Fruits of their labor: Homebrewing in WNC
Greg Geiger looked at it as a way to save money.
“I started brewing when I was a sophomore in college,” he said. “Honestly, I was a poor college student and making beer was much cheaper than buying it back then.”
Head brewer at Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City, Geiger’s initial interest in craft beer has molded itself into a bountiful and ever-emerging career, with several of his brews winning numerous awards at prestigious competitions.
“But, getting into homebrewing and into the local homebrew club exposed me to it and allowed me to appreciate the world of craft beer in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to,” he said.
In the last two decades, the craft beer industry has exploded. From 90 breweries around the country in 1980 to over 2,800 and counting in 2014 (www.brewersassociation.org), the passion and support of the products is as astounding as it is evolving. And at the center of the majority of these businesses is someone who started homebrewing and fell in love with the craft.
“It’s been an interesting time for home and craft brewing,” said Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association. “In 2005, we started to see an uptick in interest in homebrewing, and that certainly goes hand-in-hand with the craft beer industry growth, especially seeing as most craft brewmasters started out as homebrewers.”
Cup runneth over
Based out of Boulder, Colorado, a craft beer mecca in its own right, the AHA is home to 44,000 members and 1,900 homebrew clubs across the United States. Started in 1978, the association’s goal from day one has been to not only connect homebrewers with each other, but also perpetuate and grow the hobby.
“Homebrewing continues to fuel the creativity,” Glass said. “What we see in homebrewing is what’s going to happen in craft brewing a couple years later, and vice versa with all of these new beer styles coming out from commercial brewers that inspire homebrewers to try new things.”
Combing through the AHA website (www.homebrewersassociation.org), one comes across the Black Bear Homebrew Club in Waynesville. What started out as a semi-regular gathering of friends and homebrewers in Haywood and Jackson counties, the club officially formed last October, with monthly meetings, discussions and tastings abound.
“It’s a bunch of folks that like to homebrew,” said Nate Novgrod, head of the Black Bear Homebrew Club. “We come together and like to share our different beers, to try other styles and flavors.”
Novgrod got into homebrewing eight years ago. He was simply tired of the same old commercial beers offered on the market (i.e. Budweiser, Miller, Coors). He wanted something more, and soon started toying around with a homebrew kit.
“The standard stuff out there doesn’t have a whole lot of taste,” he said. “For me, craft beer is what I’ve always liked, and homebrewing is a natural extension of that because you can make the exact beer you want.”
So, what does Novgrod think about the craft beer boom in Asheville and Western North Carolina?
“I’m all for it — the more good beer out there the better,” he said. “I knew Asheville was blowing up, but I’ve been surprised to see how big it has gotten in Waynesville with four breweries in town now.”
Beer geeks unite
Last Saturday afternoon, dozens of WNC members of the AHA converged onto the Funkatorium, an experimental satellite brewery for the popular Wicked Weed Brewing around the corner in downtown Asheville. Milling about in the rally crowd was Heidi Dunkelberg, owner of the Coffee Cup Café in Clyde, as well as a long-time homebrewer, hop grower and craft beer advocate from Haywood County.
“I got into homebrewing 10 years ago,” she said. “Cooking is my passion and that led me to making my own beer. Now, I’m learning more about the science of brewing, which has opened up a whole new world to me. You’ll never stop learning about craft beer, there’s always something new to discover. There’s always new techniques, new styles, old styles, new hops — it’s endless.”
Sour production manager for Wicked Weed, Richard Kilcullen is at the center of the craft brewing universe and its recent sour beer movement (different kinds of yeast, aged in wine barrels). Strolling the floor of the Funkatorium during the rally, Kilcullen gives extensive tours around the facility, all the while answering any and all questions posed about his products.
“I’m blown away by the turnout today, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of interested people and refinement in their palettes. If you’d have told me five years ago how popular sour beer would be, I’d have never believed you,” he chuckled. “But, with craft beer, it’s like anything else these days, people are starting to care more about what they’re putting in their bodies, in what they eat, and drinking is the same thing.”
Starting out as a homebrewer, Kilcullen remembers fondly those early days and how much he has, and still continues to have, in experimentation, fermentation and consumption.
“It was about the chance to mimic something I love,” he said. “They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I just liked being able to recreate and see how these recipes were built, how to deconstruct them, the thrill of making something.”
Where to begin
With an estimated 1.2 million homebrewers the United States (over two-thirds starting the last decade), the craft is quickly gaining momentum. But, where does one begin if they’re interested in giving it a go?
“First, don’t be intimidated,” Glass said. “Brewing is actually a very simple process and I highly recommend started out with an extract kit. It’s very easy to do and with the quality of the extract kits these days, you can make some really great beer using simpler techniques than can minimize your mistakes.”
“With homebrewing, there’s a lot to learn from your failures, and you’re going to have them, but if you can pay attention, watch what you did and have patience, and give it time, you’ll be rewarded,” Kilcullen added.
Now headlong into his endeavors at Nantahala Brewing, Geiger can breakdown the process easily for beginners curious to know more.
“It really isn’t that difficult. When you’re brewing beer, you’re really just providing an environment that makes a particular strain of yeast happy. You’re trying to give the yeast their best chance to multiply,” he said. “They like sugar and oxygen, and we give that to them with malted barley and air. They don’t like to compete with bacteria and viruses, so give them a clean and sanitary place to grow. They like very specific temperature ranges, this can easily be controlled with a heating pad in the winter and a temperature controlled cool space in the summer — old refrigerators are great for this.”
Geiger also recommends picking up a copy of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian.
“This book is considered the Bible of homebrewing and Charlie is considered the godfather,” he said.
So, what’s the biggest misconception with homebrewing?
“That it’s hard,” Novgrod said. “A lot of folks that have interest in it are afraid to try it because they think its hard or complicated. If you can cook, you can make beer, it’s really not different. For me, it’s a quiet process with the steps you have to take. It takes me about four hours from start to finish on a brew day, and I have a good chunk of time where I have a routine — it’s nice and relaxing for me.”
When asked about his next batch of craft beer, Novgrod said it would be a pretty important one.
“I’m getting married in May, so I’ll be brewing all the beer for the wedding,” he said.
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