As someone with a weekly drink column who's always in quest of the next great sip, variety in my glass is just a way of life. In the past decade, I've almost never ordered the same bottle twice. The notion of having an entire keg of one beer to consume in my home, then, has always been the ultimate nonstarter every time I thought about tackling home brew.
And then Devin and Meg Griffiths moved in down the street. Within merely a few days, these outgoing newcomers from Texas (he's a postdoc fellow in University of Pennsylvania's English department) already had a steady stream of happy neighbors coming through their home. The reason? Aside from her fresh-baked apple strudels and his pit-smoked Texas brisket, Devin is also a devoted home brewer. Nothing draws a friendly crowd like a well-stocked Kegerator.
"Yeah, home brew goes a long way as far as neighbor relations," said Jason Harris, owner of Keystone Homebrew Supply in Montgomeryville and Bethlehem. "People form friendships with neighbors and they brew together."
Brew together? Of course! My home-brew Yoda had finally moved in down the block and I was eager to become his malt-stirring Jedi Knight. It was about time I got my hands into some hot wort. (That's the liquid steeped from the porridgelike mash of malted barley to be fermented into beer.)
I had inspiration not far away from Suzanne Woods, who's both a beer writer (a.k.a. "Beer Lass") and the regional sales manager for Sly Fox Brewery. She had just collaborated with her brewer boyfriend, Chris LaPierre, to create a beer in her honor at Iron Hill's branch in Maple Shade, a saison-style ale with pink and green peppercorns dubbed "Saizanne."
"A lot of people who do what I do don't know what's going on with the beer - they could be selling copiers and pencils," said Woods. "But if you're going to be in this, you need to dedicate yourself to beer. You need that intimate experience with the beer. Because when you understand the process, it has to make you appreciate what's in the glass a little more."
"Plus, musicians always name songs after their girlfriends," she added. "He should at least name a beer after me."
Griffiths is no stranger to romantic brewing. He crafted a peach-and-pecan maibock for his wedding, in honor of his Texas bride. I, of course, had different intentions for our first co-brewing adventure: a beer for our crawfish boil, the block's annual gather-round-the-table feast on lip-numbing Louisiana critters.
What to make? It had to be refreshing to quench all that Cajun heat. A crisp pilsner or hoppy pale ale would work. But it needed to be aromatic, too, to call out the more exotic notes of clove and allspice, coriander and celery we'd find in the boiling spice. A German-style hefeweizen wheat beer would do the trick, suggested Devin, with its naturally fruity aromatics.
But it needed a more distinctive down-home flair. We decided on zested oranges, an homage to Louisiana's famed sweet satsumas. A touch of sassafras would evoke the filé powder for gumbo. A little ginger for sparkle. Now we just had to make it.
There are essentially two kinds of home brewers, says Harris, who's seen his industry grow steadily for nearly two decades into a major regional obsession. The 16th annual home-brew competition he runs out of his newly expanded Keystone, the War of the Worts, had 765 entries in February.
"There's the 'chef brewer,' " says Harris, "someone comfortable in the kitchen who can pick and choose their ingredients, throw together a recipe and it comes together well. They do it off the cuff and make good beer."
"Then there's the 'scientist brewer' who measures everything - who obsessively brews the same beer over and over again with slight modifications to get it exactly as they want."
"Devo" our brewmaster is a perfect dual threat of chef-brewer and scientist, with equal knacks for sensing the right amount of Hallertauer hops and sassafras and for soldering his own gear with salvaged copper (including a converted 52-quart Coleman cooler for his mash tun, and a hand-built, airtight, fan-cooled fermentation chamber).
By the time I arrived on brew day, every move had already been detailed in a computerized recipe-tracker for "Les Bons Temps Sassy Cajun Wheat." The first batch of American two-row barley and Munich malts had already been steeped and drained into ready-to-boil wort. I got to zest the oranges, mince some ginger, and focus on the Big Picture: the glory.
After a month picking up its natural fizz in the cooler, it was ready for its tests.
Out of curiosity, we slipped Les Bons Temps into the blind-tasting lineup for the experts at The Inquirer's Brew-vitational. Some raised eyebrows at the rootbeery note of sassafras: "I am not digging number 14," grumbled one judge. "Medicinal."
Even Devin gave it a humble two out of five points, wishing he'd dialed back the sassafras and skipped a "protein rest" that stifled some of the yeast's natural aromatics ("It wouldn't have been right to rate it higher"). Ultimately, it didn't matter, as neither of our scores were counted. Les Bons Temps still finished a respectable 14th amid 23 new beers from the pros.
As for its most important test, our beer was the belle of the boil. Once those crawfish were dumped onto the long, paper-topped table steaming with all their spice, neighbors jostled for space, and the keg started flowing until there was no more. As each batch grew progressively hotter, the crawfish spice seemed to shimmer and dance atop the wheat brew's gingery spark with every quenching sip.
"I'm shocked, it's terrific," said neighbor Peter Johnson.
"I'm a big home-brew fan, and this is a really great one," said neighbor Steve Polito. "It's my third one, actually!"
Devo the Brewer, meanwhile, is never satisfied. As we took a post-boil sip of Woods' "Saizanne," we shook our heads in admiration.
"Next year," he said, "let's make it a saison."