Someone Belched, and a Club Was Born

The crowd samples the contenders at this year's ale competition.
The crowd samples the contenders at this year's ale competition. (By Kathryn Norwood For The Washington Post)
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Aguy is playing "Ain't She Sweet" on the banjo as a football game blares from a television in the living room. Between samples of British-style beers, participants eat from a potluck spread that includes venison marinated in chili pepper beer.

Unlimited food and drink, no lines and the friendly crowd make this one of the area's best beer events, and it happens every November on the enclosed back porch of a house in Rockville.

You can't buy tickets, because it's a private affair: the annual Real Ale Competition, held by the regional home-brewing club Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP) and open only to members and guests. This year's contest features 49 ales dispensed from Cornelius kegs: five-gallon metal canisters, rescued from scrap yards, that soft-drink companies use to package syrup.

About 150 people, the biggest crowd in the competition's 10-year history, are here for the chance to yank a hand pump and fill a glass with a crisp, golden bitter; or a chocolaty porter; or a rich, warming old ale. I sampled at least a dozen beers, and there wasn't a dumper in the bunch.

BURP ( is one of the nation's oldest home-brewing clubs. It was founded in 1981, two years after President Jimmy Carter signed a bill re-legalizing home beermaking, which had been outlawed by Prohibition. At its inaugural meeting, "somebody belched," recalls founding member Ralph Bucca, inspiring the club's acronym. BURP has a membership of about 250, including non-brewing, social members like me; each month about 75, on average, meet at a member's home to swap home-brews and subject their efforts to peer review. At this month's event, special holiday beer will be on the judging table.

Back in 1981 there were only a handful of microbreweries, all west of the Mississippi; none of them sold beer here. Today more than 1,000 brands, in almost every conceivable style, can be bought locally. So why do so many people -- the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) estimates the number at 500,000 at least -- insist on brewing their own?

Dan Curl, a 29-year-old graduate film student at American University, has a simple reason: "For me, it's being able to say, 'I made this!' "

Steve Marler, a federal employee from Arlington, got into home-brewing by sheer happenstance. "I was lying around the house being lazy, and I saw this guy being interviewed on TV about his new book, 'The Complete Joy of Home Brewing.' " The guy was Charlie Papazian, founder of the 15,000-member AHA (, which holds an annual convention and publishes a magazine called Zymurgy.

On his 30th birthday, Marler bought something called Beer in a Sack. "It consisted of a lined burlap sack with a pressure release valve and a spigot," he says. "You added water and yeast to make an English ale." His maiden effort was "not great, but all right."

"My wife thought that home-brewing would be a fad that would end in a few years or so," he says. The intervening 15 years, during which he served two terms as BURP president and one as treasurer, proved her wrong.

One of BURP's chief objectives is to produce educated consumers, and the Saturday competition kicks off with organizer Andy Anderson explaining what a "real ale" is. I arrive a little late, so he recaps for me. It's a myth that the Brits enjoy their beer flat, warm and cloudy, he asserts. Real ale isn't forcibly injected with gas, as is American mass-market beer. The delicate carbonation is a natural byproduct of a fermentation that continues inside the bottles or barrels. Real ale is properly served at cellar temperatures, between 52 and 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Ideally, Anderson says, the keg should sit until the yeast has dropped out of suspension, producing a brilliantly clear brew.

Brewing and serving beer the British way brings out subtle nuances: the fruity and earthy flavors of the English hops, the biscuity sweetness of the European malts. "You can drink a few pints and you're not going to get bloated," Anderson notes. The modest alcohol content -- sometimes as low as 3.5 percent by volume -- also encourages quaffability.

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