The conversation in Arbor Brewing Company last Sunday was far from the norm. Words like “estery,” “diacetyl” and “phenolic” were tossed around with ease. Patrons traded stories describing gruesome scenes — “It looked like we had sacrificed a goat” — and violent explosions — “The best is when you have fruit in it and it blows up and hits your ceiling.”
It wasn’t a meeting of Mad Scientists Anonymous — not officially, at least. ABC’s Tap Room served as the setting for The Michigan Daily’s first home brewing competition, in which students submitted their own beer to be judged by a panel of local experts: Matt Greff, owner of ABC, Ron Jeffries, owner of Jolly Pumpkin, and Alex Petit, a member of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild.
The contest featured 25 entries and 17 styles. To accommodate the diverse field of entries, traditional categories were consolidated into three broad groups: Light/Amber, Strong/Spiced and Dark. Judging criteria included overall quality and adherence to style as established by the Beer Judge Certification Program.
The Daily held this contest to create a forum for what seems to be a growing number of students who are taking up brewing as a hobby. Entries varied widely in style, inventiveness and quality, but all confirmed a trend of college students who are forsaking the “dirty thirty” of cheap macro-brew to try to make something worth drinking.
“I think there’s a big surge of people enjoying and appreciating craft beer, which tends to lead people to make their own,” said Engineering graduate student Ian Stines, a member of the Ann Arbor Brewers Guild whose “Obama Victory Porter” won Best of Show.
Stine said the guild has increased its membership to over 100 this year, which reflects a burgeoning interest in home brewing.
But most of the contestants knew few other home brewers before the contest, having taken up brewing individually or in twos or threes with little guidance other than Internet research.
“(A friend’s dad) got me into good beer, so I wanted to take the next step and make my own,” said Bryan Yestrepsky, a medicinal chemistry graduate student. “And then I found a set online for $100 and had to go for it.”
The contest judges, who were all once amateur brewers themselves, were eager to provide constructive criticism to guide brewers who have developed their understanding of beer from books, websites and pure experimentation.
Greff, whose Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti still makes five recipes he developed as a home brewer, said the best thing about brewing is the community of fellow travelers to geek out with.
“(It’s a) collegiate atmosphere,” he said. “People grew up together. People help each other out, share recipes.”
While the judges scored the entries, the brewers swapped recipes and techniques — along with stories of more than a few bloopers that almost inevitably accompany any foray into home brewing.
Several brewers said specialty ingredients like fruit and honey can affect the carbonation in surprising ways, rendering beer as flat as water and syrup or causing bottles to erupt when opened.
While brewing your own beer can be economical, mistakes can be expensive. Business senior Jason Hollingsworth learned this the hard way during one of his first attempts to brew.
“It was one of my first times brewing and (I) put the wort (unfermented beer) into the carboy before cooling it in the boiling pot first,” Hollingsworth wrote in an e-mail after the contest. “I put the carboy in the bathtub and turned on the cold water to cool it down, and because of the temperature difference, the glass carboy shattered into a hundred pieces. $40 of beer ingredients literally went down the drain, taking my $60 carboy with it. I learned not to make that mistake again.”
Appreciating good beer takes sophistication. But as accounts from the contestants show, trying to make it requires other qualities — dedication, creativity and nerve.
From beginning to end, brewing a single batch is a process that takes months. A concoction must be mixed, boiled, fermented, bottled and then left to sit for weeks before it is drinkable.
The step-by-step procedure required in home brewing might explain why so many of the contestants had science backgrounds. Many brewers interviewed said they were attracted to brewing because it was a way to be creative with science.
“It’s basically just to have creative control over the product,” Engineering senior Chris Moline said. “It’s creative but you still have to follow a technical procedure.”
But while home brewers tend to be the type who have no problem with lab assignments, the interesting part of their hobby is when they stray from the formula. When brewing for your enjoyment, there’s no harm (except for staining your ceiling, perhaps) in throwing something unexpected into the mix to see what happens.
“It can be as scientific as someone wants it to be or it’s just throw everything into a barrel and hope for the best,” Engineering graduate student Joe Munski said.
Mike Elchinger, a School of Natural Resources graduate student, got a little creative with the pale ale he entered in the Light/Amber category. Instead of picking up brewer’s sugar from Beer Depot, he used powdered sugar that he already had at his house — a liberty that didn’t seem to hurt him too badly with the judges, as his pale ale received a score of 53.
“I thought it was going to be a bad batch, so the fact that it was drinkable was a surprise,” he said.
But Elchinger, whose pumpkin ale won the Strong/Spiced category, said he never cuts corners when it comes to the most important aspect of assuring quality beer: keeping equipment clean.
If brewers don’t sanitize every piece of equipment that comes into contact with their brew, they risk distorting the batch with impurities caused by bacteria contamination. These impurities can manifest as an aroma of rotten eggs or the flavor of plastic.
One not-so-delicious pumpkin ale entry was found to have sanitation issues by all three judges, garnering comments like “vegetables are overwhelming,” “medicinal aroma” and “dish water.”
But what more often plagued the contestant brewers was difficulty balancing flavors or classifying their entries correctly.
Another judge wrote about a high-scoring black stout: “Perhaps stout category not correct. Very drinkable, though.”
Engineering graduate student Joel Forman, the creator of the black stout, only started brewing six months ago but has yet to have a batch go awry.
“I’m waiting for a batch to turn out poorly just to get that over with,” he said.
He might not have to wait long, though. His current project is a lager, a notoriously difficult style to make.
“When it was fermenting, it had a very odd, strong smell,” he said. “So there’s a little worry about that, but I still have to wait another month until I know.”
The waiting game inherent to home brewing is likely the most rewarding and agonizing part of it all. A brewer often has to wait two months to sample the fruit — or fault — of his or her labor, and it’s difficult to tell ahead of time how it’ll turn out. But that doesn’t seem to stop the University’s many student brewers — nearly every contestant in The Michigan Daily’s competition has another batch already on the way.
—Daily Staff Writer Lila Kalick contributed to this report.