Beer lovers create own unique flavors
TBO.comINDIANA, Pa. - Whatever your fancy in beer, it can be homebrewed. So, if the mass-produced six- and 24-packs of the popular brands aren't your style, you no longer have to settle for 'em. All it takes is a little know-how and proper technique, and you can be brewing your favorite exotic flavors in no time.
Published: October 10, 2012
Published: October 10, 2012
Homebrewing is becoming more popular in America, as are microbreweries and pub breweries.
People have been brewing beer for 12,000 years, according to the Homebrewers Association. The pilgrims brewed. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did it. As of 2011, there were an estimated 1 million homebrewers in the United States, more than 1,000 homebrew clubs and more than 300 homebrew competitions around the country.
Indiana may not have a microbrewery situated on Philadelphia Street (yet), but it does have the Indiana Homebrewers Club, which meets the second Tuesday of each month at The Coney.
They get together to socialize, talk about brewing and different techniques, discuss a different topic each month and, if they wish, bring their homemade concoctions to share with the rest of the group as they pass the bottles around, pouring samples into little tasting glasses.
The club was formed in 2007 by Nate McElroy, an Indiana University of Pennsylvania chemistry professor and the club's acting president; Dave Juart; Eli Long; and Jon Defibaugh.
"It started as a beer-tasting club (with my friends), and it sort of segued into the fact that I got them interested in homebrewing, so we decided to see who else in town would be interested," McElroy said.
So they advertised their intentions to see who would show up "and it's been going ever since," McElroy said. Now there are approximately 40 people on the club's mailing list, and about 15 gather for an average meeting. September's meeting garnered close to 20 people, from college professors and business owners to average Joes and new members.
The club includes first-time brewers and well-seasoned ones who have been brewing for more than 20 years. The club doesn't discriminate. All you need is a love for, and appreciation of, beer. You don't even need a background in chemistry. But for McElroy, it helps.
"You don't have to be knowledgeable in chemistry to be a good beer brewer, but I like the science, the geeky part of it."
And you don't need a dedicated space. McElroy has taught people how to homebrew in his kitchen — including Defibaugh, who is now a professional brewer at Tired Hands Brewing Co. in Philadelphia and has one of the top 10 pale ales in the world.
"It's cool that someone who helped start a club here and brewed his first batch of beer in my kitchen is literally now a brewer and making beer much better than I'll ever make," he said.
Homebrewing got its start in Indiana, Pa., McElroy said, because "we didn't have a very good selection of beers back in the '80s and '90s." When he was in college, "Guinness was considered exotic."
"Now, with Giant Eagle and Martin's, we really have a good selection," he said. "It's amazing all the varieties of beer you can find in Indiana."
In addition to the specialty sections in some of the town's stores, Indiana's bars are starting to offer more in the way of exotic brews by adding more taps to their selection, McElroy said.
"A lot of people homebrew simply because it's a fun hobby and they can make exactly what they want."
But, he added, it's not always cheaper.
"If your beer of choice is Miller Lite, you're better off just buying Miller Lite. But if your favorite beer is a Belgian import made by monks that's a hundred bucks a case, it'd be cheaper to make your own beer," said McElroy, whose favorite beer is saison, a Belgian farmhouse ale.
"As you get used to more different flavors and different styles, you're willing to try more," said Joe Trimarchi, who has been homebrewing for five years.
The idea of the tasting the club does, Trimarchi said, is to taste a little bit of the beer, get the aroma of it and swirl it for color, almost similar to wine tasting.
If you really want to be a brewing enthusiast, you can rate beers. McElroy has rated almost 3,200 beers.
"I've lived in Germany and France and got a really good appreciation of brews," he said.
Rating a beer, he said, is based on the aroma (sweet, hoppy, etc.); appearance (bright, hazy, etc.); taste, which is based on the Homebrewers Association's official style guide; palate (fizzy, flat, etc.); and the tasters' overall opinion and experience.
A typical brew day can range from three to five hours, depending on the process, McElroy said. Then it takes about a week to ferment, plus an additional two to three weeks to mature and carbonate in the bottle.
"You could have beer as soon as three weeks, but it's usually closer to six weeks," he said.
McElroy said most people new to homebrewing will start out making ales because they require a shorter fermentation time as opposed to lagers. Ales can vary from Indian and American pale ales to British ales, stouts and wheat beers.
"There's a great variety of ales," he said. About a year ago, members made the same recipe and there weren't two beers that were alike, said IHC member Bill Dietrich, a retired biology professor.
"It's like a big palate — different colors, flavors, aromas," Dietrich said.
Some brewers like to add a personal flavor to their beers.
McElroy mentioned a seemingly odd element: coffee.
"Our local coffee roaster at The Commonplace (Coffeehouse) collaborated with (East End Brewing Co.) in Pittsburgh, and they have a coffee porter," he said.
It all came about a couple of years ago when McElroy experimented and made some "coffee beer" using coffee from Commonplace.
"It was delicious," he said. So he gave some to Commonplace owner T.J. Fairchild to try, and it was a hit.
"He liked it a lot," McElroy said. So then he gave some to Scott Smith, owner of East End Brewing Co.
The result: the sale of bottled coffee porter in Pittsburgh, using an Indiana product.
"It's sort of a melding between coffee and beer," McElroy said, adding that this combination led to the Commonplace having retail space in East End's new brewery. "So there's not only going to be a beer brewery, but a coffee roastery in the same building."
Homebrewing is a fairly simple process, if you take proper steps and follow the instructions carefully.
There are four ingredients, Dietrich said: water, hops, yeast, malt and, at times, malt extract. Basic beginner kits are available online, at Target and at department stores such as Sears.
Ingredients can cost anywhere from $25 to $45 for a five-gallon batch (which will make about two cases of 12-ounce bottles), depending on the style being brewed.
You'll also need time and patience, of course.
Dietrich stressed that everything used to make beer needs to be sanitized, including utensils.
"The major problem (with brewing) is that people aren't clean enough, and bacteria gets in the beer and the bacteria does strange things," he said, adding that "you have to be very careful" about cleaning everything up. "Especially after the beer is boiled and cooled, anything that touches that beer after that has to be sterile or sanitized because if it's not, you risk contamination."
The IHA website offers a beginners' video with step-by-step, albeit animated, instructions on how to brew from start to finish. It can be viewed at www.homebrewersassociation.org/pages/lets-brew/brewing-101.