- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2001

The judges approach their subjects with a seemingly equal measure of wariness and reverence. Wariness for the possibility of the unanticipated bite. Reverence for long bloodlines, testimony to the strength of the class and the art of the compositor.
Each member of the audience backs a familiar favorite, who hopes to trash a long-held rival. Perhaps the judges do as well.
But this is no ordinary dog and pony show. The five men and one woman who are ringed tightly around their subjects are judging, not hips and heads, but aroma and "mouth feel."
The lambics, wits, tripels and the seven other subcategories of Belgian ales now competing for best in show already were judged the best of their respective classes. And every beer, from the sourest gueuze to the most elegant and complex oud bruin, was brewed at home.
"It's a really unique event," says Colleen Cannon, one of the organizers of the Spirit of Belgium Conference held Jan. 12-14 in Arlington, Va., sponsored by Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP), a Washington-area home-brew club that boasts about 300 members. "We've got people coming in from all over the country for this."
BURP's members are as diverse as the beer they brew. From scientists and engineers to blue-collar workers and trades workers, BURP draws members from around the country as well as the metropolitan area. If you are considering taking up a new hobby, home-brewing may be right for you.
"Brewing captivates everyone, from the scientific type to the artistic, anything-goes type," says Mrs. Cannon, who is herself an engineer. "It's really got something for everyone."
BURP has been prominent for years in supporting Belgian-style beers, generally considered the fine wines of the beer world. Its Spirit of Belgium conference has attracted the only three grandmaster judges in the United States. Michael Jackson of England, considered the world's greatest beer authority, has come as well.
With a little time, a modicum of effort and a lot of creativity, today's home-brewer can produce an inexpensive and drinkable craft beer.
According to the American Homebrewers Association, there are more than 1.5 million home-brewers in the United States. For the fledgling home-brewer, finding sources of information has never been easier. The AHA publishes its own magazine, Zymurgy, most home-brew clubs put out their own newsletters, and there is an abundance of Web sites devoted to the subject.
It is, Mr. Jackson says, all part of a renaissance that began in this country less than 25 years ago, as Americans began to realize that commercial beers were pale imitations of what a really good beer could be.
And after 1979, when federal prohibitions against home-brewing were finally lifted, it was just a simple step to trying to duplicate that full-bodied microbrew at home.
"Home-brewers are different today than they used to be," Mr. Jackson says. "They are highly knowledgeable, articulate, cosmopolitan people who are used to tasting beers other than the standard mainstream beers."
Plus, home-brew clubs are great places to exchange recipes and techniques, which only help to develop the craft, says Bill Ridgely, a BURP member since 1985.
"Lately, people have even tried making beer using the all-grain method instead of prepackaged malt extracts," he says. "That's a big change from when I first started."
Today, BURP is one of the largest and oldest home-brew clubs in the country. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, it boasts more than 300 members who make beer in just about every style imaginable, from stouts to porters to pilsners.
Most categories of beer fall under two basic classifications: ale or lager. Each uses a particular kind of yeast and a brewing process designed to create the specific set of characteristics associated with one or the other.
Generally, ales use a top-fermentation process, warmer temperatures and a shorter aging time, while the bottom-fermenting lagers demand colder fermentation and longer aging.
The basic ingredients for ales or lagers are much the same now as they were 100 years ago: barley, hops, yeast and water.
Until the 19th century, all beer was ale. Credit the German and Bohemian immigrants with bringing a new method for making a smoother, mellower brew. The pilsners and lagers that most of us associate with commercial American beer got their start in this way.
So how do home-brewers make beer? Basically, the same way the brewery does, although the equipment is a bit smaller and there are one or two shortcuts, such as using malt extracts, rather than an all-grain method, which cuts brewing time from about eight hours to about two.
Most brewers begin with barley, which provides the natural sugars needed for fermentation. Hops provide a degree of bitterness to help counteract the sweetness of the barley, and they also are used for aroma. They can even help preserve beer, which is how India Pale Ale, a hoppier version of an English ale, was developed. Adding more hops helped keep the beer fresh as it made the long passage to British troops in India.
Yeast, which comes in several different varieties, converts the fermentable sugars to alcohol, carbon dioxide and water. If you are brewing a Belgian ale, for example, you will need to use the appropriate yeast in order to develop the specific characteristics you are aiming for.
The finer points of beer brewing have occupied individuals for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians brewed beer, along with several other early civilizations.
How is it that this ancient art has become so common in the 21st-century home? After all, until 1979, home-brewing was illegal, part of the 1920 Prohibition Act that remained in force after Prohibition ended in 1933. So while individuals were happily making wine and even stronger spirits, brewing beer could get you in hot water.
Even today, six states Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah outlaw the brewing of beer at home, says Paul Gatza, director of the American Homebrewers Association. The most recent state to legalize home-brewing was Idaho, on July 1, 1999.
"Home-brewers still do fit the old outlaw mold to some extent," he says. "They don't like the government coming in and telling us what to do in our own home."
In the Washington area, home-brew clubs offer support to the novice, as well as regular meetings for more advanced brewers. In addition to the Spirit of Belgium conference, BURP sponsors tastings, testings and other events throughout the year.
Want to learn to be a judge? BURP can train you in the fine points and help prepare you for the 3 and 1/2-hour examination you have to take to complete the first step in a rigorous preparation program.
"It was one of the most difficult exams that I ever had to take," says Mr. Ridgely, who refrained from judging at the Spirit of Belgium contest because he had a beer entered in the event.
(His oud bruin ale eventually received second place at the best-in-show competition.)
Of course, certification as a judge is hardly a necessity for home-brewing. It's just another step down the road that likely will take you from an inexpensive initial outlay to more expensive, specialized equipment and esoteric yeasts.
"You know what they say: The only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys," says Keith Prentice, a member of the Frederick Original Ale Makers (FOAM) home-brew club in Maryland.
Mr. Prentice is quick to point out, however, that it is just as easy to make a good beer with a cheap setup as it is with an expensive one.
Mr. Prentice brews his beer at Frederick's Flying Barrel, a combination home-brew supply shop and brew on premises establishment that is owned by Bob Frank, one of the founding members of BURP.
Located at the old Frederick Brewing Company site in the heart of downtown Frederick, the Flying Barrel provides everything the home-brewer needs. You don't have to worry about cleaning up after yourself, either Mr. Frank sees to that.
"Some people have spouses who don't like the smell," the soft-spoken retired government facilities manager says. "We get a lot of people who come here because of that."
Actually, the smell really isn't that bad. The real reason many people get involved with the Flying Barrel and home-brew clubs is the level of camaraderie.
"A lot of people come into Flying Barrel as a family," says Mr. Frank, who keeps root beer and other soda extracts available for children who want to make their own.
And if you want to make your own wine, you can do that here, as well.
Apparently, there is something about brewing beer together that not only lifts the spirits, but promotes cooperation.
"We've got office members who weren't getting along with each other come in with their flip charts and various proposals," Mr. Frank says. "By the time they've brewed a batch of beer together, they look like they're getting along with each other a lot better."
The District's own home-brew club, HURL, has a somewhat different reason for being. The Homebrewers United Revolutionary League ("You can take that name with a grain of salt," league member Chris O'Brien says with a chuckle.) prides itself on using only organic ingredients, which can be obtained from its cooperative, www.breworganic.com.
"We want to have a lower impact on the environment," says Mr. O'Brien, who grows his own hops on his front lawn in Columbia Heights and picks juniper berries to flavor his ales at nearby Malcolm X Park.
As brewers become more adept at their craft, they begin to experiment a little with their basic recipes, adding flavorings like juniper, spruce, even chocolate.
Among the home-brewers' handiwork:
Lambic an intensely flavored, intensely colored fruited brew that is a bit sour, without any hop bitterness, and made from barley and wheat.
Wit a yellow beer with a mild sweet spice character.
Tripel a pale gold beer with a light aroma and an often clove-like spiciness. These high-alcohol-content beers were originally made in Belgium by Trappist monks.
Gueuze a blend of young and old lambics that some find too sour.
Oud bruin a long fermented and long matured beer. Mr. Ridgely's prize-winning beer was 6 years old.
Recently, Mr. Prentice began working on a batch of barley wine, a high-alcohol-content brew that requires lots of hops. He's expanding on his recipe for a pale ale similar to that of the Sierra Nevada brand. (Most home-brewers make "cloned" beers similar to those from their favorite breweries.)
"Usually, I'll start with a stock recipe and then try to tweak it different ways," he says. "This was too sweet the last time I made it, so I'm adding some different hops at different times."
Mr. Prentice comes to the Flying Barrel every Friday, whether he is brewing or not. Most patrons come in regularly to check on the status of their brew. Is it bubbling? Ready for secondary fermentation? Ready to be bottled?
But then, people are just as likely to come in to chat with Mr. Frank about the brew they are making in their own homes.
"There's such a spirit of friendship and camaraderie around brewing beer," Mr. Gatza says. "It's a big part of the reason people get into it in the first place."
But how do you determine the best beer?
"That's easy," Mr. Frank says with a laugh. "The best beer in the world is the one I have in my hand."


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