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Home brew nation

Posted: August 4, 2012 - 11:00pm
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Holly Rebert examines a sample of her spruce tip beer in her Douglas apartment last week.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Holly Rebert examines a sample of her spruce tip beer in her Douglas apartment last week.

A memorable quotation attributed to Benjamin Franklin is “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Brewing historian Bob Skilnik claims Franklin was actually talking about rain. Either way, beer or rain, Juneau residents ought to have happiness in abundance. Beer is so popular, here and elsewhere, that brewing isn’t even left to the professionals. For the industrious beer enthusiast, home brewing is a fun and productive hobby.

It’s easy enough to start, Bill Wright, co-owner of Gourmet Alaska, said, especially if, like some, the equipment just falls into your lap, as it did for Wright as a Christmas gift in 1989 or for Holly Rebert, who started brewing in the past couple years.

Should the equipment not fall into one’s lap, the gear and ingredients can be purchased locally at Gourmet Alaska, which started as Taku River Brewing Supply in Wright’s basement in 1991, during which time he was also a state employee with aspirations of being an entrepreneur. He and his wife started Gourmet Alaska in 1997 when the other kitchenware store went out of business.

It seems the traits necessary to become a home brewer are a love of beer and an enjoyment of cooking.

“They kinda go together, you know, brewing and cooking have a lot of similarities. So it’s just a natural combination and it’s worked out really well,” said Wright, of brewing and opening Gourmet Alaska.

“I moved here from Kalamazoo, and there are a lot of home brewers there and there’s a really good local brewery there that I would frequent often, so I kind of fell in love with microbrews. And I love cooking, and if you have all the equipment and you like to cook, it just seems natural to brew yourself.” Rebert said. She had inherited the equipment from a friend of a friend of a friend who moved to a smaller apartment. Which implies space might be an element to consider as well.

“Brewing has been around for thousands of years and you can keep it simple or make it as complicated as you want.” Wright said.

He recommends starting off with a simple, tried-and-true recipe before experimenting more.

There are basic recipes, along with all the equipment and ingredients, at the store. But getting more creative is part of the fun for those who enjoy cooking and brewing.

Rebert is constantly inspired by her surroundings. The beer she is working on right now is a spruce tip ale, brewed with spruce tips she harvested herself. ‘”The spruce tip one will be exciting. I’m going to next brew some blueberry lager, with some blueberries I’ve already harvested and some I hopefully will soon.” Rebert said, “It’s really rewarding when you can say, ‘yeah, I picked those blueberries’ or ‘I brewed that coffee, and it turned out this way,’ you know, it’s like growing your own herbs and then cooking with them.”

Rebert works at Heritage Coffee and, during a recent trip to a coffee conference in Portland, she got a chance to chat with other coffee and beer brewers about what makes a good coffee beer. She decided to use Sidamo coffee beans from Ethiopia in a stout beer.

It was apparently a good combination. Rebert won first in the specialty beer category at Haines Brew Festival this year for her Sidamo Stout.

“I wasn’t present, I was off getting kettle corn or something ridiculous, and I had my friends listen for when they announced the winners - and they did - but nobody heard my name announced, anyway... So, I got my feedback forms and was disappointed and was just standing off to the side, then one of the judges came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Are you Holly?’ And I said yes, and he said, ‘Holly, you actually won first place!’ and I was just baffled because I was just there by myself and I went from not totally sad, but you know, upset, to ‘Oh my god, I won first place!’”

Wright has a number of awards up on the back wall of Gourmet Alaska, including some top prizes.

“All those ribbons hangin’ up back there,” Wright said, pointing to the back wall, “are awards I’ve won, but some of the highlights are probably winning best of show in Haines, I’ve got second in the national homebrew competition a couple of times.”

His most winning recipe was a pale ale, plain and simple, but apparently superb.

But it’s not the ribbons that are the real reward for home brewers, though the recognition for their best brews isn’t unappreciated.

“It’s something that you can give away, a piece of you, a part of you that you create, that you can actually give to somebody else to have them enjoy - that’s what I like about it,” Rebert said, “In the end you have a product, something that’s tangible, that you can hold in your hand and say, “I made this.””

“It’s like doing anything else yourself, if you make something yourself, it tastes better, I think,” Wright said, ‘That’s what I like about it.”

New brewers be wary, things don’t always turn out exactly perfectly. There are a lot of variables in home brewing, and little things can make a big difference.

“Oh yeah, I’ve had ‘em hit the ceiling before, you know, when you get a really active fermentation and it goes up through the airlock and blows that off and you get gunk on the ceiling. I only had exploding bottles once.” Wright said, “The anticipation, you think every batch is going to be the best yet and there was this one that I did, I called it a halloween beer because it was (black) and orange – it had orange zest and black pepper — and it was a porter style of beer and I thought that was gonna be good, but it just didn’t turn out, so I ended up dumping most of it.”

Both brewers agree that sanitation is key. Wright said bleach is easiest and cheapest, but rinsing is really important, so anyone with well water should watch out. Iodine is another option, it doesn’t have to be rinsed, but it can stain.

Rebert said she had a batch once that was contaminated. It wasn’t so bad she tossed it, but she is very thorough in sanitizing the equipment.

Her biggest struggle, and a struggle for all home brewers it seems, is consistency. Her Lonely Valentine, a chocolate porter, was entered at the festival as well. She has made the brew twice, but they didn’t turn out the same.

“(Consistency) is difficult as a home brewer because you don’t have a lot of the controls that a large brewery does, even the temperature you ferment at will change the flavor of the beer.” Wright said.

The many variables include the malt, the grain, the hops and even the strain of yeast used.

The wacky interview question included in each beer related interview was: “What do you think of the brewing experiment with wild yeast from the head brewer’s beer at Rogue Brewery in Oregon (bit.ly/M782lz)?”

Wright said, “Oh, I’d taste it, sure.”

He also knows of a brewing experiment that is even more weird.

“There was a show on Discovery… about Dog Fish Head Brewery, they were doing an experiment with a beer where you chew on the grain and spit it in the cup and ferment that — that’s about the grossest beer I’ve ever heard of.” he said.

No matter your methods, your experience or your tastes, there’s a place for home brewers in Juneau.

“We’ve been doing (Juneau Homebrewers Club) since the ‘90s, a couple from the Brewery started it up, and they were killed in a car accident — it was Brian and Wythe Douglas — but I took it up after that and we’ve been doing it ever since. We meet once a month on the first Saturday, except during the summer, usually September through May. About 15 people show up with their home brews, and we have a good time sampling everybody’s. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not. There’re great judges in the group who can help first time brewers. We try to be constructive, help ‘em out.” Wright said.

And keep an eye out for competitions like the Autumn Pour and the new Capital Brewfest, which may combine, as another chance to share and test those beers. Just be sure to warn the judges if you are using beard yeast or chewed up grains.

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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