Homebrew students learn to customize beer flavors

PORTLAND — Learning to brew your own beer in Portland, a.k.a. Beervana, would seem to be pointlessness personified. Yet 80 homebrewers and brewers-to-be spent a rainy Saturday morning doing just that in a stark warehouse warmed only by two boiling kettles.

"It's not pointless at all," said Michel Brown, a well-known Portland homebrewer who began making his own beer 38 years ago at the age of 17. He was teaching the advanced class in the back room at F.H. Steinbart, the 91-year-old brewers supply store. Steinbart regularly offers free classes such as the one Saturday.

"By brewing your own, you can make just the beer you want," Brown said. "When was the last time you saw an ordinary bitter on tap in a pub? When did you last see a 60-shilling Scottish ale or a peanut butter porter?"

He knows odd brews because he's made beers with ingredients such as ham and cheese; Bac-O-Bits; peanut butter and chocolate; and Nutella. His CXI Pumpernickel Ale is the 11th anniversary Widmer/ Oregon Brew Crew Collaborator beer, and yes, pumpernickel bread is an ingredient.

On the other side of the warehouse, Elan Walsky taught the beginning brewers how to make the same big barleywine as Brown's but with the shortcut of using commercial malt extracts and syrups instead of milling malt to make an "all-grain" beer. He didn't water down the information, though.

"Teaching a class like this is great for me, because it really keeps me on point," he said. Walsky and his partners are opening — in January, they hope — Coalition Brewing, a new brewpub in the old Noble Rot space on Southeast Ankeny Street. "This keeps me brewing well and reminds me that the basics are important."

He opened the class with a disclaimer intended to quell any nervousness in the crowd. "Don't be surprised today if I burn myself, spill something or make a mess," he said. "This is homebrewing and the object is to have fun and make a beer you like to drink. Brewing can be very technical, but it's easy to make good beer without knowing the chemistry and science of it."

He was as good as his word: While Brown delved into the chemistry of how to remove chloramine, which is used to treat Portland's water, Walsky reassured his crew that if your water tastes good, your beer will, too.

He demystified the many kinds of hops and their effects when they're added at different times in the boil: An early addition of hops gives mostly bitterness but boils away delicate flavors and volatile aromas; a mid-boil addition allows flavor to develop, but not as much bitterness; and a very late addition yields mostly that big flowery hop aroma.

"You don't have to be that precise," Walsky said as he sprinkled a two-ounce packet of hops into the boiling kettle. "This is like cooking. It's not about staying absolutely true to a recipe — it's nice to hit a style exactly, but what's important is making a beer you like to drink. And the best way to learn is to experiment. Make a recipe and then pour it into two different carboy containers each with a different yeast so you know how each yeast works."

There was one subject, however, where he cut the newbies no slack at all. "Sanitation is really vital and there's a difference between cleaning and sanitation, and you have to do both," he said. "Cleaning is removing the crud and gunk from your equipment; sanitation is removing those invisible microbes from your equipment, from the wort, from anything the beer will touch."

Spoons, siphons, tubing and a copper-coiled wort chiller soaked in a tub of special sanitizer before being used to cool the wort and transfer it to a carboy where it would ferment into beer.

Saturday's batch went smoothly with only a couple of small spills and lots of information.

"It was extremely useful," Karolina Juszczak said. "I'm a visual learner and it really helps to see this done step by step. It's a lot like cooking — even more like canning with all the attention to temperature and sanitation."

Her fiance, Brian Mackiewicz, is an electrical engineer who loves the technical precision of brewing. "I'm ready to start brewing now," he said. "I already have two hops plants, so I'm ready for the next step."

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