Big Brew Fermented Fun

By David Arnett    
Sunday, 07 May 2006
So, what would motivate Tulsans to brew beer in the rain?  “It is really not all that strange,” said Adam Marshall, host of this year’s Big Brew event, sponsored by the Fellowship of Oklahoma Ale Makers (FOAM). “It’s a lot less of a sweat than brewing in the heat of an Oklahoma summer.”

Each year on the first Saturday in May, homebrewers unite with friends, family and folk interested in the craft to celebrate Homebrew Day.  At noon, Central Standard Time, a universal toast is raised worldwide in appreciation of this growing hobby. Homebrewing was first recognized by the U.S. Congress in 1988, when May 7 was officially designated as National Homebrew Day.

This last Saturday, at the Marshall family home in midtown Tulsa, FOAM members and friends brewed extract and whole grain beers under tents shielding them from a light Oklahoma rain. Bratwurst, sauerkraut and chips were served – there was more food than crowd – as brewers shared tips on recipes and the engineering of brewing systems. (OK, they are beer geeks, but very friendly.)

Chris Mackechney and her husband Scott have been brewing since last October. “I like beer that bites back, and with home brewing I can experiment with different flavors,” Chris said. “I give away more than I drink – five gallons goes a long way.”

While brewing their next extract beer, the Mackechneys offered a taste of their most recent concoction, a “pumpkin-chocolate-raspberry-coffee-oatmeal stout.”

Yes, it was tasty. Unique and not something for everyone everyday, the pumpkin flavor was pronounced but not overwhelming, as additional ingredients mellowed the famous fall fruit a bit.

Homebrewing is most often described as a passion. Beer made at home is typically brewed in small, five-gallon batches (that’s 2 1/2 cases of 12 oz. bottles or 40 pint glasses) by amateur hobbyists seeking craft beer flavor and character.

With all due respect to the self-proclaimed “King of Beers,” American commercial beer is brewed to the lowest common dominator of public taste – the mass market – which is, at best, bland. Compare the taste of homemade bread to that of white bread or even whole grain commercial bread for an indication of the difference.

Homebrewers come from all backgrounds – attorneys, secretaries, doctors, airline maintenance workers, musicians, preachers, construction workers, police, writers (who, me?), bus drivers, engineers, and technology workers – the list is endless.

It’s a rewarding craft, easy to learn and master. With less than a $100 investment in equipment, homebrewing a five-gallon batch of beer at the most basic level takes minimal household space (a corner of a closet or basement and a burner on the stovetop) and about two hours of time. For those who expand their hobby by learning more advanced methods of brewing, there is the never-ending challenge of creating hundreds of different beer styles. With continued activity in the hobby, homebrewers often learn how to brew with whole grain, malt and hops – a process called all-grain brewing.

Note that hauling water by the gallon is work so how you engineer your system can impact the required physical effort. There are also propane burners or a stove top and working around hot liquid requires care for safety.

Homebrew clubs around the world focus on bringing new people into the homebrewing hobby, increasing camaraderie among homebrewers and helping promote the passion. By holding meetings and organizing events, beginning, intermediate and advanced homebrewers gather to brew beer and appreciate different beer flavors – a fun fellowship.

Homebrew supply shops around the world sell homebrewing supplies and there are two currently in Tulsa, High Gravity at 71st and Memorial and Mecca Coffee Shop in Brookside. Supplies include ingredients, equipment, recipe books and more. Shop owners and workers are knowledgeable about making beer and help guide homebrewers to appropriate supplies for their level of brewing experience. Some shops hold classes, special events or promotions to help spread the interest of homebrewing among their communities.

I was recently captured by homebrewing, as many are, by a friend who brewed.  Prior to that time, my general attitude was hey, who cares, as long as it’s cold, right?  Though I had long been a devotee of American commercial lager, the education of my taste buds evolved as my brew-buddy continually brought out different flavors and kinds of beer.

As I began to explore brewing options, individual bottling seemed like too much work and I chose to invest in a keg system.  After the initial investment of approximately $700 in equipment, ingredients for a five-gallon batch of brew cost around $13 – and the result is less expensive and better tasting than commercial beer. I find I drink less of better beer and it is no more complicated to create than cooking a meal. I brew whole-grain beers with fresh hops and typically have a fermented cider on tap for those few friends who don’t particularly care for beer (God forbid!).

While honoring the day by participating in the universal toast, I did not brew with FOAM as I had another event early that afternoon, but returned to my downtown loft and brewed in the later afternoon.  It takes about five hours to brew a whole-grain beer and most of that time is simply waiting for water to boil.

The preacher in the FOAM crowd did remind that “all things in moderation” is the goal and that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water to wine (a true miracle of accelerated fermentation) not because there was none at that early wedding feast, but because there was not enough.

Some noted anthropologists assert that beer rather than bread was the real reason mankind evolved from hunters/gathers to farmers/ranchers thus beginning civilization. It does make good sense when you think about it. Who could get excited enough to change their life for bread, but beer now that could become a mission!

In many states, homebrewed or craft beers are available for sale locally. Unfortunately in Oklahoma, commercial brewers with well-paid lobbyists have prevailed in influencing State Legislators to protect and advance their commercial advantage by preventing competition. However, all things change and as more Oklahomans grow to appreciate the craft it is possible the political will to embrace diversity and limit monopolistic styled commercial advantage may well grow.

Never-the-less, in Oklahoma it is legal to brew and you can give away free beer all day every day. As one popular homebrew theme proudly proclaims, “Relax, don’t worry. Have a home brew.”

To find more information click here for a link to the National Brewers Association or click here to reach the Tulsa based Fellowship of Oklahoma Ale Makers (FOAM).

Last Updated ( Monday, 08 May 2006 )