On Tap: Making Better Beer Drinkers

Author Chris Fleisher brews a batch of pale ale with freshly picked hops at home. (Valerie Fleisher photo)

Author Chris Fleisher brews a batch of pale ale with freshly picked hops at home. (Valerie Fleisher photo)

I had a creative writing professor in college who told my class that he had relatively low expectations for us.

He taught creative writing, he said, not so that he could produce the next Faulkner or Hemmingway, but so that we would become better readers.

This was an ego crusher, of course, as each of us intended to become successful novelists. Though looking back on it, I think the greatest work of fiction I’ve written was my imaginary Pen Award acceptance speech, rehearsed daily in my head.

Now that I’ve settled into my position as a cheap newspaper hack, I’ve come to appreciate my professor’s perspective. And I’ve applied it to more than writing. Some of the most informed consumers of certain trades are the hobbyists who practice them in their basements and backyards. So it is with beer.

The first Saturday in November is “Learn to Homebrew Day,” an annual occasion for people across the United States to guide friends through the basic process of making beer. This is the 14th year of its existence, and the first since homebrewing became legal in all 50 states. (Mississippi and Alabama were slow to catch on.) There are an estimated 1 million people who make their own beer and wine at home, and membership in the American Homebrewers Association has increased nearly five-fold in the past 13 years to more than 40,000.

My introduction to homebrewing happened nine years ago when I moved to the Upper Valley. I finally had an apartment big enough to hold the equipment — a 4-gallon pot, a couple of 6-gallon buckets, and 50 bottles — and took it as a sign when I noticed that I lived down the street from a homebrew supply store. Ever since then, I’ve had some kind of concoction fermenting in my closet. Some have been great, others truly awful, but all instructive.

When you set out to make a double IPA and end up with a hot mess of turbid water resembling pesticide more than the aromatic yet biting drink you’d imagined, you gain an appreciation for the truly great ones like Heady Topper or Lawson’s Double Sunshine.

I’ll never forget my first disaster, a beer based on a recipe called — I kid you not — Goat Scrotum Ale. It was a dark porter that had all variety of ingredients, including juniper berries, chili peppers, licorice and molasses. It might have turned out OK had I not added a bottle of spruce extract. The result was a beer that tasted like it had been wrung from the soaked stump of a Christmas tree. I nearly cried as I poured it into my bathtub.

But it provided so many valuable lessons, the chief among them that you should not add spruce to beer. It’s just awful. And years later, when I tasted a spruce beer at the Vermont Brewers Festival, I was reminded of this and silently scolded the brewer who made it. If you’d once made the Goat Scrotum Ale, you might have avoided this tragedy.

I’ve also had some winners, too. Belgian dubbels, imperial stouts, bocks, saisons, even a few pilsners. Unfortunately, I found it almost impossible to recreate them, which has been another valuable lesson.

Most beers have just four ingredients — water, malted barley, yeast and hops. Sounds simple, right? It’s not. Making beer requires an incredible amount of manipulation of ingredients, and there are lots of opportunities to foul it up. There are starter kits that cut out some of the steps, but even still, reproducing a recipe requires attention to detail that most of us are not prepared to provide. It is why I have to hand it to the brewers of Budweiser. Say what you will about the beer’s weak flavor — at least it sucks consistently.

It’s worth noting that some of the nation’s most well-respected breweries began in somebody’s kitchen. Boston Beer Co. (maker of Samuel Adams), Dogfish Head and Brooklyn Brewery are among them. And just about all of the tiny “nano” breweries that have been popping up have some connection to homebrewing.

But I’m not advocating the hobby strictly as a way to break into the industry. Do it because it is fun and because you want to learn.

In past columns, I’ve mentioned how home hobbyists are feeding innovation. They thirst for creative flavors and demand new combinations that challenge their palates.

Lately, I’ve come back to the basics. Learn the rules so that you can break them. And after nine years as a homebrewer, including nearly two as a beer judge, my biggest lesson is that I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews. com.