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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cheers to Homebrewing: Fairfield a Hotbed for Home Beer Makers

Cheers to Homebrewing:
Fairfield a Hotbed for 
Home Beer Makers
(Appeared on front page of Fairfield-Sun paper 10/28)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved

Fairfield, CT – According to the American Homebrewers Association, today there are an estimated 750,000 homebrewers in the United States. Homebrewing is hotter than ever and Fairfield is awash with passionate do-it-yourselfers with a knack for the craft.

Peter Cowles, 41, is one of the more avid brewers in the area. The energetic Woods End Road resident recently spoke about his inspiration, how his passion evolved and his current activities. “I love to cook and like different types of beer. Twenty years ago, when I was living in New York City, some buddies got a kit. I said then that when I have enough space, I want to do that. When I moved to Boston in 1998, I went out and bought a kit from a local brew shop and started brewing just about every week.”

Cowles’ first brewed beer was a brown ale made with an extract kit. This type of kit basically provides a concentrated malt that is added to water and boiled. Of this first batch, Cowles crowed, “It turned out fantastic… and I was hooked.”

Cowles claims that some early advice he’d been given helped contribute to his enthusiasm and ultimate success. Two points in particular were important: (1) Keep it clean, referring to the condition of the equipment being used, and (2) “Don’t worry, relax and have a homebrew.” The latter is wisdom from Charlie Papasian, credited with starting the homebrewing trend back in the 1970s.

“It’s all about fun,” says Cowles. “You can keep it clean and make very good beer and be satisfied. Or you can take it to a whole other level.”

There are four basic ingredients in beer: water, hops, malt and yeast. Of those, there are infinite combinations and the opportunity to add in other flavors including sugars, spices, fruit and herbs.

Taking it to a whole other level and experimenting with various flavors is precisely what Cowles has done. After that first kit, he began to formulate his own recipes. “I describe the process as a combination of chemistry, biology and cooking. I brewed extract-based beers for 10 years, then, two years ago, switched to all-grain brewing so I could control every aspect of the process.”

Essentially, all-grain brewing involves taking malted barley and “mashing” it to extract sugars. This allows one to start with a neutral base to which any number of components can be added.

Sitting in the kitchen of his ranch-style home, with stickers on his refrigerator proclaiming “I Brew Therefore I Am” and “I Brew the Beer I Drink”, Cowles provided more detail about his all-grain brewing system. “I was able to build a mash tun out of an old picnic cooler, which became the vessel in which I mash the malted barley. You don’t physically “mash” the malt like potatoes, rather you soak the grain in 150-degree water, for 60-90 minutes.” He continued, “Then the grain is rinsed to remove the sugars and the resulting liquid is drained into a brew kettle. I use a big nine-gallon pot or a converted half barrel (15.5 gallon) keg. The liquid, now called “wort”, is then boiled for 60-90 minutes along with hops to add bitterness, flavor and aroma.”

The final stage of the all-grain brewing process involves pumping the hot wort through a chiller, which takes the wort from 212 degrees to 68 degrees, into a fermenter. Cowles uses a 5-gallon food-grade bucket with an airlock. At that point, the yeast is “pitched” or added. Yeast comes in a dry form, like packets, or liquid form, like in vials or pouches.

Beer ferments anywhere from one to three weeks, then is ready for bottling or kegging. “I can go from grain to glass in as quick as 17 days,” Cowles proudly proclaimed.

Cowles is very pleased with what he’s been able to accomplish to date. “I’m able to replicate any type of beer style and achieve the flavors I really want to achieve with the process I’m using now. The options available to me are so much greater – like a chef in a kitchen with a loaded spice rack.”

The brewing industry in general has come a long way. What really sparked the craftbrewing trend is creative homebrewers. The United States, in Cowles’ opinion, is “probably, hands down, the most creative beer brewing nation now.”

Asked about any challenges with the hobby, Cowles admitted, “There’s a time commitment involved. I get up at 5 a.m. on the weekends to brew so as not to cut into family time. I also brew outside because the aromas are fairly strong.”

Have the neighbors embraced his pursuit? Overall, Cowles says ‘yes’.  “My neighbors have become my test panel, a role that they enjoy, and they also pitch in to bottle, or donate propane… whatever may be needed to successfully complete the process.”

At this time, Cowles has close to eighteen different batches of drinkable beer, and even two ciders. The batches include Saison, Tripel, Heffeweisse, Stout, I.P.A. and pale ale. “I have multiple fermenters and about 22 kegs. I’m currently doing all this in my cellar space but we’re putting on an addition whereby I’ll gain an extra 350 square feet of brew space.”

Cowles’ wife Tara has mixed feelings about his hobby. On the one hand, she was “happy when he moved the brewing outside as it really smelled when he boiled it on the stove.” But she realizes it is his passion and even helps out by mailing batches to competitions that he enters. “He brings stuff up to me every day to taste. I don’t sample it all – I do need to get through my day.” On the very positive side, she says, “It’s helped us get to know more of the neighbors.”

Joe Bow, 43, from Mill Plain Road, a friend of Cowles’ for the past three years, is a fellow brewer. “A friend from college started doing it. I went and got a starter kit, made a couple different batches and it caught on. This was 15 years ago. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. I started doing different styles and flavors. Peter inspired me to pursue all-grain. I just brewed my first batch, a wheat beer. It’s great. I’m going to do a stout next, then a porter. This is the season for the heavier beers.”

The homebrewing community is a close-knit one. Paul Mucha, 46, another Mill Plain Road resident and friend of both Cowles and Bow, is a homebrewer as well. In fact, the three play softball together. Of his experience, Mucha said, “I dabbled in it years ago, using a cheap kit that would produce beer in 30 days. It inspired me to learn more. Last Christmas, I asked my wife for a gift certificate to homebrew supplier Maltose Express and set myself up with a proper kit. This fall, I brewed a pumpkin ale and more, recently, an Alaskan porter.”

Sums up Cowles, “Everybody I’ve met in the craftbrewing arena is very outgoing and wants to share knowledge. They want everyone to be able to brew better beer.” Adds Mucha, “When you realize success, it becomes a little addicting.”


Maltose Express: The Go-To for Fairfield Homebrewers

Fairfield home beer brewer Peter Cowles claims his experience would be very different and not as advanced were it not for Monroe-based Maltose Express. “It’s the only local homebrew supplier. They really guide you and inform you and make it easy to succeed.” Among other supplies, Cowles purchases new bottles from the retailer to house the beer he sends to competitions.

“A friend had started homebrewing and had to send away to Massachusetts for supplies. I thought I could set up a part-time mail-order business to accommodate local needs,” said Mark Szamatulski, 53, who co-owns the business with wife Tess, about how things began.

“We started getting a lot of business and had to open a small store, in 1990,” said Szamatulski. Added Manager Bud Hansell, “It got busy and even busier, forcing us to move twice and expand. We also went from a 5-day-a-week schedule to six days.”

Hansell says they try to carry everything they can and that Mark and Tess have written two books on cloning beer to help guide customers to new taste experiences. “We have to have all those ingredients in stock and we try to accommodate any other need.”

Customer service is key at Maltose, says Hansell. “We actually spend time with customers to go over everything with new brewers. A lot of people think it’s harder than it is. You can keep things simple and be happy with what you do. Of course, you can definitely advance. One customer, Jason Harmon, progressed to the point where he collaborated with and became a part owner of Cisco Brewing in Nantucket.”

“It’s been a pretty good business for us and we’re glad to support the homebrewing needs of Fairfield residents,” said Szamatulski.