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  1. Bars & Breweries

MiraBay Homebrew Club a place for testing, trading tips on beer

APOLLO BEACH

Tom Tanner stands in the kitchen competing for the crowd's attention with Moose and Murphy, a pair of antic renaissance bulldogs. He is explaining how to make your own mash tun on the cheap using a repurposed keg. The MacGyver-ed metal receptacle is all smooth edges and shiny radiant foil insulation.

The group of home brewers seems impressed. Most of them use an Igloo cooler version with a stainless steel false bottom and valves in order to convert the starches in crushed grain into sugars for fermentation. Price tag: $159 at the very least. Tanner's homemade contraption? A handful of Hamiltons.

As Tanner says about home brewing, "As you get more into this hobby, it doesn't necessarily get cheaper."

You become more discerning and your ambition grows. Your garage bays nudge out automobiles to make way for fermenters and kegerators and cabinets full of grain. Tanner, one of the founders of the MiraBay Homebrew Club, has kept his investment down to about $2,000. His co-founder Jay Patel, on the other hand, admits his outlay is creeping up past $10,000.

Together they started the club in September 2013. It's not the area's biggest, they say, or the most long-standing. But on a recent Friday night in Patel's family room and former dining room (now it's more of a beer room, complete with multitap kegerator, its contents chalked on top), the enthusiasm for craft beer rose swiftly to a fever pitch. There was Robert Collinsworth, who brewed his first batch in Berkeley, Calif., more than 20 years ago (these days his tastes run to fruit sours, IPAs and imperial stouts), and Jennifer Sparacino, who with husband Anthony has been brewing for the past 10 years, many beers named after favorite pets, some long gone. Next up for them: the annual pumpkin ale.

Sparacino and her husband are among a growing number of what might be called craft beer tourists.

"We do a brewery tour wherever we go. We just cruised to St. Thomas. We got there and said, 'What's your list of beers?' "

It's a window into a culture, a way to get familiar with indigenous foods and traditions. For them, though, home brewing is just a satisfying hobby they can do together, evolving over the years from kits to all grain, which they measure out personally at Southern Brewing & Winemaking in Seminole Heights.

"We're not interested in competitions. We just want to brew for fun," Sparacino notes, but that said, they've had a strong brewing track record: In 10 years they've only dumped one 5-gallon batch, which, she says, "tasted like Band-Aids."

For Tanner, Patel and a number of the more than 50 MiraBay club members, competition is part of the fun. On Tuesday, samples are due for a marzen or seasonal specialty beer, each competitor bringing three unmarked 12-ounce bottles. It's an opportunity to taste each other's creations, for better or worse (yes, there was some post-sip wincing at the recent meeting, but members kept the commentary polite), and to swap advice about what by most accounts is a complicated hobby.

And sometimes what starts as a hobby can lead to something else entirely: Club member Nathan Hangen will debut Four Stacks Brewery in MiraBay in October.

"I used to play soccer and we were always looking for a place to drink craft beer afterwards," says Hangen, who alludes to his own preoccupation with session pale ales.

With 18 taps and lots of regional craft beers, Four Stacks will surely be a gathering spot for MiraBay Homebrew Club members. As Hangen said as the Friday night meeting drew to a close, "It will be like Tampa Bay Beer Week every week."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293.Follow @lreiley.

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