A Thirst for Knowledge: Home Brewing in Athens
The kitchen, cluttered with kegs and beer bottles, is steaming like a tropical spring as boiling water is muffled in clouds rising from the stove. Jordan Warren, a University of Georgia undergraduate from Alpharetta, Ga., is brewing three batches of beer.
“What I’m doing here is an all-grain, 60 minute mash, 60 minute boil, brewing system,” Jordan says as he sprinkles a package of aromatic hops into the beer kettle. All-grain brewing, as opposed to extract brewing, is for the more advanced or ambitious home brewer.
“It’s like making pancakes from scratch instead of using instant pancake mix,” Jordan says. Extract brewery kits come with concentrated wort, “the pancake mix,” which is combined with yeast to produce alcohol. Extract brewing allows beginner home brewers to skip the first step, the mashing process.
Graduating from extract brewing to all-grain brewing can be scary, says Evan Smith, owner of Blockader Homebrew Supply in Athens. “It’s a whole new world of variables, possible problems and a whole new set of challenges, but it’s well worth it if you undertake them,” he says.
With a mash tun (a cauldron-like cooking pot used for mashing grains) on the right side of Jordan’s stove, a beer kettle on the left side and multiple kegs fermenting or carbonating, it’s hard to believe Jordan has only been brewing his own beer for about nine months.
“One of the key factors is just having readily accessible supplies,” says brew master of Copper Creek, Matt Buley. Located on Broad Street, Blockader Homebrew Supply is currently the only brew supply store in Athens, and where local home brewers like Jordan get all of their grain, hops and yeast. What Blockader carries, Matt says, is pretty much everything the home brewer could ever need; in fact, what the home brewer gets is not much different than what the commercial brewer gets.
A commercial brewer for nine years now, Matt began as a first generation home brewer here in Athens. Not long after home brewing was legalized in Georgia in 1995, Matt worked at one of the first official brew shops that opened in Athens, Normal Brew Shop, which was located on Prince Avenue. Before Normal, the only place to buy brewing supplies in Athens was Phoenix Natural Food Market formally on Broad Street, where the selection of supplies was limited, Matt says.
Normal Brew Shop evolved into Blockader Homebrew Supply while the rest of the home brewing community in Athens was still somewhat pubescent. Home brewers were in short supply, but this warranted a tight-knit group of locals who bonded over their love for brewing beer. A club was born, and roughly fifteen home brewers called themselves The Brew 52’s.
“It was really informal, it was basically a forum of home brewers who got together, brewed beer and sometimes gave good advice . . . or a terrible critique,” Matt says.
Like a good lager, the home brewing culture in Athens has matured with age. Today, the local home brewing club calls themselves the ALEZ, Athens League of Extraordinary Zymurgists (zymurgy is the chemistry of yeast and fermentation). With a steady 35 to 40 members, this club has taken it to a new level, Matt says, with bigger meetings, dues and bylaws. Though much more organized, the new club still preserves the casual, down home traditions of a local laidback home brewer. Evan Smith, owner of Blockader and a member of ALEZ says the club welcomes anyone to their meetings.
“It’s open to everybody, people who have been brewing forever to people who haven’t even started yet, the brew curious. It’s even open to wine vendors, as long as you have a passion for all things fermented, you’re welcome to attend.”
With such receptive local resources, the brew curious need not fear the complicated science of the brewing process. A large cooking pot, basic fermentation equipment (around 100 dollars) and 20 to 30 dollars worth of ingredients and a first timer is on the way to a batch of delicious cheap beer. For a first batch, Evan recommends either a wheat beer or a stout.
“Ideally, stouts are great because of their flavor profile; if you let something go or forget to add something during boiling, generally, the flavor of grain will cover up the imperfections,” Evan says.
A home brewer can sip on his or her near perfect, freshly made stout with pride and not to mention, the satisfaction that the investment will pay for itself in just a few batches.
“I really do think that anyone can do it,” Evan says. “There’s nothing that can inhibit anyone from brewing beer, but the people who benefit the most from it are those who develop an understanding of things like ingredients.”
For some, brewing is the ticket to good, cheap beer, but for others it’s more creative, like gourmet cooking. Crafting an intricate lager does not require extravagant amounts of money, but it does require scrupulous ingenuity, adaptability and a whole lot of patience. Like a one-man band, the home brewer must be in careful control of every little step during the brewing process.
“Brewing is like reverse engineering” says Jack Arnold, a home brewer of three years who recently started working as a packaging technician at Terrapin Brewery. “It’s a fun science and there’s always something to learn; there’s just no end to the knowledge.” Jack, more informally known as “the keg man” at Terrapin, went from home brewing to dreaming of opening up his own brewery one day. “You could say it’s a thirst for knowledge,” he says.
The skillful home brewer is a hybrid with the precision of a chemist and the imagination of an artist.
“Just because it’s on your pallet, doesn’t mean it’s not art,” Jack says.