Amateur beer makers share stories, advice on perfecting the pint

Rob Iocona (center) and Jeff Dodd (center right) raise glasses for a group photo outside Flying Fish Brewery.
Rob Iocona (center) and Jeff Dodd (center right) raise glasses for a group photo outside Flying Fish Brewery. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 24, 2014

The cardboard box outside the Flying Fish Brewing Co. seemed to suggest there's nothing at all to making beer.

"Barley. Yeast. Water. Hops," it read.

But step through the doors of South Jersey's first gathering of the American Homebrewers Association - as about 100 people did Sunday afternoon - and you are reminded how differently those four ingredients can be combined.

"I took first place for a Flanders Red last Saturday," 57-year-old Jim Fish of Brooklawn was telling Mike Nurthen of Westmont.

"Nice!" replied Nurthen, 28.

A what?

"A Flanders Red. It's a Belgian-style sour beer," explained Fish, who took up home-brewing four years ago and now has 20 fermenters in his home. Sour, he said, was one of 28 categories in the competition.

Sunday's gathering was an opportunity for amateur beer makers to meet fellow aficionados, swap stories and techniques, and tour the Flying Fish brewery, which moved to Somerdale from Cherry Hill two years ago.

Fish and Nurthen were standing in Flying Fish's concrete-floored, cinderblock-walled "tasting room," surrounded mostly by men in their 20s and 30s. T-shirts bearing slogans like "Barley Legal" and "Support Your Local Brew Pub" seemed the preferred dress.

"It really is a very satisfying hobby," said Gina Hyndman, proprietor of Keg & Barrel Home Brew Supplies in Berlin Borough, one of three vendors on hand.

"You get done" making a batch, she said, "and you have something that's yours."

"How much are the hops?" asked a bearded man wearing a name tag that said Dave as he flipped through small foil bags with names like "Cascade," "U.S. Fuggle," "Nugget," "Citra," and "Columbus."

"Two dollars," said Hyndman, who started her business four years ago. "It's a special price."

A starter kit at her store runs about $70 for two five-gallon tubs, a thermometer, a hydrometer for measuring alcoholic content, a "mash paddle" for stirring, and cleanser and sanitizer, she said.

"And then you need the ingredients." These are the barley, yeast, and hops, which go for $30 to $60 for a five-gallon batch. The brewing process takes about three weeks, Hyndman said.

"If you're a foodie, this is the hobby for you," she said.

After the crowd posed outside for a photo under Flying Fish's giant logo of a fish skeleton - "Everybody suck in your beer guts!" someone called out to much laughter - many followed brewmasters Chris Vaughn and Chris Hamm for a tour of the plant.

"When it's 93 degrees outside, sometimes I just go into this cold room just to smell the hops," Hamm said as heads nodded knowingly.

Are they allowed to tweak the recipes? one visitor wanted to know.

"No," said Vaughn. They must follow the recipes exactly as owner Gene Muller prepares them.

As the group strolled past towering stainless steel silos and peered through glass portholes into enormous fermenting tanks, the talk ran to "boil kettles," "base malt," "specialty malt," tanks called "lauter tun" and "mash tun," and caustic wash for cleaning.

"This is our centrifuge," Hamm said, pointing out a mysterious stainless device on stilts.

Sacks from Germany labeled carared and carafoam and weizenmalt sat on pallets alongside 1,000-kilo bags labeled munchnermalz, and the cartons nearby offered a glimpse of the Flying Fish products they would become.

"Extra Pale Ale," read one. "Abby" and "Dubbel" and "India Pale Ale" read others, as well as "Exit 4" - after the nearby New Jersey Turnpike exit.

Muller, who started the brewery in 1996, said he had no fear of consumers making their own brew.

"People who make their own [beer] spread the word. They teach their friends about what's out there - like ours," he said.

Out in the tasting room, 38-year-old Mike Grippi, a member of Hulmeville's ALEins HomeBrew Club in Bucks County, was pouring samples of the stuff he'd recently made.

"This is a spontaneously fermented sour in the Belgian style," he said, pouring about an ounce of golden fizz into a plastic cup. Mouth-puckering sour at first sip, its lingering aftertaste suggested apple and citrus.

"That's about a year and a half old," said Grippi, a Bensalem chemist who began making beer 41/2 years ago.

"It's very simple when you put it together. The yeast does all the work, but it creates a really funky, sour taste."

One could only imagine what his concoction called "Skeeter Pee" tasted like.

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