Outside of the Upland Brewing Company in Bloomington Indiana, Mike Baladi and Jason Mund are awaiting the results of the 2010 UpCup homebrew competition.
Mike and Jason are members of the Bloomington Hop Jockeys, a club for people who brew their own beer.
People of different cultures have been making their own batches of beer for over ten thousand years, starting in early Neolithic times.
Modern homebrew clubs and associations have been going strong since at least the 1970s – there were 800 homebrew clubs in the U.S. as of 2009, and a variety of online communities are devoted to the craft of beermaking at home.
True Brew author and beer columnist Rita Kohn says people are passionate about making their own beer because of the possibilities it allows:
“It is a craft that has three basic ingredients – water, malt, and yeast,” explains Kohn. “And you can do so many different things with those to make flavors of great complexity.”
Kohn makes it sound so simple! But how do people actually make beer?
Variations On A Theme
Any homebrewer will tell you the first and most important step: sanitize all of your equipment, and sanitize it well!
From there, the process is different depending on how DIY you want to be.
Photo: Bruce Turner (flickr)
Some of the steps people skip are the big Ms – malt, mill, and mash the grain.
The liquid left over after mashing the grains is known as wort, which you can buy commercially to save some time.
From here, you boil and then cool the wert, add any extra ingredients, strain, ferment the mixture with yeast in a separate container, wait about a week, then prime and bottle your concoction.
And yes, this is the abridged version.
“A typical day making beer.. it’s about 6 hours, to get from start to finish,” said Mundy. “So yeah, it would be a lot easier to go down to the store and buy a 6 or 12 pack. But the nice thing about making it yourself is that you can make it just the way you want, and you get to try different styles that you’re not going to find at a local store.”
Not only is it a time-consuming hobby, but there’s a huge margin of error.
Beer Gone Bad
Brews done wrong can come out flat, they can taste strange, or worse…
“I keg my beer after it’s made, and I didn’t get one of the fittings tight and the wife called me at work and said “there’s beer all over the floor”, said Mundy. “So I lost about four gallons out on the floor.. that was pretty sad.”
Sustainable practices are also a concern of many who brew beer.
Kohn says that many homebrewers grow their own hops, use cans or recycled bottles for their products, and pick local berries to add to their batches.
I read about a pumpkin beer that spent its fermentation time in a hollowed out pumpkin, and of ales that used oak chips soaked in bourbon for flavor.
Once a homebrewer starts branching out like this, they may venture into beer brewing as more than just a hobby.
Many craft beers and breweries are the creations of former homebrewers.
And one great way to test the hoppy waters is by entering a homebrew competition, like Mike and Jason.
Becoming A Beer Judge
While at the UpCup, I meet Sandy Cockerham, a twenty year veteran of homebrewing. But Sandy’s not a competitor today. She’s on the other side – she’s a judge.
“I always jokingly tell people who are not familiar with beer to think of a dog show,” said Cockerham. “The beagles have to be so tall and so long and a certain coat color. In beer you have the same initial criteria. The pale ales get judged against a certain yardstick, and they have to meet that. When you get to Best In Show you have the apples or oranges comparison. You have to think ‘does this beer match its style better than this other beer matches its style?’”
To become a beer judge several years ago, Cockerham had to take a 15-week course and a brutal 3-hour exam. With her new title come some odd job requirements. For instance, no strong odors like perfume are allowed in the judging room.
Cockerham says that fragrances are just one of many things that can impair the senses of a beer critic.
“Gotta pay attention, gotta hope you don’t have a cold. I always make sure I take allergy meds in the morning, make sure I can smell and taste to the best of my ability.”
Out of 50 entries, the winner of today’s UpCup contest is a northern German altbier, described as “are copper to brown in color, with moderate bitterness and clean malt character”.
This beer will be brewed and sold commercially by Upland Brewing Company – a far cry from brewing on the stove in one’s kitchen.