Back in high school, when I was just a wee lad along the moist, green shores of Lake Washington in Seattle, I thought that Coors Light was the greatest Colorado beer known to man. The cold-activated mountains, the frost-brew liner ... could it get any better?
Ah ... the innocence of youth.
Fast-forward a few years. A little older and a little wiser (hopefully), I have come to learn that there is a lot more to beer than the bland-yet-metallic taste that flowed from that beautiful can and dribbled down my chin during those wonder-filled years.
Path to enlightenment
On a rainy afternoon in July, I visited Corbin Hillam, local cartoonist and avid homebrewer, for a brief introduction to the quiet art of homebrewing. Hillam started brewing his own beer, from kits, with various friends more than 10 years ago.
I'd seen those homebrew kits before. A large pot, a modified paint bucket, a glass jug, a couple of hoses, a funnel ... nothing I would readily associate with beer. (Well, maybe the funnel. But, like the Silver Bullet, that's all in the past.)
According to Hillam, the pot serves as the brewpot, the modified paint bucket as the fermentation bucket and the glass jug as the "carboy" (a secondary fermentation container). The hoses and funnel shuttle the beer from receptacle to receptacle.
OK. Sounds simple enough. But how does it work? Extremely briefly:
• Create the wort by soaking grains and malted barley in the brewpot. Make sure the water is hot in order to release the malt sugars.
• Boil the malt sugar solution with hops for seasoning.
• Cool the solution and strain it into the fermentation bucket.
• Strain the solution again into the carboy. Add yeast to begin the fermentation process. The yeast ferments the sugar, releasing carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.
• After the main fermentation is complete, bottle the beer with a little added sugar for carbonation.
Brewing a simple beer actually requires little more than following a recipe and making sure that every little piece of equipment is sterile. (If you forget to sterilize even the thermometer, you could ruin the whole batch.) However, brewing beer gets complicated when you start to consider all the subtle flavors that could potentially exist: a hint of orange, a touch of chocolate, a smoky aftertaste.
"We were given a pound bag of chocolate macadamia nut coffee," Hillam remembers. "And we thought, 'Let's just drop them in and let them boil with the beer.'"
His chocolate coffee stout turned out a winner, with "that coffee flavor in the oatmeal stout and just a hint of chocolate flavor."
Even though the 57-year-old Hillam still brews from a kit, over the years he's added organic honey, French oak chips and a variety of other secret ingredients.
Local breweries take this creative process and apply it to their beer on a larger scale. Bristol Brewing Co. has its Beehive, an American-style wheat ale that tastes as good as it looks. Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. has its light and crisp Queen's Blonde Ale; Rocky Mountain Brewery has a beer brewed with green chiles; Judge Baldwin's has an Irish red brewed specifically for St. Patrick's Day; and Trinity Brewing Co. has its distinctive Sunna Wit, a wheat beer aged with rose petals.
The flower sermon
Jason Yester, 32, one of the founding members of Trinity Brewing Co. on Garden of the Gods Road, got his start brewing on a dingy Colorado College dorm room floor. (Just so you know, brewing beer in the dorms isn't technically allowed at CC, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, or the Air Force Academy.)
"I would scrounge bottles from the recycling bins," says Yester. "I got into kegging the beer later on that year."
Impressionable college freshmen, listen up: On his path to success, Yester made brewing a truly academic endeavor. He took a course in microbiology under the tutelage of professor Ken Andrews, now the resident microbiologist at Bristol. Andrews would later aid Yester in writing an 80-page thesis (which he worked on for 2½ years) titled "A Microbial Analysis of Bottled Ales."
During his time at CC, Yester managed to land a job at Bristol, where he worked between '97 and '08. Yester did whatever needed to be done around the brewery, including bartending, before he climbed the ranks to head brewer.
"When I was at Bristol I crafted, probably, 50 commercial beers," says Yester. "Then I took my experience and did beers my way here [at Trinity]. The beers aren't even close to the ones at Bristol. They're completely different."
And different they are. Beyond aging the Sunna Wit with rose petals, Trinity brews its Awaken Stout with Italian coffee and chicory, and its Farmhouse Saison with only seasonally available herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables.
When I visited Trinity to chat with Yester, he pulled a single nail from a wooden cask at the back of the brewpub and quickly slipped a glass into the stream for me. The limited-edition beer was a deliciously bitter blend of citrus flavors that was only halfway through its fermentation process.
"It's art and science," says Yester. "To be honest, this is more like brewing wine than anything else."
I stopped by Hillam's house with a couple friends to brew my first batch: a German wheat beer, or Hefeweizen. We spent three hours creating the wort, adding the malts, boiling the mixture and stirring the hops. (All of the ingredients came from Old West Homebrew Supply.) We also grilled steaks, sampled a few beers and spent the night discussing the future of the microbrew industry.
"The enjoyment of brewing," Hillam explains, "is the whole social side."
According to the Boulder-based Brewers Association — the organization responsible for the Great American Beer Festival in Denver — there are up to 750,000 people homebrewing in the U.S. There are also more than 1,200 homebrew clubs registered with the Brewers Association's national database. Talk about social networking.
After we finished brewing our beer, we were able to sample our creation in its uncarbonated state. (The beer has to sit and ferment for two to four weeks.) It was a refreshingly wheaty, light summer beer. In four weeks, it will be even better.
"That's the treat, to crack open a beer and taste the fruits of your labor," says Hillam. "It's great to go and buy beer, but there's a high level of satisfaction in something you brewed yourself."