I went looking for a little redemption.
Home brewing was supposed to be so easy. There are only four ingredients — water, barley, yeast and hops. How hard could it be?
But my first try went flat — literally.
Maybe a Belgian Tripel, a pale ale with a high alcohol content, was the wrong choice for a newbie. Despite the able assistance of a home brewer who made 30 batches without a single failure, mine was a bust — too dark, too sweet, not enough alcohol and barely a fizz to be found.
Undaunted, I brewed a second batch, an all-grain American IPA with four kinds of hops — Northern Brewer, Centennial, Simcoe and Cascade. After three weeks of watchful waiting, there was plenty of fizz and flavor.
But I wanted an objective opinion and found plenty of them at the Spring Beerfest at Cajun Café on the Bayou in Pinellas Park last month, where some of the best brewers in Tampa Bay had gathered.
I walked in with six bottles of my IPA in hand, ready for ridicule.
• • •
I'd gotten the home brewing bug last year after reporting on the growing interest in craft beer in the Tampa Bay area.
Most of the people brewing craft beers for a living started as home brewers, and some home brewers are making beers as good as anything you'll find for sale.
There was Joey Redner and Wayne Wambles, whose Cigar City Brewing in Tampa has gained national attention using unusual ingredients. And Greg Rapp, founder of the home brewing club Pinellas Urban Brewers Guild, who recently won three medals in a statewide home brewing competition and dreams of opening a brewing cooperative. And Khris Johnson, a 23-year-old University of South Florida English lit major with dreams of being a commercial brewer, who guided me through my first batch, using equipment and ingredients I'd gotten for Christmas.
I am not alone in my newfound obsession. Today about 750,000 Americans brew their own, according to the American Homebrewers Association, sponsor of the annual National Homebrew Day, which is Saturday. There were about 800 home brew clubs in 2009, the group estimates, and the number is rising.
"In the last four years our membership has just skyrocketed,'' said Mark Stober, 44, founding member of Tampa Bay BEERS, which formed in 1990 and has 175 members. "It correlates with the surge in craft beer.''
There's a synergy between the craft beer industry and home brewing, says Redner, who plans to reproduce three beers from local home brewers and sell them at Cigar City's tasting room, with the best one entered in a national pro-am competition. The home brewers influence the commercial craft brewers by pushing boundaries, and craft beer encourages home brewing.
"Most of the innovation you see in the commercial craft scene comes from home brewers,'' Redner said. "I can't name a beer that's been made commercially that didn't come from home brewing.''
While beer is a generally simple concoction, one misstep can ruin a batch. There are so many variables with each ingredient. The type of water, the strain of yeast, the myriad types and combinations of malted barley and hops. Fermentation temperatures are important, too. That may be why so many home brewers I met seemed to have engineering, science or computer backgrounds — it helps to be methodical.
Still, it's not that hard.
"Beer tends to work itself out,'' said Johnson as we wrapped up my very first batch. "You have a very high chance of success based on what we did today.''
And yet, it flopped.
Rapp tried rescuing it with some champagne yeast and CO2, but it wouldn't budge. What went wrong?
Theories abound, but the short answer seemed to be: It happens.
This is where a home brewing club helps. Fellow home brewers can help you through the grieving process with tales of their own misadventures and encouragement to try again.
"No worries on your first batch,'' said Danny Reid, founder of the South Tampa home brewing club Special Hoperations. " I think I poured out my first three batches.''
In my case, the most likely culprit was the yeast. It probably died interacting with all the sugar it took to make the Belgian Tripel and didn't have the energy for carbonation.
So I tried again with a recipe Rapp wrote for an American IPA. On a recent Saturday I joined about a dozen other members of the PUB Guild on the back patio of Greg's Largo home, a dozen large pots steaming over propane burners. Like many home brew enthusiasts, Rapp has gone all in: three chest freezers converted for beer storage and fermentation, bags of barley in his garage, hops in his freezer, yeast in his refrigerator, various pots and chillers and refractometers (to measure alcohol content). And a very patient and understanding wife, Dawn.
We ground malted barley, and Rapp guided me through the process of turning water into wort (the liquid extract from mashing malted barley), cooling it and activating the yeast. I returned a week later to bottle my brew.
And waited two weeks for the magic to happen.
• • •
The night before the Spring Beerfest, I anxiously opened a bottle of my IPA and poured the amber liquid into a pint glass. It fizzed, it foamed, it tasted pretty good. "A damn good beer,'' my wife declared. Just the right amount of hoppiness.
But what would the pros think?
Franz Rothschadl, owner and brewmaster at Lagerhaus, a brew pub in Palm Harbor, sat in judgment, along with Trace Caley, a brewer at Dunedin Brewery, who began as a home brewer in 1992. They liked it. Very drinkable, they agreed, just the right amount of hoppiness.
Manny Bonewitz, a founding member of the Dunedin Brewers Guild and a trained beer judge, concurred. "It's clean, it's crisp,'' he said. But he was holding back. You should be able to smell the hops before you taste them, and that was missing.
Redner agreed. A good beer, very clean, but adding hops near the end of fermentation would give a more distinct aroma, and a good nose is critical to a good beer, he explained.
Another week of conditioning smoothed out the taste. And when a neighbor and fellow beer enthusiast tried it, he asked for seconds.
That's when I knew I'd found my redemption.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at [email protected] sptimes.com or (727) 893-8312.