Something is Brewing in Birmingham

The Home Brewing Culture Gets A Break

Written by Brett Levine  

Photography by Edward Badham


It is early in the morning on a steamy August Saturday. Richard Force and Jonathan Hay are in the process of heating their strikewater. “We heat the water to a constant temperature of 160 to 165 degrees,” Force explains. “When we mix in our grains, we will have a mash, and from there, we will be able to extract the sugars that will form the basis of our beer.”

Strikewater. Mash. Wort. Sugars. Brix. If it all sounds scientific, it is. Force and Hay are among the growing number of home brewers experimenting with recipes and making brews all across the state. On May 9, 2013, Governor Robert Bentley signed a law legalizing home brewing in Alabama. And although his signature made Alabama the last state to ratify such a bill, Alabama’s date of effect was actually earlier than Mississippi’s. “It is a point of pride that we weren’t actually the last state to be able to engage in the practice,” Force laughs, “even if we were technically the last state to legalize the process.”

Home brewing certainly is not for the faint-hearted, as Force stated recently in The Economist. As he so humorously and eloquently explained it, “If you just wanted to drink beer, it would be much cheaper to buy a 30-pack of Natty Light at the supermarket.” Despite the popularity of recent “reality” shows celebrating a personal approach to manufacturing libations, the chemistry and diligence necessary to make beer means there is a lot of room for error. This, coupled with other hazards, including bottles exploding from over-carbonation, make it a hobby that requires attention, diligence and skill. But neither Force nor Hay brought a background in the sciences to the process, though they are both brewing scientists now. “I am a data analyst for a medical software company,” Force says. “I work in information technology,” Hay says. Still, both recognize the combination of chemistry, biology, and physics that makes brewing possible.

Most home brewers do not begin with milling their own grains or making their own recipes. “The easiest way to learn to brew is by using a kit,” Force remarks. “If you do, you know that you have a good, consistent recipe, and you can simply focus on learning the process of brewing.” Both Force and Hay also recommend John Palmer’s book How to Brew. “It is basically the go-to reference book for home brewers,” Force says, “so it answers a lot of questions even more experienced brewers might have.”

Force’s water has now heated to temperature, and he adds 30 pounds of grains to what is basically a large igloo cooler. “When this process is finished, we should have about 12 gallons of wort that will boil down to the final 10-gallon batch.” The wort is the product of the brewing process before fermentation. Force is making an oatmeal brown beer, while Hay is brewing an Oktoberfest. He says, “The craft beer movement has definitely made home brewing better from a number of perspectives. One of the most visible is simply the exposure to more styles of beer.”

Certainly Force has taken to the craft quickly, recently brewing three award-winning beers for the Alabama Brew-Off. “For competitions you simply bottle two 12-ounce bottles of beer,” he explains. “I’ve been experimenting with roasting and smoking grains, and I won a gold medal in Category 22, Smoked and Wood Aged Beers, for one of my recipes. I’m also very interested in spices and herbs, and I won a Gold in the Vegetable and Spice category. Finally, I also won a bronze medal in the Helles Bock category.”

Force was not the only local award winner. He is a member of a local brew club, “The Carboy Junkies,” which is a pun on both a reusable container for brewing and an Irish band with a similar name. Other members of the club also won medals at the Alabama Brew-Off, including Scott Noble who won Best of Show, and Hay himself who won a bronze medal in the sour beer category. Club member Tracy Hamilton is a professor of chemistry at UAB. When he arrives to share in the conversation he says, jokingly, “probably half of the UAB Chemistry department has brewed beer at one time or another.” Hamilton himself has taken his passion even further, becoming a certified beer judge. Force is also pursuing the credentials. “You don’t spit during beer tasting like you do in wine tasting,” Hamilton says, “because in beer, tasting the aftertaste is very important.”

Force and Hay produce a tool—a refractometer—that allows them to check the specific gravity of their wort as it boils. They are measuring the amount of sugar in the liquid using a tool that looks like a small looking glass. With a few drops of wort, they can see how the light refracts and, using a scale, understand the amount of sugar that is in the liquids. This amount of sugar will determine the final alcohol content of the beer.

We break for lunch, leaving the wort to boil. Force fires up the grill, making hamburgers with meat he has just run through a grinder. “Our family really loves to cook,” he says. We enjoy the burgers and get back to brewing.

Now it is time to remove the liquids from the kettles they have been boiling in. Both Force and Hay use an old keg with the top cut off and a siphon on the side as a boil barrel. After the boil, they want to get the wort out of the barrels and reduce the temperatures quickly. Each container has a filtering mechanism to separate the hops that have been added during the boil from the liquids, leaving them behind. As Force explains, “During the boil we add hops to impart bitterness, flavor, and aroma. Without hops, beer would be overly sweet so the bitterness of the hops helps balance the sweetness of the malt. When you adds hops determines if you get bitterness, flavor, or aroma.” They explain that brewers use different hops to create unique beers. Force continues, “I use a hop called Amarillo in one of my beers, and it imparts an orange note to the beer. The beer also has notes of sweet chocolate from the grain, so it ends up tasting like a chocolate-covered orange.” Hay’s hops filter consists of a stainless disc, filled with holes, that acts like a strainer. Hooking an electric pump up to the tap on his modified keg, he is able to pump the wort out through a copper cooling mechanism, reducing it to a temperature that, depending on the style of beer, can be somewhere between 45 and 72 degrees. The pump is a new addition to Hay’s brewing repertoire, and he monitors it carefully to ensure it doesn’t become clogged.

Both the pump and Hay’s approach to the final product add variables that are some cause for concern. “One of the fun but frustrating things about home brewing is trying something new,” he smiles. “I’ve just converted to using kegs for my mash tun and boil kettle,” he says, “so I’m still trying to be sure I have the process all down. There are so many variables to consider when you change anything in your process that it takes about five or six batches to be sure you’ve got it right.”

What is even more important is ensuring that what the wort is transferred into—the carboys, which in this instance are glass—are meticulously clean. Sanitation is key in brewing. As Force explains, “beer is a really great growth medium for a lot of nasty stuff.” One of the main contaminants is Brettanomyces yeast, which is naturally occurring. Its presence is necessary for sour beers, but is otherwise a contaminant. Once it is used in a beer, it is extremely difficult to get rid of. “Basically if you’ve used Brettanomyces yeast,” Hay and Force say, “you’ll likely have to use an entirely different set of equipment unless your main goal is to consistently brew sour beers.”

It is after 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and the process has taken Force and Hay an entire day. It looks like everything is OK. The water was boiled, grains were added, the mixture was boiled, wort was drained and cooled, and now this mixture sits in carboys waiting to have yeast pitched in and for fermentation to begin. After a day of home brewing there is nothing to drink, at least not from the batches the two have made. That simple fact helps dispel many of the fears surrounding home brewing. It is not easy. It is not immediate. And it is certainly not foolproof, failsafe or guaranteed. It is innovative; it is scientific; it is creative; and it is natural. It is definitely a craft, one that Alabama home brewers are finally able to legally enjoy. Home brewing will certainly not replace the convenience of selecting a quality beer from a local retailer’s cooler. It will, however, create new opportunities, new businesses, and new income for cities, counties, and states. Cahaba Brewing now invites brewers like Force and Hay, or club member Derek Cracco, to brew small batches at their brewery. Avondale Brewery combines brewing with music, creating a great new outdoor space to enjoy their local innovations. And Good People now sits directly across from the award-winning Birmingham Barons stadium. While it is impossible to speculate on the role home brewing may have had in the city’s love for craft brewing, it is certainly possible to measure the positive economic, social, and cultural impacts that it brings to the city now. Alabama may have come late to the party, but individuals like Force and Hay; clubs such as the Carboy Junkies; breweries including Avondale, Cahaba, Good People, and the soon-to-open Trim Tab; and businesses including Hop City and Alabrew all ensure that this hobby turned business creates something that goes down smoothly.

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