Beer is the world’s oldest recorded recipe. And 12,000 years after humans first figured out the attraction of fermented barley, brewers are still trying to create the special recipe that will give them that perfect beer.
Many of those brewers are working out of home kitchens, garages, and basements. As of 2013, the American Homebrewers Association estimated that 1.2 million homebrewers were bottling all variety of ales, meads, and ciders. The explosion of the craft brewing industry nationwide has fed the hobby. According to the AHA, two thirds of the current homebrewers began after 2005.
Dan and Linda Thomas have been making their own beer since 1990 and the Zillah couple has dedicated a portion of their basement to it. Because they use a mash tun that is propane-fueled, Dan explained that they built a portable single-tiered brew cart that does the boiling outside. Beer brewing lingo fills a conversation with a homebrewer with words like wort, tuns, chillers, kettles, and fermenters as well as more commonly known words like hops, grains, yeast, and water.
“It can be as simple or as involved as you want it to be,” according to Dan. “You just need a pot, some barley, water and yeast, and a little bit of hops, then a five gallon bucket with a couple of siphon hoses. That’s how I began after my wife got me a starter kit. When I decided the first batch wasn’t too bad, that’s when it became a hobby,” he added. Over the years, the couple, both high school teachers, have expanded beyond basic homebrew. They cook twice a year, resulting in four different beers. Their winter and summer varieties go into five gallon kegs that eventually go into a kegerator plumbed through the wall into the three taps behind their 1950s-style bar. They experiment with mixtures of grains, different flavorings and additives. According to Dan, their number one quest is to make a really good pumpkin beer. They have turned out several batches but are still searching for just the right recipe.
The pursuit of the perfect recipe seems common among the American homebrew crowd. And, apparently, beer has played a vital role throughout our nation’s history. According to Dan, a history buff currently reading The History of Beer, the beverage was one of the main supplies that accompanied the pilgrims to America and their first construction project was a brewery.
“It was how you preserved grain, which is a good source of calories, and how you made drinkable fluids because you couldn’t always trust having a clean water source,” he explained. Indeed, the love of beer seems ingrained in America’s soul, much as it is in cultures around the world. With so many homebrewers, craft brew pubs, and commercial breweries mixing and pouring every day, who decides what is “good” beer?
Commercial craft brewers and homebrewers alike attend the annual Great American Beer Festival which serves as both a festival and a competition. It is sponsored by the Brewers Association, and competition beers are critiqued on a set of style guidelines by judges who undergo extensive training and testing. The complex program includes online tests, sensory analysis and tasting exams, with points earned by judging competitions and moving through the ranks from small, local competitions to larger regional or even national competitions.
Cole Provence is one such judge. He is halfway to his Master Judge designation. Provence also enters homebrew competitions himself. In 2015, he captured first place with his Raspberry Mead at the Oregon Homebrew Competition. But, he admitted, these days he has little time for homebrewing. Besides traveling regionally to judge, he teaches Special Topics in Brewing, a hop-specific, 300 level course in the craft brewing program at Central Washington University. Plus, he’s a zoologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
He became interested in beer making after visiting family in Germany. “My grandmother was a World War II German immigrant,” Provence explained. “Many members of her family in Bavaria are brewers.” Socializing over a good beer is common in many families. Linda Thomas pointed out that the social aspect of brewing is her favorite part of the process.
“I enjoy brewing with Dan as well as being able to share it with others,” she said. The couple gathers with family for a biennial reunion where they enjoy sharing their latest beverage. Linda said another generation has begun homebrewing, with cousins now getting in on the act and entering competitions. Which raises the next question – how much does it cost to make beer at home?
Both Provence and the Thomases said an initial batch of beer can run under 50 dollars. According to Provence, most homebrewers probably have invested 1,000 to 2,000 dollars in their home set up. Of the required ingredients to make home beer, it would seem like hops might be the most readily available.
But, hops, unlike many of the Valley’s other agricultural crops, are not sold from a local roadside stand. Most are harvested, processed, and shipped to wholesale warehouses which sell them to commercial breweries. So in the land of hops, how does a home beer brewer get their hands on some fresh cones? From that very question grew one of Yakima’s premier retail sellers of home brewing supplies.
Yakima Valley Hops and Brew Supply sprouted from a casual “Hey, let’s make beer today” comment. John Snyder and Jeff Perkins were students at Central Washington University and, despite being Yakima natives, could not find hops to purchase to use in a brewing kit.
“We quickly realized there was a major disconnect in the hops-to-homebrewing supply chain,” Snyder explained. Recognizing they were not the only ones in need, the men began Yakima Valley Hops and Brew Supply in a garage and have grown into both an online supplier and one of the few destinations for the bitter buds in Yakima. Their stock is primarily Yakima Valley varieties with over 120 available. Their online store supplies 30 countries and more than 30,000 homebrewers as well as commercial breweries, according to Snyder.
Almost everyone running a commercial craft brewery began as a homebrewer, Provence pointed out. “Most of us are geeks about beer, we want to share and encourage other people to continue brewing.”
“You make great connections, great friends, with homebrewing,” Provence said. “It is a very social activity. After all, it’s pretty hard to be antisocial when you are drinking beer.”
For more information on homebrewing visit www.homebrewersassociation.org; or stop by Stein’s Ace Hardware, Hometown Ace Hardware, or Yakima Valley Hops and Brew Supply.