One Beer Lover’s Journey

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I grew up with limited exposure to beer and alcohol. I remember seeing a few neighbors drink it while doing yard work, and I remember “Wally the Beer Man” hawking his wares during Minnesota Twins games at the HHH Metrodome in Minneapolis while I was growing up. His call of, “Beer here! Get your beer here!” is one of the more odd memories of my childhood.

No one I went to Twins games with bought beer from Wally or his. We were there for the game.

I do remember a few times running through the stands, collecting the plastic collector cups to bring home. I also remember being revolted by the smell of the cups that had held beer rather than soda. At the time, I don’t think I even knew the smell was beer, I just knew I didn’t like it.

White & Nerdy

Sometime around 9th or 10th grade, I became aware of the fact some other young adults at my school spent a lot of time thinking about and pursuing alcohol. I didn’t really care, since it wasn’t part of my life except for the occasional caramel sauce that had enough whiskey in it to add a unique flavor.

I was never in the popular group, and I don’t remember ever being invited to a party where alcohol was served. My friends were active in sports, theater, and speech. I did theater, speech, and worked most weekends from the time I was in 7th grade.

I did try sports in junior high, but quit mid-football season in 9th grade because I got in to an accelerated math program. The whole team thing was weird, but I did start snowboarding in 1989.

High school never included alcohol for me.

College Parties?

Nope. I can’t say I remember going to any college parties. Freshman year, I was focused on my grades, working in the computer labs, and trying to make sure I was active enough on-campus to have things on my resume to qualify to become a resident assistant to save on room & board.

I remember seeing lots of people suffering the results of over-consuming alcohol, but I didn’t even have an interest in going out when I turned 21. I think a coworker bought me a beer at lunch the week after I turned 21. It was fine, but it was a mass market Pilsner. This was the first time I wasn’t revolted by the smell of beer, but I wasn’t on fire to have another one either.

The following summer, I remember having a single Natural Light with a hurried dinner after working out with a friend. It was fine, but didn’t really do anything to pique my interest. I think I drank two glasses of water in the same time period I drank a single can of beer.

The Epiphany

Liquid Black Yummy-ness

Sometime the next year, one of my roommates told me, “You think you don’t like beer because you haven’t had real beer yet.” And he handed me a Samuel Adams Cream Stout. As a coffee lover, the blast of bittersweet chocolate, hints of coffee, and a distinctive flavor I couldn’t yet recognize drew me in. He was correct; I hadn’t had real beer.

After that, I explored “microbrews”. (Really, it was a thing in the 1990s. Basically, it was the hoighty-toighty beer.)  You know: Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss, Killian’s Irish Red, and several varieties brewed by Samuel Adams.

Over time, I came to realize that the unique flavors I was experiencing in beers were the hops and yeast-derived flavors combining to create experiences I’d never had before. I strongly gravitated toward dark beers because they were built on a base of bready sweetness, mild hop bitterness, and flavors I loved in coffee and chocolate.

The Doors Blow Open

After focusing on beers that fell in to fairly sweet profile for many years, I found out beer could be made at home. A co-worker had a bunch of us over to brew a batch of beer on his stovetop. It completely blew my mind. I remember only a couple of us actually cared about participating in each step of the process, but seeing the process start to finish probably changed my life.

Seeing the brewing process, then eventually tasting the finished product, ignited my interest in beer in a way I didn’t expect. I started cooking at a young age, and I could see the potential for flavor exploration in brewing.

Even though I wouldn’t start brewing on my own for nearly a decade, I read The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and sought out beers made by local breweries to dissect their flavors and try to understand how they were created.

Go Big

When I did start brewing, my first beer was a kit for Russian Imperial Stout. It reflected my love of dark beers with a bready sweetness that didn’t cross into being cloying.

My brother and I brewed a beer that didn’t turn out well because I didn’t manage the fermentation properly.

I think I brewed a couple 5-gallon extract batches that turned out well, and started accumulating things to brew all-grain. A turkey fryer burner, a horribly inefficient grain mill, a rectangular cooler, and the wrong type of pvc piping (it warped when hot water hit it).

The Excitement

My wife and kids will attest to the fact I went a little nutty about beer. The consumption was the least important part for me, but the excitement of exploring recipes, techniques, and flavors held my interest. It wasn’t enough for me just to focus on the brewing, I was able to tie so much of the process into unrelated activities.

Talking about the importance of being careful with math problems was the same as weighing and measuring accurately. The fact that many things didn’t happen as fast as you wanted them illustrated the importance of patience with managing fermentation. A new dinner recipe might include a spice or herb that would nicely complement a recent batch of beer.

Making and enjoying beer is a lot of fun for those of us who enjoy the process and pursuit of a great flavor profile.

Let’s brew up an adventure!

Surprise Delivery

A while ago, I was browsing (maybe kinda sponsored link?) for Caliente hops, which weren’t available. I sent an email to their customer service department about how disappointed I was the variety wasn’t available.

When I had brewed with Caliente in the past, I was blown away by the tropical fruit notes. Now that I was looking to use it again, I was surprised it hadn’t taken off with commercial and homebrewers, as the mango, peach, and pine notes seemed to be what people have been going crazy for in their beer.

I received a very polite email saying they regretted Caliente hops were not available, and could I please send them my mailing address? So I sent my address to them.

A short time later, I received a small package with three hop varieties and some swag in it. I know they can’t do this kind of thing for everyone, and I totally did not expect it. But I am looking forward to making some beers with these, and at one of them will be heavily dry-hopped with those Mosaic LupoMax pellets!

And That’s not All! . . .

I recently went back to Yakima Valley Hops to peruse their selection again. The first thing I noticed was that they had re-designed their web site.

The second thing I noticed was that CALIENTE HOPS ARE BACK!!! Get some. I’m going to.


Find a Challenge

As brewers, it’s easy to fall in to a rut of making beers that we know we like or sound interesting. Maybe there’s a recipe you found online for a hot, new commercial beer you can’t get your hands on.

But one of the things that really forced me to step outside my brewing comfort zone was joining a local Iron Brewer Competition. It combined the craziness of Iron Chef, homebrewing, and a 16-place playoff bracket.

Let the battles begin!

The photo above was from my first year participating, back in 2013. It was so much fun, and how many times do you decide to brew a milk stout with 3 types of ginger because you’re inspired by the flavors in gingersnaps? Not enough times, unless you’re trying to use a weird ingredient.

Challenges Grow

That first year, in 2013, the competition was organized by Brewer Jon, who now owns Zymurgy Brewing in Menomonie, WI. I helped him with the next couple iterations, and had a great time.

One of the challenges with a multi-round competition is scheduling. Until I was trying to arrange dates that worked with all the contestants, I didn’t realize how hard it was to coordinate 16 different schedules to both allow enough time to produce a beer and not conflict with family events.

Weirder and Weirder

Since the competition drew inspiration from the Iron Chef TV show, where contestants didn’t know what unusual ingredient they would have to highlight, the challenge ingredients got more and more unusual.

Some of my favorite beers resulted from challenges that were a concept, rather than a specific ingredient. My gingersnap milk stout was fine, but in subsequent years, one of the best beers of the competition was an answer to the challenge of “pancake breakfast”. Brewers could interpret the challenge however they wished.

The pancake breakfast beer was downright amazing. Its stout base combined with added coffee to present that roasty, coffee flavor I love right away in the morning, which faded into flavors of maple syrup complemented by a lingering toasted bread flavor that reminded me of pancakes.

And even the beet beer was pretty good.

Find a Challenge

Whether you can find a similar competition in your area, I have no idea. But if you have the chance, don’t be afraid to jump in and enjoy the weirdness.

If you can’t find a competition, but can get a few friends together, pick a challenge ingredient and #BrewUpAnAdventure!