and sometimes it's not so good.

"I had a batch go bad because I wanted to try mint in it," O'Bryan said. "It was around Christmas time."

The buds are also have an "experimental" batch of what they call "Buffett Brown Ale," a nod to Jimmy Buffett.

While O'Bryan and Staubs agree that beer is better when it's homebrewed - they've conducted blind taste tests to confirm this - there's still one beer O'Bryan said is better ordered at a bar - Yuengling's Black & Tan.

"It wasn't bad," O'Bryan said of the times he's tried to make it. "It just has never come out tasting like Yuengling's Black and Tan."

What beer is made of

Common ingredients in homemade brew

o Malt extract - Made from malted barley or wheat. The basis of most homebrews, it provides the sugars that the yeast will consume to produce alcohol. Malt extracts come in a variety of colors for different styles of beer.

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