ON SATURDAY, I’ll help judge the War of the Worts, the annual home-brew competition at Keystone Homebrew up in Montgomeryville.
How many beers are we talking about? I asked Jason Harris, the shop’s owner and contest organizer. “Between 880 and 890,” he replied.
Anyone have a spare bladder?
I never cease to be amazed at the popularity of homebrewing. Here in Philly, we’re fortunate to live within easy reach of 4,000 or more brands – imports, locals, brewpub taps and craft brews from around the world. Beer remains fairly cheap. There is no shortage of fine watering holes. There’s a flavor for everyone – even you, Miss Pink Zinfandel.
And, yet, many, many beer drinkers feel compelled to do it themselves.
If you don’t think the hobby is still hot, wait till late June, when Philadelphia will be crawling with mash tun wizards. They’ll be in town for the annual American Homebrewing Association national conference, an event that reportedly sold more than 3,400 tickets in 20 hours.
Why do people still home-brew?
I tracked down Josh Weikert, 34, a poly-sci lecturer at West Chester and Villanova universities – not because he’s some kind of expert on trends but because he’s a rather proficient homebrewer, having been named last year’s Eastern Pennsylvania Homebrewer of the Year, partly because of his success at the War of the Worts.
Weikert’s the president of Stoney Creek Homebrewers, a club that attracts about 40 members to regular brewing sessions and meetings at Collegeville’s Appalachian Brewing Co.
“It’s mainly the combination of the culinary and the scientific,” he said of the attraction. “It’s funny, homebrewers seem to be either scientists of some kind or they just like to cook. Obviously they like beer, too, but either they are attracted to the precision of the craft, or they are creators.”
A respect for precision is important, Weikert said, because the quality of beer depends on carefully following recipes. Mistake-prone brewers make disappointingly lousy beer that’s hard to fix because their missteps can’t be duplicated.
So, there’s a wonk factor. And there’s also a bit of artistry.
Weikert noted that many of the newfangled beer styles we’ve been enjoying – black IPA, sour ale, rye beer – got their start on homebrewers’ stovetops. Because they brew tiny batches of as little as one gallon at a time, experimentation is affordable.
Meanwhile, there’s been an explosion of specialty malts, hop hybrids and yeast blends, most of them readily available through local home-brew shops and mail order. It’s never been easier to tinker.
“Homebrewers are at least a half-step ahead of craft brewers,” Weikert declared.
The creativity bug unfortunately has led many commercial brewers, in search of the next trend, to abandon classic, old-world styles like English brown ale, Munich dunkel and Düsseldorf altbier.
“I can run over to Wegmans and find IPAs for a dime a dozen,” Weikert said. “But if I want a German lager, I’ll brew it myself. And I can make one that tastes great.”
Not only that, he noted, “I can make two cases for about $30.”
Ah, yes, the skinflint factor. When it comes to beer, never underestimate the attraction of saving a few bucks. Why?
Because you can afford even more beer, silly.
Homebrewers will battle one another in the War of the Worts on Saturday at Keystone Homebrew Supply, 435 Doylestown Road, Montgomeryville. The judging is closed to the public, but you can attend the awards ceremony at 6:30 p.m., with free admission.
Meanwhile, I wanted to report back on an earlier column about my own homebrewing experience with the nifty, one-gallon Brooklyn Brew Shop kit available online and at area stores.
My first batch, a honey-flavored IPA, was a bit too mellow for my taste and had that trademark homebrew yeast flavor. One bottle came up flat.
I thought my second batch, a chocolate-flavored English stout, was pretty darn good. Then I shared a bottle with Tom Kehoe of Yards Brewing. Coincidentally, Yards had just bottled its new Chocolate Love Stout, so we had an opportunity to taste them side-by-side.
How did my homebrew compare with the pro’s?
Said Kehoe: “Uh, yours is . . . different.”
Needless to say, I’m not ready for the War of the Worts.