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A quest for brew quality

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From left: Jim Matt (Sun King), Andrew Castner (The Ram), Dave Holt (Sun King). Photo by Mark Lee
  • From left: Jim Matt (Sun King), Andrew Castner (The Ram), Dave Holt (Sun King). Photo by Mark Lee

"Quest for quality" is the mantra for craft home- and professional brewers. This surfaced as the overarching link between panelists at the May Brewers Roundtable at Sun King Brewing Company.

Definition or expectation of quality, however, is what separates micro- from macrobrewers. The consensus of the panelists was that macro beer isn't bad beer; it's made with carefully calibrated precision, using the latest computer technologies to produce a tastes-the-same product, batch after batch, year after year.

"It's simply not full of amazing flavors and nuances," offered panelist Bill Ballinger, two-time winner of Indiana State Fair Homebrewer of the Year and an aspiring professional craft brewer.

"Achieving those amazing flavors and nuances is what pushed the homebrewing and the microbrewing industry," pointed out Anita Johnson, owner of Great Fermentations.

Serving as moderator, Johnson established the focus of the roundtable to be "the synergy between the craft brewing industry and homebrewers, because there are few industries where the exchange of ideas, knowledge, experience and people from the professional to the amateur are so free. Many of the pioneers of the craft brew industry started out as homebrewers."

Johnson cited Larry Bell of Bell's Brewery, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Pete Slosberg with Pete's Brewing Company and Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. as beginning as homebrewers following 1978 legalization in the United States during the Carter administration.

"The synergy doesn't stop there," pointed out Johnson. "Homebrewers have helped to resurrect and commercialize styles [that died out in the wake of the macrobrewing industry]. Jeff Renner from Michigan brought back Classic American Pilsner, a pre-Prohibition style lager. Rye IPA started up again with Denny Conn."

Humble beginnings

Most of Indiana's current pro brewers began as homebrewers, including Roundtable panelists Dave Colt, head brewer at Sun King; Jim Matt, assistant brewer and Quality Control [QC] Manager at Sun King; Darren Connor, head brewer at Bier Brewery; Jon Lang, head brewer at Triton Brewing; and Jon Myers, head brewer at Powerhouse Brewing.

Panelist Andrew Castner, head brewer at The Ram, recalled his past. "My being a brewer happened by accident. I went to Oaken Barrel part-time to clean kegs."

An audio-video production major, Castner switched careers when he eased into brewing at OB, learning from head brewers Ken Price and Mark Havens, who started as homebrewers. Though he bypassed homebrewing, Castner said he learns from them, starting with the MECA Homebrewers who regularly stop in at Oaken Barrel to comment on Havens' recipes, and who now also stop at The Ram to offer their opinions.

Castner said he initiated The Ram's Small Ale Homebrew Competition "to highlight the brewer(s) who can create the best and most balanced flavor combinations while also making a sessionable pint that everyone can enjoy again and again."

For Castner to professionally brew Bill Tilt's winning Better Bettor Bitter, scaleability was a consideration. It wasn't not a simple matter of doubling or quadrupling a homebrew recipe.

"It's pretty scientific," said Conner, adding that a brewer has to know what happens with a homebrew recipe on a professional setup.

And it's being able "to fix it" when the unexpected happens, as it did for Lang's Pro-Am experience with homebrewer Mark Schiess when dry hopping went awry.

"Anything you bring from homebrewing is useful, but in actuality professional brewing differs from homebrewing," said Sun King's Colt. "It sounds easier than it is," he pointed out. "It's very physical cleaning the much bigger kettles." Colt earned a hearty laugh from everyone in attendance.

As a business, it's important to have a lineup of brews the public wants to buy. A brewery and brewpub have to have guaranteed "sellers" as the house beers before making specials that might have lesser appeal.

"The housebeers, the menu we have all the time, are crucial to appeal to your audience," added Castner. "Some customers want to see boundaries pushed, and with five gallons separated from the regular brew day batch, you can pull it off. Coffee-vanilla stout can sell out in a night but it doesn't have mass appeal."

"I get to do what I love to do," said Jim Matt, who continues to homebrew, sharing the results with fellow Sun King worker Dave Colt. "Sometimes he likes my experiments."

Do they ever end up on the Sun King menu, an audience member wanted to know. Perhaps. Essentially, there's a difference between having to appeal to paying customers and adoring friends.

"Everybody loves free beer," observed Conner.

From entertainment to enterprise

Jon Myers, head brewer at Powerhouse Brewing, pointed out the transition from homebrewing to pro — owning a small business — requires more than knowing how to brew good beer. Financial backing to start up, knowing how to navigate the legal aspects and developing a brand and a following are essential.

"You have to be everything. There are daily fires you have to put out," said Bier Brewery's Darren Connor. "Beer has to be right every time you put it out."

A homebrew mistake is not as costly as it is for a pro brewer. Though, as ISF Homebrewer of the Year Bill Ballinger pointed out, it took him a week to figure out what was wrong with what looked like a bad batch and to turn it into what he characterized as "awesome."

Homebrewers are equally skittish about throwing out good ingredients. It's essential to take outside factors into consideration, including those you can't control, such as weather conditions, availability of ingredients for a particular style or water quality the day of brewing.

While homebrewers are freer to experiment, customers have grown to expect something different, something out of the ordinary from breweries and brewpubs.

It's all about good quality that translates into good flavor for the customer.

"Some people buy the same beer every week; some are looking for something else weekly," observed Castner.

"People are finding more flavors in beer than in wine," added Myers.

"The question we ask every day is: How can we make this better?" summarized Connor.

The panelists agreed some of the best advice comes from homebrewers and from regular customers who have developed discerning palates. They also agreed that the industry has to grow its customer base. But that's a topic for the next roundtable.

BRT2 is dedicated to Joan Easley of Easley of Winery, the first local business to make available homebrewing supplies.

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