Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 9, 2012

Brewing up a hobby

Beer-making isn't just for breweries anymore


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TRAVERSE CITY — John Perreault recently cracked open the first bottles of beer that he brewed himself.

"It's only been in the bottle for a week now, so it's pretty young," Perreault, 28, said of his pale ale. "But it's shaping up well. It tasted pretty good, and I'm expecting it to get even better."

The Traverse City software designer is newly making the jump into home brewing, a hobby that's been on the rise nationally and locally for years now. While the Traverse City area has seen a boom in microbreweries, there's been an equal surge in the home variety.

Joseph Vokes, a Traverse City engineer at Consumers Energy, started with a simple Mr. Beer kit he received as a birthday gift this year. He's now on his fifth batch of pale ale, trying new varieties in each.

"I tried putting some raspberry in the India Pale Ale and like the results of that," said Vokes, 42. "I found you can actually save money creating the expensive beer I love by doing a little bigger batches."

With a nearly infinite combination of grains, hops, yeasts and other ingredients to try, as well as varying techniques for combining them to make the suds you're after, it's a curious mind's dream.

"With any new hobby, the world's the limit," Vokes said. "There's just so many options."

At first glance, the microbrewery and home brewing booms wouldn't seem to go hand in hand. After all, there's plenty of new and unique craft beer from all over the world dotting store shelves these days.

But it's that curiosity — "can I make something like this?" — that has led the microbrew and home brew trends to intermingle and simultaneously see steady upward mobility.

Vokes said he tries out different store-bought beers not only to see what he likes, but also what he doesn't. Then he researches the ingredients of those he doesn't like — especially what types of hops were used — to guide what he puts in his own brews.

Making a batch can take anywhere from two to four hours for the primary cooking aspects, and then there's the wait for it to ferment and be bottled or kegged.

A beer town

Earlier this month, Traverse City was named one of the Top 10 Best Winter Vacation Destinations by Livability.com in part due to the city's preponderance of craft beer. The area's nine microbreweries, brew pubs and craft beer taprooms helped Traverse City make it onto Draft magazine's list of newest "Emerging Beer Towns."

That number is scheduled to expand as two more microbreweries are in the works — Brewery Terra Firma on Hartman Road and Beggars Brewery in Blair Township.

Many such operations start in the same way — with someone brewing a five-gallon batch on their stovetop and then expanding from there.

"A lot of guys — myself included — aren't in it for the money," said Dustin Jones, the brewer at Brewery Ferment, Traverse City's newest brewpub on Union Street. "It's just what I want to do. It's an addictive hobby."

The American Homebrewers Association, based in Boulder, Colo., had just 11,724 members in 2006. That number has since almost tripled; the group hit the 30,000 mark in February.

Locally, a group called Traverse City Homebrewers Order of Practicing Zymurgists, or TC-HOPZ for short, started up in late 2009 to give area brewers a forum to share tips, recipes, experiences and, of course, beer. Founded by Blake Key, Bob Reinke and Terry Pratt, it had a half dozen members at the beginning. Participation has grown steadily, with about 30 on the roster now.

"The home brewers out there, we know they're making better beer than the major breweries," Jones said.

Why the growth?

There are numerous reasons for the surge in home brewing.

For one, home brewing was made illegal by Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933. However, brewing at home wasn't legalized again until 1979 when the Jimmy Carter administration passed a bill sponsored by California Sen. Alan Cranston creating an exemption from taxation for beer brewed at home for personal or family use. It also lifted the requirement for licenses that could entail a $1,000 bond, making it cost-prohibitive to produce beer at home.

Once that major obstacle was overcome, modernization and technology kicked in. So did the Internet, with information on how to brew readily accessible. Message boards to share information, recipes and review equipment dot the web.

"There's so much information out there that there's no excuse not to know how to make beer if you want to," said TC-HOPZ president Matt Therrien.

The Internet has also brought about easier ways to procure equipment and ingredients via brewing supply companies online. That has also carried over to brick-and-mortar stores, which pop up more frequently. There are more than a dozen home brew stores in Michigan alone, including one of the newest, Bad Teacher Brewing Supply on South Airport Drive in Traverse City.

Diversons and the Terrace Shopper in Traverse City also offer brew supplies, although not in the capacity that Bad Teacher's 3,100 square feet can.

"I had a desire to brew and not the means to do it," said Bad Teacher owner Bryan Snyder, who had trouble getting fresh grains and hops without ordering online and waiting for a week or two. "The response has been overwhelming by the brewing community. We hear two to three times a day they're so glad somebody is doing this."

Bad Teacher — so named because Snyder's wife and co-owner Kristy is a teacher at Grand Traverse Academy and dislikes the phrase, "Those who can't do, teach" — operates with the slogan, "Those who can, brew."

The store offers 44 different types of grains used in brewing as well as equipment, hops, yeast and pre-packaged kits, occasionally offering free classes on how to start brewing.

Even the White House has joined in the brewing frenzy. President Obama has had three varieties of home brew made by White House staff — a honey brown ale, honey porter and honey blonde — all made with ingredients collected from a beehive on the South Lawn.

But home brewers get to be the president of their own company, choosing how and when to concoct their next drink.

"It's working out with the time frame as well," said Perreault. "I'm heading downstate for Christmas with the family, so I'll have a nice batch of beer to bring. I'm looking forward to sharing it."