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beerSearcy Brothers Crafting Earthly Skills

   It started at a garage sale.

   Scott Hall, 31, bought five “party pigs” for $5. The round bodies and snout on the reusable PET system would have cost about $40 retail, so he had saved money. Scott held onto the “party pigs” for a year before deciding to either use them or throw them out.

   A party pig holds a sixth of a half-barrel keg of beer. Scott had bought five – not quite a keg’s worth. But his brother, 35-year-old Roger Hall, had a fermenter as well as experience in installing the forerunner to Vino’s current brewery system in 1993, two years after Arkansas legalized brewpubs in the state. And they both loved beer.

   “It started with just ‘Let’s make a beer,’” Scott said. Following in the footsteps of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the only brothers of a Searcy family began homebrewing beer and wine in February 2003 with a little assistance from Fermentable’s owner Don Byrum. Scott used to drink Bud Light, but said he hasn’t bought beer to bring home since the brothers began brewing.

   “There are probably 200-300 people brewing in Central Arkansas area who [homebrew] pretty regularly,” Byrum said. “We’re always willing and interested to talk to people if they want to come in. There’s a lot of service after the sale.”

“Gift from God”

   Brewing came to Arkansas with German and Swiss immigrants, who used grapes and muscadines to make wine, Byrum said. A lot of Arkansans brew because of dry counties and conservative state laws, he said. Yes, homebrewing is legal.

   According to the Arkansas Code (Title 3, Chapter 5, Subchapter 2), it is legal to make beer but you can’t sell it. You can annually brew up to 200 gallons per household with two adults, or 100 gallons per adult (that’s about 80 cases of beer).

   “You brew your own, you hit your limit and you’re done for the year,” Scott said.

   Then there’s the Bavarian Purity Law, which states that four ingredients exist in beer: malt, yeast, hops and water. This law represents the politics of beer as some beers were formerly made from gruet. As gruet had to be grown on farms, people couldn’t brew beer unless it was in the landowner’s favor.

   “The purity of beer was part of it, but at the same time, (landowners were) making their own place in the chain of events,” Roger said. “Hops won because it was great, but it also worked back into economics. Beer has a very chemical, political and historical side. How did somebody decide to get grain wet and boil it?”

   Scott provided the answer. “It’s obviously a gift from God because it’s too hard to figure out,” he said. While the original process may have been hard to figure out, today’s brewers have help.

A hobby with help

   Byrum recommends buying a start-up equipment kit and ingredients for about $75-$100. “It’s a fun inexpensive hobby the whole family can enjoy,” he said. “You can make root beers for kids.”

   Fermentables hosts the Home Brew Club, a nonprofit support group for beer and winemakers, just off MacArthur Drive at 3915 Crutcher Street in North Little Rock. Meetings happen on the second Thursday of every month, and anyone can come. Depending on the event, nonmembers pay from $3 to $5, while members pay yearly dues of $24.

   “We just do stuff like beer and wine making demonstrations, tastings at breweries around the state, and competition,” Byrum said. “The main purpose is to let people talk about the fermentation process.”

   Brewing guru Charlie Papazian, who popularized homebrewing in the 1970s, recently spoke to the club. He founded and serves as president of both the Association of Brewers, a trade group based in Boulder, Colo., and the American Homebrewers Association.

   At a Dec. 6 meeting, the Hall brothers entered a brew contest for the first time, and placed two beers with their Imperial Stout garnering second and their Pumpkin Ale taking third to first-place winner John Mills of the Air Force. Micro-brewers from Boscos, Diamond Bear, and Vino’s judged the event. Though two contests were held in 2003, Byrum plans to add more contests this year.

   The brothers plan to ship their beers to Nationals, where they’ll compete in a two-round process. The brothers started brewing in December for the regional first round in Texas, while the final round of the National Homebrewers Conference will be held June 17-19 at the Rivera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Brewing the “hard” way

   Most people brew with grain extracts, which Byrum calls “an easier way to make beer brew in an hour or two.” But the Hall brothers use grain to make their beer, and the process takes a little longer.

   The brothers have had 20 brew days in 40 weeks, making about five gallons of beer per batch. East batch initially costs $20-$25, depending on the grain and the type of beer brewed. They might make as many as three batches at a time. Yet some days are spent entirely on one batch, while other days are spent entirely on bottling. They try to keep three batches in stock.

   “You’ve got more control when you start with grain,” Byrum said, noting that most people grow into brewing from the grain. The different types of grains determine what type of beer is made, e.g. black grains produce a stout beer.

   “It’s just been in the last decade where you can’t mess up the grain,” Roger said. “We’re benefiting from grain technology not previously available to home brewers.”

   A typical brew day takes approximately six hours from the time the water begins boiling. An hour of “mashing” converts starches from malted grains to sugars. A second hour of “lautering” runs hot water through the grain. As the water moves down through the grain, it extracts sugars from the mash. After an hour of boiling and another hour of chilling, the sugar water sits for five days covered with heavy yeast. During this time, the sugar water and yeast will convert to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

   Unlike commercial brewing, the only filtering involved in homebrewing comes from gravity making the yeast settle. More yeast grows during the process and produces “wort”, a three-layer sediment of yeast at the bottom of the batch. By the time primary fermentation is over, the middle layer of the sediment produces good yeast for homebrewing. As a five-gallon batch of beer needs 64 ounces of yeast, Roger recycles the yeast for future batches and keeps a library of more than 20 types of yeast in test tubes in the refrigerator.

   “We use a variety of yeast,” Roger said. “Yeast and hops are more important than the malt. Yeast adds character to the beer.”

   Some yeast settles in the bottles. When drinking homebrews, Scott recommends leaving a quarter-inch of yeast in the bottle.

   The brothers invite people from the Home Brew Club meetings and interested friends to brew with them. While some come to learn how to brew, others supply empty bottles (no screw-tops) to trade for the enjoyment of the fruits of the labor. Scott said it only takes two or three times of participating in a brew day to learn how to brew.

   “Twenty percent of the skills gets you 80 percent of the beer,” Roger said.

   While first-time homebrewers may not win an award for their efforts, they still get to enjoy their own beer and can begin working toward a better drink. “It takes 80 percent of the work to get to the last 10 percent of greatness,” Scott said.

   Clone books allow brewers to experiment with recipes that taste just like commercial beer, e.g. a former Guinness employee leaked the recipe and brewers can now make a beer remarkably similar to the original. While U.S. law defines beer as 5 percent alcohol, some recipes published by the American Homebrew Association make beer with as much as 10 percent alcohol.

   “Plenty of guys brew a lot of batches of beer,” Scott said. “You just keep making minute adjustments until you get it right.”

   Recipes can be historic as well: Settler’s Ale calls for a large black cauldron over an open flame.

   “Settler’s Ale is strong enough to purify water,” Scott said. “When it stopped steaming, they would add the mash, which happens to be at the same temperature we use today.”

   The term “beer” means different things to people around the world, Roger said. Beer recipes calling for grains derive primarily from European traditions. When talking of beer, Roger noted that Britains usually describe an ale, while Americans usually describe a lager. Yet some beers do not use grain, e.g. the recipe for ginger beer, a traditional Jamaican holiday beverage, calls for ginger, lemon, sugar and yeast, which produces what most Americans would consider wine.

   “Beer styles are all about the localness of the world,” Roger said. “When we make a beer style, we try to remake the community that made that made that beer by using the hops and yeast from that region.”

Aspects of brewing

   Of course, homebrewing has its negative aspects, if you wish to call them that. During this brew day, the brothers fought a boil-over for the fourth time since beginning brewing.

   “It gets really active really fast,” Roger said. “We have blown the lid off the fermenter before.”

   When they first started brewing, the brothers worked in Scott’s kitchen. But a fermenter blowout stunk up the house with a beer smell. They used Oxi-Clean to lift the stain and kill the smell, but decided to move their operation downstairs.

   Another drawback to homebrewing is people’s allergies.

   “You might get a headache right when you’re drinking it if you’re allergic to whole hop or hop extracts,” Scott said. “If you get headaches from Budweiser but not Miller, you want to brew with extract. If you get headaches from Miller but not Budweiser, you want to brew with whole hops. You can brew different styles to drink and not get a headache.”

   However, the benefits of homebrewing clearly outweigh the disadvantages for the Hall brothers. They find that knowing the brewing process increases their enjoyment of other beers. They note that homebrews do not contain the additives found in commercial beer. There’s also an added bonus.

   “There’s no hangover with homebrews,” Scott said. Roger explained that since homebrews are not filtered, the yeast bodies provide B vitamins and zinc that alcohol takes out of the body.

   “Beer is food,” Roger said. “I like cooking and this is kind of like it for me. It looks good, tastes good, and feeds you.”

In the family

   Homebrewing provides a family hobby for the Hall’s. They have considered naming their brew “Tubroze” after the birth of their sons, born a day apart, and they hope to pass on the appreciation of homebrewing much as their father interested them.

   “Dad told us my uncle had done some homebrewing. Dad always wanted to do it, but he got busy,” Scott said. “We’re doing this so dad can enjoy a hobby without investing in it.”

   Their father has even helped them brew three or four times, Scott said. Though the brothers note that Little Rock water is great for brewing, Scott plans to try homebrewing with water from home soon.

   “The only water I like better is in Searcy,” Scott said. “It’s probably not better than Little Rock, but it’s home. I plan to take 5 gallons (of Searcy water) and brew with it.”

   Homebrewing may even provide a business venture for the brothers as they have discussed opening a brewpub. Roger interprets the state’s Native Brewery law (Title 3, Chapter 5, Subchapter 14 of the Arkansas Code) as giving brewers a few more freedoms to sell beer directly to retailers and cut out the wholesalers.

   “I can make and bottle beer to liquor stores to sell it. It allows us to fire up a brewery serving one restaurant and one liquor store,” Roger said. “We can create a unique Arkansas product and add to the culture. Our goal is a small brewery as the law gives us the potential to start a microbrewery for about $1,000. If we can start a brewery and bring styles to Arkansas brew lovers who can’t get this, I think it is a great thing.”

   Much as they enjoy sharing their brews with others, the brothers might also be willing to share in the business, too.

   “Anybody out there looking to start a brewery, we’re willing to talk,” Scott said.

Want to learn more about homebrewing? Check out the Association of Brewers and John Palmer’s “How to Brew”.

Beer and light wine’ provisions are found in Title 3 Chapter 5 of the Arkansas Code. Homebrew codes are primarily found in Subchapter 2.

Though you cannot purchase item’s from Fermentable’s Web site yet, you can view their catalog as well as find links to the Home Brew Club and Arkansas breweries and wineries. The next Home Brew Club meeting occurs Feb. 12. Call 758-6261 for more information.

For information about micro-brewing in Central Arkansas, visit the Web sites of Vino’sDiamond Bear and Boscos.

For those experiencing Web trepidation, try “The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing” by Charlie Papazian (1991, Avon Books), “The Brewmaster’s Bible” by Stephen Snyder (1997, HarperPerennial), or “Beer for Dummies” by Marty Nachel (1997, IDG Books).

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 1-31, 2004 issue of the Little Rock Free Press