The culture of home brewing

Illustration by Sarah Squire
Buy this photo

BY JORDAN ROCHELSON

Published November 29, 2010

“I’m getting very low levels of banana,” Fred Bonjour says as he swirls a liquid around in a tumbler, beginning his beer analysis. He digs his nose deep into the glass and takes a large whiff.

After a few more vigorous swirls in his hand and full immersions of his nose into the glass, he holds the glass up to the light and studies the color. A few more swirls and sniffs. He discusses the scent with brewer Keith Michaluk. A few more swirls and sniffs. Then, finally, Bonjour tips the glass back and downs the two ounces in one full swig.

No, Bonjour isn’t an oenophile interpreting the subtleties of a Shiraz. He is one of about 50 home-brewers of beer who attended an Ann Arbor Brewer’s Guild meeting in Saline, Mich. early last month.

“Guild” is actually a strong word, according to AABG President Frey. “It is a homebrew club,” Frey said, and it is one of roughly 36 homebrew clubs in Michigan. The Michigan Brewers Guild represents all 60 of the microbreweries and brew pubs in Michigan.

There is no stereotypical "home-brewer" in this crowd. They come from all different backgrounds and ages. Members of AABG include photographers, retired engineers, a biochemist and a Domino's employee. Even a few graduate students participate to share their passion and brews.

Between classes, studying and social lives, there's a handful of students on campus who also find the time to brew their own beer. But most college students prioritize the quantity of the beer they brew over its quality.

Luke Hinshaw, a graduate student studying medicine and public health at the University of Toledo, has been brewing for one year and views the process as a way to utilize his artistic ability. Hinshaw dabbles in photography, but said he finds that “beer is appreciated by more (of his) friends than photography.”

The social aspect of home brewing is not lost on students like Hinshaw, who said that while he was an undergrad at the University, he would be the only student who brought a six-pack of his own beer to a house party rather than drink what was offered.

Many are surprised to find a guild of brewers who analyze beer in depth. Frey has had several encounters with people skeptical of his hobby.

A while back, Frey was brewing in his driveway in Canton, Mich. when a police cruiser pulled up next to him and his brewing system. Perplexed by the series of tubes, canisters and propane tank, the officer asked what he was up to.

“I was gonna be a smart ass and say, ‘making crystal meth,’ ” Frey jokes.

But Frey informed the officer he was brewing beer, and the baffled officer asked if that was legal.

Home brewing became legal in 1978 under President Jimmy Carter. According to federal law, an individual can brew up to 100 gallons of beer, while households with or two or more adults have a 200-gallon limit.

Since its legalization, home brewing has grown into a culture of enthusiasts and connoisseurs of beer. And this world of brewing is far more expansive than the average non-brewer would imagine.

Of course, there are local breweries in Ann Arbor that brew their own beer — Ann Arbor Brewing Co. and Grizzly Peak are two examples — but the culture goes deeper than the local microbrewery.

Every two years, the Brewers Association hosts a World Beer competition in which a panel of judges award gold, silver and bronze medals to the top beers in 91 categories. This year, Michigan took home 11 medals, making it the fifth-most winning state in what is known as the “Olympics of Beer Competition,” but at the core of competition is a group of brew-enthusiasts who love to share their creations.

The guild meeting in early November was holiday themed with a beer-injected turkey and beer-flavored cakes. The meeting took place in the basement of Frey’s house, and within 15 minutes, the room was filled with home-brew enthusiasts, brewers and drinkers.

While most brewers were downstairs feasting and discussing hops levels, Frey was upstairs attending to the guild's administrative work.

Dues were paid — $15 for a year's membership — official lanyards and nametags were distributed and registrations were renewed. The administrative work seemed out of place considering the guild meeting revolved around drinking beer, but it soon became clear that members were interested in far more than putting a few back.

The basement itself was full of various brewing tools, including kegs, filtration systems and propane tanks. And though there were more than five untapped kegs in the hallway, "kegger" would be the worst description possible for this party. Nobody took more than two ounces of liquid in their tiny tumblers at a time. In fact, this was less of a party and more of a forum.

Brewers walked around the room carrying their own brew in jugs or antique bottles with complicated cap systems, rather than the simple “twist-off.”

At the AABG meeting, beer was free flowing and the room was filled with people who devote a significant amount of their lives to beer. There can be misconceptions that brewers are alcoholics, but Frey said alcoholism is actually much lower among brewers than it is among non-brewers — a fact that Frey attributes to the appreciation brewers have for their beer. They understand the beer, therefore they are “more diligent about monitoring their own consumption,” he said.

Members drank darks, lights, lagers, stouts, IPAs and ales. Each brew was highly refined, with no two alike. Throughout the meeting the brewers discussed different brews and brands, with an almost encyclopedic understanding of the process.

After Bonjour took his sip of Oktoberfest, which he meticulously analyzed with his nose and eyes, he turned to Michaluk, a 14-year veteran brewer, and said he could taste how Keith had removed the malt mixture from the yeast too early. According to Bonjour, this is a common mistake among new brewers.

The members analyzed the beers in depth — with the more veteran brewers discussing the temperature of fermentation and the quality and quantity of hops,

“I’ve been doing it for a number of years and, as a result, you learn what things tend to cause all types of flavors,” said Bonjour, who has become such an expert he now teaches a course on the subject of judging beer.

According to Bonjour, the class is targeted to people interested in passing the Beer Judge Certification Program, which allows you to judge beer competitions.

“One of the beauties of it is that in the process of the class, (students) get to taste many different styles of beer,” Bonjour said.

Michaluk is one of 35 brewers enrolled in the class, which holds its meetings in Frey's living room on Friday evenings.

Many home brewers refer to brewing as just a hobby, but the dedication that goes into it indicates it is something more.

“If he could spend all of his money on it, he would. We’re not at that point yet,” said Michaluk’s wife, Lydia, of her husband’s hobby.

The process of brewing beer involves a lot of waiting. After all the yeast has settled, the propane tank has been turned off and the thick liquid has been carbonated and has sat for two weeks, a brewer is finally able to take his first sip of his own brew.

Still the question remains: Why embark on this tedious and expensive process when it’s easier and cheaper to go to the liquor store and pick up a six-pack?

The brewers in Ann Arbor offer a never-ending stream of answers that central question.

“A lot of it is the camaraderie,” said Dave Olds, a member of the AABG.

Other AABG brewers like Susan Rankert agree, saying they bond over their interest in beer.

“That is the one unifying thing. Politically we are all very different, and professionally we are all very different. The demographics are quite far flung, but beer is the common passion,” Rankert said.

Her husband, Jeff Rankert, brews with her and said the process of brewing is much more rewarding than his work in the automotive industry.

“I can let the creative juices flow,” Rankert said. “Planning, purchasing, all the way through, at the end, I can taste the product.”

Many brewers said they began brewing because they weren’t pleased with the quality of beer found in stores or their local bar.

“Getting drunk isn’t the end goal,” Frey said. “Crafting a brew that one can be proud of (and) utilizing the best ingredients is.”

And though everyone had different reasons for why they brew, or why they’d like to start, Bonjour summed it up in four words: “I enjoy good beer.”