A Short History of Home Brewing
Story and Photography by Darian Stout
Throw chemistry in a stainless-steel kettle, add some microbiology, drop in a dash of recipe building, stir gently, heat, rest, heat, cool, add yeast and let bubble for a couple of weeks. The result could be either the most delicious beverage your mouth has gotten to guzzle or a laborious dud. Luckily, home-brewing culture is concerned with camaraderie as much as it is with flavor. Brew club members offer open palates and minds to help individual brewers improve their efforts. In the end, the maker is rewarded for his or her lengthy task of creating by winning over a share of taste buds.
Home brewers range from casual to obsessive. David Shreffler, of Team Science Brewing Club, demonstrates how an afternoon of brewing can be as casual as making homemade bread. Instead of a mixer, he stirs grain and water together in a 10-gallon Rubbermaid cooler with a three-foot-long glorified spoon called a “mash paddle.” Instead of an oven, he uses an outdoor burner commonly used for frying turkeys. Utensils lining the counter attempt to turn this residential kitchen into a commercial lab. Aromas of malted grain mix in the air.
David is barefoot as he stirs the grist, checks temperatures, heats water, measures the amount of sugar in the unfermented beer and sips a brew. Today, he is working without the help of the Team Science Brewing Club, which, David explains, is small for a home brewing group. It consists of about five friends who share ideas before, during and after the brewing session. While not every member may be present for all steps along the way, they will certainly be present at the end to taste and critique each batch. David encourages others to give home fermentation a try “because you get to make something with your hands.” His hands remain busy for the next few hours, but his vision for future brewing includes devising a way to use “small computers and pumps” to make the brewing process easier, saving the heavy lifting of large kettles of liquid for his son.
Team Science and David himself represent a band of DIY’ers that would rather make their own version of an IPA than select it from the beer cooler. Their self-reliant and self-sustainable outlook joins the ranks of those growing food, fermenting, preserving, cheese-making, roasting coffee beans and distilling. Part of the allure of home brewing, as well as other DIY crafts, is the challenge to create something from scratch. Sharing the end product creates an excitement for the brewer akin to a chef plating up food for his fellow chefs.
Brewers of all types circle around boiling kettles for plain fun. Their obsession for unique beer echoes the diverse community they gather in. Gary Grobeck, founder of the Benson Homebrewer Fest, and 20-year veteran of home brewing, speaks of the desolate beer scene before he started making his own, “Beer wasn’t nearly as good then.” The best Gary could recall was a “dark beer called Augsburger from Wisconsin.” The lack of American variety led famous home brewers such as Charlie Papazian (author of the bible to the home brewing movement, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing) to create their own renditions of staples found across the globe but not necessarily in their local grocery store aisle.
Throughout the last few decades, Gary and other home brewers have fueled the interest for much more exciting varieties of beer that microbreweries now share plentifully. Gary himself has created unique brews such as a basil beer, with herbs snipped from his garden, and a chili beer that uses homegrown peppers and spices. These new makers have shown the country that beer isn’t just a post-lawn-mowing refreshment but a potentially complex libation akin to wine.
A good example of a tinkerer, a home brewer who purposefully messes with a good thing in order to blow the taste buds off his fellow competitors, is DeJuan Cribbs. A member of the Local 402 Home Brewers, he was one of the competitors recently vying behind Krug Park’s beautifully hand-built bar for first place at the Benson Homebrewer Fest. On an early November day in preparation for the holidays, DeJuan was serving his Chocolate Candy Cane Porter. The velvety-smooth porter was perfumed with the beautiful menthol smell reminiscent of the white- and red-striped canes and offered notes of dark cocoa and coffee. I imagined sipping it in front of a burning Yule log as I cast my vote for DeJuan.
Taking up such a hobby should not be left to those who avoid all modern convenience and choose to make all food and drink from scratch. Extract kits, where brewers simply boil syrups in water before adding hops and yeast, are designed to show the masses that crafty beer can be made easily on the kitchen stove. Whether or not you decide to invite a club over to help you in the process or enter your end product in a competition, you will be pursuing, as David puts it, “an outlet for construction and invention.” Get in touch with one of the many local brewing groups on Facebook to see the brewing process in action, or visit the new Patriot Homebrew Supply in Elkhorn, Nebraska, to start your own revolution.
Darian Stout pours coffee slow in the morning, cooks lunch with students, makes baby food for dinner and feeds his chickens the scraps. He dreams nightly of dark chocolate, doughnuts and gelato.