Craft Beer Lovers Find Home Brewing A Hoppy Hobby

by J.B. Lester,
Healthy Planet Publisher/Editor

The world of imbibement is split up into three groups: beer lovers, wine lovers and everyone else. I have been drinking beer since before I should have. A good wine is wasted on me. I went from milk to beer, pretty much skipping soda altogether. So I have been sipping suds for some 45 years. Now in my early 60s, I have long since learned to drink responsibly for both better health and public safety. Growing up in a beer city like St. Louis certainly helps inspire a foamy future. I was weaned on our city’s most famous brew. Then a trip to Europe in 1970 introduced me to new ales from distant lands. My beer education classes were in pubs, brewhauses, taverns, and sidewalk cafes. My eyes and tastebuds were opened to new flavors, textures and aromas. My beer bouquet broadened.. Some years later American microbreweries and craft beer brewers began to get all their hops in a row. I like to think of craft beer as a specialty food, like handmade cheese and artisan bread. Craft beer has varying definitions, but most seem to agree that it is made in smaller batches using traditional yet creative ingredient combinations and it has to offer amazing flavor. With the growth in sales of craft beers over the past few years, the larger breweries have gotten into the mix either with their own entries or by acqusition. Some controversy is bubbling in the brewing world surrounding the definition of Craft Beer, but I will leave that to the brew experts and beer bloggers to open that can of hops.

There is no doubt that the popularity of craft beer has created more interest in the world of brewing – from the beer giants to the home brewer. And luckily for me, I have a home brewer living right next door. Today’s home brewers are not exactly mountain moonshiners. In fact, my neighbor, Nick Holtgrewe, is about to earn his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Washington University. His brewing buddy Scott Kreher is an English and Journalism teacher in the Parkway School District and Nick’s roommate Doug Cleveland (the official taste tester) is also an aspiring home brewer and St. Louis University law student. I offered up some questions to Nick about home brewing that helped shed some light on the ever growing popularity of this hoppy hobby.

When and why did you get started in the fine art of home brewing?
Nick: “I became intrigued by the homebrewing process because of my first chemistry professor at Truman. I originally went into his office to ask him about a chemistry homework problem and that ended up turning into an hour long conversation about brewing beer, from which I left with multiple papers and books on the brewing process. Needless to say, that conversation piqued my interest enough to ask for a homebrewing starter kit for my birthday in 2009 and I really haven’t looked back since.”

How has your home brewing evolved?
Nick: “I’ll never forget the first batch of homebrew my dad and I made together, a generic wheat beer kit. Looking back on that day, we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. In the end we probably made a subpar beer, but that only drove me to want to know more and brew better. After I moved into my own place I began brewing more often, buying books on the subject, learning new techniques, and eventually brewing with a friend using grains instead of extract. Since converting to all-grain we’ve brewed about 5 gallons once a month for the last two and a half years consisting of all sorts of different types of beers.”

Would you like to be a professional brewmaster?
Nick: “A lot of people ask me if I’d like to open a brewery in the future and I can’t say that I do. Not that it wouldn’t be fun, but I like homebrewing as a hobby and I think that I’d enjoy keeping it that way for the rest of my life. However, I also reserve the right to change my mind at anytime.”

If you could only drink three more beers in your life, what would they be?
Nick: “This is a tough question because there are so many great beers out there and I’ve probably only had the opportunity to try a small fraction of them, but I’ll give it a shot. North Coast Brewing Co. Old Rasputin, Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA, and Ayinger Bräu-Weisse.”

What do you see as the future for Craft beers? Can there ever be too many craft breweries?
Nick: “I’m sure this comes as no surprise but there is a ridiculous demand for craft beer these days, so much so that as soon as a hot beer hits the stores it’s usually sold out within a few days, sometimes less than a day. So the future implies more supply, meaning more breweries or a major expansion of the breweries we currently have. We seem to be in an exponential growth period for craft breweries, especially in the St. Louis area, but I’d like to think that this will level off sometime in the near future. But hey, if we run into a huge problem of having too many craft breweries, that is a great problem to have in my opinion.”

Does your background in science help you as a home brewer?
Nick: “With so many years of being exposed to a laboratory environment it’s hard not to view brewing as a science project. Data logging, yeast management, gravity readings, etc. are all things that I find fascinating mainly because I love dealing with numbers. Those good data records help immensely if and when you’d like to recreate a beer you brewed years ago, so it does have its benefits in that regard.

What brewing clubs or associations do you belong to and have you received recognition for your efforts?
Nick: “Currently I only belong to the Garage Brewers Society that meets once a month at the O’Fallon Brewery. The occasional “Hey, that tasted pretty good” comment from some of the other brewers is enough recognition for me. One thing that comes up frequently at the meetings is that if you like what you brew then you’ve achieved your goal, and no one can tell you otherwise.”

Any advice for aspiring home brewers?
Nick: “Just go for it. I feel like there are a ton of people that are afraid to fail and hence get turned off of homebrewing because they think they’ll never make beer as good as craft breweries. I’m here to tell you that more likely than not, your first batch is not going to be good, but I guarantee that if you brew more frequently you will produce better tasting beer. The reward of brewing a beer that you enjoy is worth it.”

Nick’s brewing buddy Scott Kreher says he is into home brewing because he likes the act of creating something that he can enjoy and share with others. “Brewing is a process with the right amount of work and the right amount of down time to be a social event,” said Kreher. “You work quickly to crack the grain, boil the water, and start the mash, but then you have an hour until the next step. Plus, it’s cyclical: we drink the previous beer as we make the next. In this way, it pays to keep brewing so no man ever goes thirsty. My wife even made a chocolate milk stout kit last year because she was jealous of seeing all the beer I had brewed!”

Stay tuned for more craft beer stories in the March and April editions of The Healthy Planet magazine. In the meantime, I suggest visiting a local brewery or a brew pub and taste testing for yourself what all the excitement is about. It will certainly cure what ales you! – JBL