Local Beer Aficionados Make Room to Brew
On days like today when the forecast is in the teens, most homebrewers are forced to shelve their hobby and hunker down indoors, perhaps popping open a Belgian tripel they bottled last summer.
Generally it’s a three-season hobby, said P.J. McDermott of Wheeling, one of the four founding members of the Wheeling Alers homebrew club. The majority of homebrewers use propane as a heating source. It isn’t considered safe to use indoors, so brewing is put on hold.
To solve that problem, Alers member Kurt “Bug” Reed of Colerain built an electric-powered system in his basement. He is one of a growing number of homebrew hobbyists taking it to the next level with “brew rooms.”
Dedicated brew spaces are a popular topic on the American Homebrewers Asssocation website, president Gary Glass told the Associated Press. “People are constantly posting pictures of things that they’ve built. … If you’re a homebrewer, to some degree you’re a do-it-yourselfer.”
On the online photo-sharing forum Pinterest, the number of users saving “brew room” ideas jumped 200 percent during the first six months of 2016, according to a Pinterest spokeswoman, Lara Levin.
“The movement from gas to electric has been the biggest game changer” in the industry, Kal Wallner told the AP. He is an electrical engineer who designed a system he sells online at www.theelectricbrewery.com. With an electric system, “you can brew indoors in your flip-flops,” he said, an important consideration for the brewer from Ottawa, Canada.
Reed started making his own beer in a propane-powered turkey fryer in his driveway 20 years ago, long before it became such a hopping hobby. (It is now estimated 1.2 million American brew their own beer.) But after his wife bought him a shiny new stainless steel kettle last year for Christmas, he wanted to up his game.
“It kind of made me want to perfect my process, and the best way to perfect that process and dial it in was to switch from propane brewing to electric brewing,” said Reed, an electrician for the local gas industry. He already began the more complicated all-grain brewing as opposed to extract brewing years ago.
A growing number of companies, such as Wallner’s, have begun to manufacture electric brewing systems for indoor use, Glass said. Many entail little engineering to set up, but they often require a higher voltage socket, similar to a clothes dryer, and the electric panel alone costs around $2,000.
Reed built his own panel for around $700. It took him three to four months to complete his 8-foot by 10-foot brewery, working evenings and weekends. He has a three-vessel system that includes a hot liquor tank (“liquor” is the water used for brewing), a mash tun and a boil kettle.
“Digital displays control and monitor temps in the brewing process, along with additional controls for electric heating elements contained within the kettles, and also electric pumps for moving virgin beer or ‘wort’ from vessel to vessel,” he explained.
He converted a small nearby room into a storage and work area. He’s also in the process of building a bar area adjacent to his brewery. He hopes to have it done by summer.
“I figure if I’m putting all this effort into brewing beer I ought to have a nice place to drink it,” he said.
“Beer is a social beverage. Having a space to bring your friends in to share the experience — that’s a major incentive” for people building brew rooms, Glass said.
“You can’t, or you shouldn’t, drink alone,” McDermott said, which is one reason he and friends Russell Dunkin, Ted Dodd and Chad Remp, all of Wheeling, formed the Alers in 2012.
When the weather is more temperate, McDermott’s three-kettle propane setup on his covered porch is perfect for brewing’s social aspect. It is complete with a smoker and a grill “within arms’ reach, which makes feeding friends during brew sessions easy and fun,” he said.
It takes about four hours to brew a five-gallon batch. After bottling, the beer sits for as little as two weeks or as long as six months for higher-alcohol beers before it is ready to drink.
The club meets the second Wednesday of every month at various locations and has about 25 members. It’s fun to learn about different brewing styles and types of beer, and share your “findings,” McDermott said.
“I don’t necessarily want to brew and drink five gallons of a style I’ve never had before,” he noted. Through the club, he discovered he enjoys brewing — and drinking — both India pale ales and American pale ales, although when he first started he didn’t like those styles at all.
According to Glass, a home brewery doesn’t require a lot of space, but should include a water source, ventilation, drainage and a heat source. Water is needed for the beer and also for cleaning the equipment.
“A big part of brewing is spent cleaning,” Glass said. “Everything has to be clean.”
A hood or source of ventilation is necessary to remove the water vapor that forms during the boiling stages of beer-making. A floor drain is helpful for spills and general cleanup.
Jim Chaney of Steubenville tricked out a 10-foot by 16-foot carport into a brewing space about three years ago. He added drywall and insulation, plumbing and electric. He uses propane, but the area is well ventilated, he said. He uses a kerosene heater when temperatures drop.
He calls it Different Engine Brewery; the name comes from his other hobby of working on vehicles and his affinity for brewing offbeat combinations, such as coconut mint stout or his latest: Beer made with Cap’n Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios. The beer issn’t ready to drink yet, but he is hoping to share it with the Alers club members.
Chaney brewed part-time for Wheeling Brewing Co. in 2016 but gave it up to help his employer, Mark Nelson, renovate a Fourth Street building in Steubenville into a coffee shop and popcorn shop. Chaney will run the coffee shop, including roasting the beans.
He eventually would like to see a brewery in Steubenville.
“It’s most every homebrewers dream to set up their own brewery,” Reed said. Talented club member Kevin Ayers is living that dream as owner of Brewkeepers in Center Wheeling.
Reed isn’t ready to give up his day job but said if and when he does, full-time brewing is not what he has in mind.
“Honestly, if I had the money and the time, I’d like to open up a homebrew supply store in Wheeling,” possibly in the Centre Market area. The closest stores now are in Washington, Pa., or Pittsburgh. Most people buy their supplies online. In true DIY spirit, Reed solved some of his supply problem himself — he grows hops in his back yard.