Brew Ha Ha

Homemade beer need not taste like skunk ass.

By Mara Zepeda
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 21, 2007

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DIY not?: Nancy Rigberg and George Hummel own Home Sweet Homebrew.

What initially scared me about home brewing is the mantra: "Sterilize, sterilize, sterilize." For someone who's yet to harness Clorox's magical properties to whiten sheets, the idea of sterilizing instruments to make a beverage with live yeasts is terrifying. I associate sterilization with anthrax, home births and canning (and by extension, botulism).

On home-brewing messageboards like I found discouraging horror stories. "The beer smelled and tasted like skunk's ass. It looked horrible too, bits of grain husk, hops, break, trub and whatever else was in there ... "

That's pretty discouraging. But there are an estimated 1.25 million home brewers in North America. And one has to assume they wouldn't soldier on if all the beer they produced smelled and tasted like skunk ass.

As it turns out, the results can be pretty awesome--not to mention affordable. Initial setup is about $50, and a $27 kit yields 5 gallons of beer. And there's a support system for Philadelphia's first-time brewers.

Dean Browne, a fermentation consultant and brewer with Yards, will teach Home Beer Brewing 101 at the Wine School this spring. He promises plenty of sampling and conversation, and says it won't be "total geek night where everything's technical and you read textbooks."

And Browne assures that although unsanitized attempts may be unpalatable, bad beer won't lead to manslaughter charges (unlike canning). "If you can swallow it, it's not going to hurt you," he promises.

George Hummel (co-proprietor of Home Sweet Homebrew) and Barry Mulherin (the Barry of Barry's Homebrew Outlet) have also established reputations for holding the hands and patting the backs of home-brew novices. Hummel--known as the Johnny Appleseed of Philadelphia Craft Brewing--has helped a number of customers start their own brewing companies, and he's the "Master of Beeramonies" at Monk's monthly beer dinners. His pitch for home brewing is compelling. "National breweries spend billions of dollars to make you think making beer is hard, but making it yourself adds to the love of the beer. You put part of yourself into it." With his startup kits and willingness to give free advice, Hummel could convince anyone it's actually rather easy.

It's during a busy Tuesday morning at Mulherin's store that I finally bite the home-brew bullet. He introduces me to an $3 idiot-proof, no-rinse sanitizer. I have no more excuses. I take the "no whining" sign above the cash register to heart.

"Look, it's all about making the job easier," says Mulherin, who's seen more customers since the smoking ban went into effect. "This is a perfect hobby for anyone who can tell the difference between good and bad beer." Mulherin oversees SPAM (South Philly Ale Makers), which meets every Friday to scrutinize members' creations, swap recipes and talk politics.

"What, you need a reason to adopt a hobby that results in a reason to drink?" says one of Mulherin's customers. Point taken. Bottoms up.

Home Beer Brewing 101, Thurs., April 26, 7:30-9pm. $36.99. Wine School of Philadelphia, 2006 Fairmount Ave. 800.817.7351.

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