Jeff Rossi likes to point out that in the 1950s, most supermarkets only stocked white bread. “Now there’s seven-grain, 12-grain, gluten-free, whole grains — and white bread is rare. It’s hard to go back to a singular palate.”
It’s the same with beer, says Rossi, noting that consumers have become hooked on the diversity found in the ever-growing number of craft beers. And another way to broaden your beer tastes? Homebrewing.
The Brewers Association estimates that there are now 1.2 million homebrewers nationwide; that’s a 33 percent increase since 2005. In the Valley, a growing number of suppliers is feeding the trend. Rossi is happy to be one of them: He and pal Derek Dellinger opened Beacon Homebrew, a small shop selling hops, grains and other supplies, in January.
Part of homebrewing’s allure may be financial: $40 worth of ingredients — even less for many recipes — can produce five gallons of beer. That’s just a dollar a bottle — and it’s tax-free for the first 100 gallons per person in a household. But the beer that is brewed is not the only reward. There’s also the satisfaction of being an artisan, exchanging tips and techniques with fellow brewers — and just brewing up some fun, too.
Gloria Franconi and her husband, Bruce, opened Party Creations, a Red Hook-based shop that sells supplies for homebrewing and wine-making, more than 30 years ago. “The biggest change is that people have gotten more creative,” she says. “There are a lot of new beer styles.“
Gloria continues that many people also homebrew “for the social aspects of it.” In fact, Bruce founded Hudson Valley Homebrewers almost 25 years ago for just that purpose. With hundreds of members, the group is still going strong; meetings are held once a monthly on Wednesday night in Poughkeepsie. The organization also holds competitions, pub crawls, classes, learn-to-brew days, and other special events throughout the year.
Quite a few of the Franconis’s customers — including Hyde Park Brewing Company’s John Eccles — have even gone on to become professional brewers. But mostly, you just have to love beer. “It’s like cooking. If you find you have a knack for it, you’re going to keep doing it,” Gloria says. “We’ll work with you. We’re here to help people make the best beer that they can.”
Despite the ad-driven mystique that has grown up around brewmasters in giant breweries, the basic process is quite simple. “When you are starting out, you pull the sugar from grain by boiling it,” says Beacon Homebrew’s Dellinger, who is also a beer blogger (www.bear-flavored.com). “Then you add hops, cool to room temperature, add yeast, let it ferment for three weeks, and bottle it.”
Once the process has been mastered, you can finesse it to your own taste, says Dellinger, changing the grains and adding more or different hops as well as fruits and berries. “It’s an art and a little bit of a craft — a multistage process, but no step is particularly hard. It’s like cooking, like putting together a lasagna.”
The Main Street store sells equipment, books, and ingredients and holds beer-making classes ($40 per person), tastings, and bottle-swaps for its customers. Dellinger has also been known to give free brewing lessons at farmstands. He and Rossi are particularly proud of their wide hop selection — about 40 varieties from all over the world.
Of course, prospective homebrewers can find everything they need online, but having a local store adds social support — as well as the benefit of the owners’ expertise. Dellinger has begun packaging seasonal beer recipes as kits; at press time, he expected to begin selling them online in August (www.beaconhomebrew.com). The one-gallon size includes all the equipment and ingredients needed; the five-gallon size is for those who have their own equipment. He’s thinking about pumpkin-flavored and Oktoberfest kits for the fall.
Dellinger notes that many new shoppers come into the store looking to make the strongest, most alcoholic beer they can — and then enter the commercial craft beer business. “We have to dial them back sometimes,” he says. “If you just wanted to get drunk, you would use the cheapest source of alcohol available. But when you make something with your own hands, you have a connection to it.”
Rossi offers some sage advice to novice homebrewers. “Don’t forget to write down your recipes and document exactly what you do. Not only can you trace what might have gone wrong, you can also prevent a tragedy. I’m still chasing a white whale, the great one I brewed three years ago and haven’t been able to duplicate — at least not yet.”