Some Home Brewers Advance From a Kit to a Keg

Wednesday, February 8, 2006


Tens of thousands of Americans boil hops and barley in their kitchens to make their own beer. But few of them ever turn pro.

Last month, the Washington area home-brew club Brewers United for Real Potables (better known by its acronym, BURP) honored one of its own at a banquet at Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Ashburn.

The honoree, Jerry Bailey, is the co-founder of Old Dominion. Prior to that, he worked for the Agency for International Development in its family planning division. "I've had a perfect career," he quipped. "First sex, and now beer."

Bailey's introduction to beermaking was a home-brew kit he received as a Christmas gift in 1978. "I don't remember what it was," he said of his first batch. "My guess is a golden lager. But it was delicious."

Bailey vividly recalled his decision in 1989 to turn his hobby into a profession. A friend and fellow government employee, Bud Hensgen, showed up at Bailey's Bethesda home with an armful of brewpub menus from across the country, and suggested the two open their own brewery restaurant.

"Bud offered to handle sales," Bailey said. "He said I could do the brewing, and our wives could take care of the cooking."

The stony silence from the wives was enough to persuade Bailey and Hensgen to put any plans for a restaurant on hold and concentrate initially on the brewery.

Bailey's first commercial beer was a golden lager -- not a scaled-up version of his home-brew but a recipe he bought for $10,000 from Stoudt's Brewing Co. in Adamstown, Pa.

Old Dominion has long since graduated to its own recipes, including Oak Barrel Stout , a Guinness-style dark ale brewed with roasted oak chips and vanilla beans. Oak Barrel Stout has some tannic notes, a little of the burned-toast flavor that roasted barley imparts, and a mild, sweet vanilla background that smooths the rough edges. Many beer drinkers have a mental block about drinking a beverage the color of motor oil, but this stout should win some converts.

The original version of this beer was aged in whiskey barrels from A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg. But barrels are expensive and can be used for aging beer only once -- after that, it's the trash heap or conversion to flowerpots. That's why Bailey changed the recipe for mass distribution, although the barrel-aged version is still offered at the Old Dominion Brewpub.

Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., was an underemployed college graduate waiting tables in New York in 1992 when he whipped up his maiden batch of beer, a standard English pale ale flavored with frozen cherries. Each of the bottles, he recalled, had a piece of carpet stuck to the bottom, a consequence of sterilizing the bottles in a blazing hot oven then laying them on the rug before they'd cooled off.

After fermentation, Calagione invited his housemates and friends to sample the brew. Among the guests was talk-show host Ricki Lake.

Calagione was supplementing his income with acting gigs, and had appeared on Lake's show -- an episode titled "Why Good Girls Fall for Bad Guys" -- impersonating a "a total misogynist scam artist."

The beer was impressive enough that Calagione, on the spot, announced his intention to open a brewery. Has he ever tried to duplicate his cherry brew? "Not yet, but someday," he replied.

In the meantime, fans of fruit beer can try his Fort . Based on the label's claim that the beer contains more than "a ton of fresh, pureed raspberries" per 100-barrel batch I expected something syrupy, intensely fruity, liqueur-like. Fort is just the opposite. It's fairly dry, with a subtle berry aroma and flavor, and lively, champagne-like carbonation. A slight alcohol burn in the back of the throat reminds you that this is a powerful beer -- just under 18 percent alcohol by volume, more than three times as potent as a Budweiser.

Calagione believes it's the world's strongest fruit beer.

It's too late to ring in the New Year with Fort, but this pinkish-amber ale might make a great nightcap for Valentine's Day. Be prepared for some sticker shock, however. A 25-ounce bottle cost me $17, a buck more than I would have paid for a five-liter mini-keg of German lager. Sometimes, I guess, love hurts.

Greg Kitsock is editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and senior editor of American Brewer magazine. He writes about beer once a month for Food and can be reached

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