Joel Mayer closes the closet in the laundry room of his Cherry Hill home with exaggerated hesitation. “Now I’m completely nervous,” he laughs timidly. “Whatever happens to this thing is out of my hands, and for the most part, it’s a little disconcerting.” Mayer is referring to 5 gallons of wort that he’s spent the last four hours brewing with the hope that, in six to eight weeks, he’ll be toasting his first batch of home-brewed beer, a Black Belgian IPA, with family and friends.
It’s hard to believe that at one time this self-described beer geek, who scoffs at Budweiser and has an impressive beer-cap collection displayed in three canisters on his dining room table, didn’t even like the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage. The 49-year-old compliance professional’s love affair with beer began only eight years ago when he tasted Arrogant Bastard Ale. “After that first sip, I was hooked,” he says. “Ever since, I’ve been on a quest to find every great craft beer.”
Several hundred craft beers later, Mayer’s family and friends suggested he brew his own. “Joel’s obsession with craft beer seemed like an obsession that was going to stay,” says his wife, Jill. “So it only seemed like the natural next level.”
Mayer, who calls himself an experimental cook, liked the idea of creating his own brew but was intimidated by the exacting measurements of beer making and the sanitary environment it requires—he has three kids. After five years of deliberating and four hours of brewing, Mayer now can only wait. It will take two to four weeks for the wort to ferment, and then another two weeks to bottle condition. “Well, there’s only one way to find out if I did everything right,” he says. “And that is to drink the beer.”
Historians believe people have been brewing their own beer since perhaps 10,000 B.C. “While there is no way to be certain how beer was first brewed, historians speculate it could have been the result of an accidental fermentation of a mixture of water and fruit in hot sunlight where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates meet,” explains Upper Deerfield Township resident Gary Monterosso, author of Artisan Beer. He says the oldest known recipe can be found on a cuneiform tablet circa 4,000 B.C. that is part of “The Hymn to Ninkasi,” the Sumerian goddess of beer.
In colonial America, home brewing wasn’t a hobby but a necessity, as the technology to purify water didn’t yet exist. “Frankly, boiling the water in preparation for brewing removed some of the problems, and no one really knew that,” Monterosso says. “They just saw that ale drinkers were not getting sick.” While its rise may have been a practical one initially, a thirst for beer in America was here to stay. Many claim one of the first buildings constructed at Plymouth was a brewery. Even founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson dabbled in home brewing.
But when Prohibition was enacted in 1919, home brewing became illegal. When Prohibition ended with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933, a clerical error that omitted the words “and beer” from the statute legalizing home wine making left home brewers parched for decades. Home brewing has been legal in New Jersey since 1954, with some restrictions. Garden State home brewers must submit an application and pay $15 a year for a state permit. Production may not exceed 200 gallons per year and must be for personal use only.
The American Homebrewers Association, a division of the Brewers Association, has 28,000 registered members, 575 from the Garden State, has observed a boom in home brewing in the past five years. “We’re seeing approximately 20 percent growth nationwide every year,” says Kathryn Porter Drapeau, events and membership coordinator for the association. “We project there are 1 million people home brewing a couple times a year.”
According to Ron Mahler, manager of the Brewer’s Apprentice in Freehold, the home-brew supply industry is seeing its biggest growth spurt in decades, with national sales up 15 percent in the first half of 2011. Locally, Mahler and Jimmy Corrado, owner of Corrado’s Home Beer and Winemaking Center in Clifton, claim even faster growth. Mahler says his sales are up roughly 20 percent. Ten months ago, Mahler moved the Brewer’s Apprentice to a new location, doubling its physical space. Brett Mullin, owner of Brew Your Own Bottle in Westmont, where Mayer bought his supplies, says sales more than doubled from August 2010 to August 2011.
Industry experts and hobbyists pin this boom to a perfect storm of the down economy, the DIY trend and the growing interest in craft beer. “The trend we’re experiencing began about four years ago as the economy was really showing signs of faltering,” Mahler says. “Historically, whenever there is a depression or recession, while most other businesses see dramatic drops in sales and revenue, all things related to liquor, drugs, sex and music see an equally dramatic converse growth.”
Chris LaPierre, head brewer at Iron Hill Brewery in Maple Shade, says in a down economy people look for value. Beer, he says, “is very reasonably priced. You can get one of the best beers in the world for the price of a latte at Starbucks.” Professional and home brewers agree it’s cheaper to make your own beer than to buy it. “For a Belgian Triple, one 22-ounce bottle can run upwards of $10,” Mullin claims. “I have a kit that makes 30 of them for under $50.”
Many see DIY as the key factor. “You have the Food Network and all these reality shows,” says LaPierre. “It seems whenever there is a strong culture on the professional level, you’re going to see people getting excited about it and doing it at home.” “I think across the board we’re seeing an interest in cheese making, wine making, beer making, etc.,” says Drapeau. “Also, when making your own beer, you can have things you could never buy at the store. So you have that ability to take things to a whole new level.”
That’s the reason Glen Ridge resident Matt Cinotti, 27, started brewing with a friend about six years ago. “We wanted to see if we could brew a beer that was as good as some of the stuff we we’re drinking,” he says. “Now when I brew, it’s all about experimenting and trying to make similar beers to ones I’ve tasted or that I think would be different.” Carolyn Bongard, a 40-year-old home brewer from Morris Plains, adds that she enjoys “being creative and designing recipes that incorporate some of my favorite flavors and ingredients.” Bongard and her partner are true do-it-yourselfers—they have been growing their own hops for two years.
“As people come to appreciate hand-crafted beer, it appears to go hand in hand with them wanting to learn about the process and even brew beer themselves,” says Mahler. Bongard admits she’s had a passion for craft beer for more than 15 years and dreams of someday owning her own microbrewery or craft-beer bar. “I figured that learning the brewing process would provide a good knowledge foundation for either pursuit,” she says.
It helps that brewpubs and microbreweries don’t view home brewers as competitors—many actually support them. Iron Hill Brewery has its own home-brew club, gives yeast to home brewers and hosts an annual home-brewing competition. “We’re closely linked with the home-brew community,” LaPierre says. “Our most avid customers are home brewers.” With craft-beer sales growing at an impressive rate (6 percent from 2008 to 2010), it only makes sense that home brewing would grow, too.
To get started, a home brewer needs a core set of equipment, including plastic buckets (one for the fermenting stage and one for bottling), a stainless steel pot that will hold at least 16 quarts of liquid, a thermometer, an air lock, a bottle filler, a racking cane and siphon tubing, a hydrometer, bottle-caps (not the twist-off variety), a capper, and most important, a sanitizer. “Most people buy a basic home-brew kit, which sells in the neighborhood of $70, depending on where you buy them,” Mahler says. Many home-brew supply stores also sell recipe kits and books for newbie brewers. Veteran brewers or seasoned tasters like Mayer often write their own recipes. “I know what I like in a beer as far as aroma, flavor profiles, finish and texture, and I’m pretty familiar with many of the various hop, malt and yeast varieties, so I thought I could design a recipe that would hit my targets or at least come reasonably close,” Mayer reasons. “The beauty of it is, since it’s my own recipe, no one can say it’s wrong.”
After 35 days of fermenting in his laundry closet, Mayer’s wort is beer and ready to be bottled. He has recruited a friend (and stocked up on craft beers) to help with this step, which is his least favorite because it’s extremely tedious. All the bottling equipment and bottles must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized so bacteria or wild yeast don’t come into contact with the beer. “If that happens, the beer will most likely become infected, which is not a tasty situation,” Mahler explains. “When beer yeast ferments, it either releases no flavors or flavors that we, as humans, find to be pleasing: fruity flavors, yeasty flavors, spicy flavors. However, when wild yeast or bacteria ferment, they are usually going to produce unpalatable, vinegary flavors or worse.” It takes Mayer four hours to clean and sanitize all the bottling equipment, transfer the beer into a bottling bucket, calculate the amount of priming sugar needed, and fill and cap the bottles. Then he banishes the newly filled bottles back to his laundry closet, where they will condition.
Five weeks later, Mayer stands in front of a mini refrigerator in his family room where 41 bottles boasting custom labels with the brew’s name, Honey Badger IPA, are chilling, ready to be sampled for the first time. (The honey badger, known for its adaptability and fearlessness, is the subject of a popular Internet video that Mayer and his friends enjoy.) “I’m very excited. I really am,” he says. “And nervous. This has been fun for me, but at the end of the day, I still hope it’s a good beer.”
Mayer lines up a dozen bottles on a tray and carries them, waiter-style, into the kitchen. His friends laugh when they notice he has signed and numbered each bottle like a special-edition print. Mayer pours his bottle into a pint glass. “So far, so good,” he says after taking a big whiff of the brew. “Shall we?” Everybody raises his or her bottle. “Cheers!” Mayer takes a swig, holding the liquid in his mouth for awhile to take in the flavor. He pauses, swallows, and a big smile spreads across his face. “It’s actually pretty good.” He takes a few more sips. “Realistically, I thought it would be undrinkable, but it’s pretty good. It’s pretty well balanced, it’s creamy.”
Mayer didn’t get the big citrus West Coast hop aroma he was hoping for, Honey Badger IPA was still pretty hoppy, but with a floral and spicy bouquet. The texture was creamy, with just the right amount of carbonation, and it had a slightly sweet, mildly spicy and modestly bitter finish. The flavor was complex and well-balanced, with a solid malt backbone.
While Mayer admits he would try to make it a little hoppier next time, there won’t be a next time for Honey Badger IPA. Mayer’s creative side doesn’t warm to replication, which would “defeat the purpose of me getting into home brewing in the first place.” But will he brew again? “Oh, yeah.”
Home Brew Glossary
Air lock: This piece of equipment is inserted into the top of the fermenter bucket and allows the CO2 from fermentation to escape while not allowing the outside air back into the vessel.
Ale: A style of beer made with a top-fermenting yeast. It is typically a hearty, robust and fruity beer that ferments at a warmer temperture.
Balance: The proportion of malt to hops in a beer.
Bottle Conditioned: Beer with the yeast left in the brew to complete the fermentation in the bottle.
Craft Beer: Beer produced on a smaller scale by independent brewers with only traditional brewing ingredients such as malt, hops, yeast and water, and brewed with traditional brewing methods.
Fermentation: A process of growing microorganisms for the production of various chemical or pharmaceutical compounds.
Hops: The flower of the hop plant used in beer to provide bitterness, light aromas and a longer shelf life.
IPA: An acronym for India Pale Ale. It is typically a very hoppy beer that has a distinct bitterness.
Racking Cane: This piece of equipment is used to transfer the beer from the fermenter bucket into the bottling bucket and later into bottles.
Wort: A sweet liquid drained from mash and fermented to make beer and whiskey, and also, any stage of beer before the yeast is added.
Home-Brew Supply Stores:
Brew Your Own Bottle
162 Haddon Avenue
865 Rt. 33 West, Suite 4
Cask & Kettle Homebrew
904-B Main Street
Corrado’s Home Beer and Winemaking Center
600 Getty Avenue
Keg & Barrel Home Brew
41 Clementon Road
North Jersey Homebrew
354 Lafayette Road
208 Sanhican Drive
15 South Orange Avenue