CHOCOLATE PORTER, ANYONE? I love beer.
But when you love beer, you're almost always forced to love someone else's beer, whether your favorite is brewed by Anheuser-Busch or at a small microbrewery on the West Coast.
The more adventurous can create a unique concoction in their own homes. But that requires equipment, time and storage space, not to mention lots of cleaning.
For people like me who don't want to turn their homes into a hop-scented mini-brewery, there is an easy alternative. It's called "Brew-on-Premise": A brewery lets you use its equipment, store your fermenting beer in its coolers and bottle it when it's ready. You pick the ingredients, you stir the kettle, you reap the rewards.
I decided to give it a try at Shenandoah Brewing Co. in Alexandria, one of two in the region. Customers there can make their own beer under the supervision of brewmaster Anning Smith and his wife and co-owner Laura Smith.
The hardest part is choosing what kind of beer to make. I'm a fan of a wide variety of beers. My staple is Samuel Adams, and it's hard to resist a Guinness on tap. A friend from Milwaukee introduced me to the guilty pleasures of Miller High Life (the "Champagne of Beers"). My favorites are those that come with the winter season: porters. Catamount Porter, originally from a microbrewery in Vermont now owned by Harpoon, and Baltika #6 -- a black porter from Russia that you can score at places like Brickskeller and Russia House in Dupont Circle -- top my list.
From the large dry-erase board listing Shenandoah's beers, I chose the Chocolate Porter (customers also may bring in their own beer recipes).
Anning Smith gave me a steam kettle and steered me to the back room. From a row of white bins, I scooped and measured 1 pound of black malt, 10 ounces of black barley, 12 ounces of caramel 120, two pounds of chocolate malt and 10 ounces of roasted barley. I then hand-milled the grains into a grain bag that is later tied to create what is essentially an enormous tea bag. Those malts provide the beer its color, base flavor and sugar.
I then measured out 2.4 ounces of cluster bittering hops and 2.2 ounces of cascade finishing hops -- the ingredients that provide beer with its bitterness.
To make Shenandoah's recipe my own, I added 3 ounces of Hershey's cocoa.
Anning had already filled a kettle with 15 gallons of wort -- a product of mashed grain -- and 2 gallons of water. I boiled the wort to a steady 150 degrees. The "tea bag" full of the milled grain was dunked into the kettle and steeped just like Tetley. Twenty minutes later, the grain bag was squeezed and removed.
The mixture was brought to a rolling boil, and in went the first round of hops, very slowly, causing little eruptions in the now-black liquid. I had to kill more than an hour while the liquid boiled.
No problem. The brewery has televisions positioned throughout the room, a foosball table, assorted games, and a pub with beers on tap and bar food.
Warren Danzenbaker, 32, of Vienna was with eight friends who were celebrating a birthday. "We do what we'd do at a bar at night, but we're making beer at the same time," said Danzenbaker, whose group was making Copper Pale Ale, a dark amber ale.
Mike Souza, 42, of Alexandria was putting the finishing touches on his "Holiday Happiness." A taste revealed a little bit of everything: orange peel, cloves, cinnamon, honey and a very sweet finish. "That's the two quarts of maple syrup," Souza confided.
Meanwhile, a neighboring brewer had to save my batch from boiling over the edges of the kettle. Oops.
After the addition of the finishing hops and the cocoa, the beer simmered, then was drained through cooling tubes and emptied into a fermentation keg. A taste revealed something like gritty, lukewarm iced coffee, but Laura Smith assured me that in three weeks, it would taste like beer. Yeast was poured in to feast on the sugars so that the beer will come out about 5 percent alcohol. I rolled the keg across the floor for eight minutes to disperse the yeast, then left it to ferment.
I returned three weeks later. As the brewer, I got to put the beer into bottles fitted with my customized labels (one of the great perks), then my fiancee helped hand-cap the bottles with a crimper.
My batch made about 51/2 cases of beer, or about 132 12-ounce bottles. The total cost was $230 -- about $1.75 per beer, far less than you'd pay at the bar and a little more than you'd pay for a high-end beer at the store.
My label: "Deadline Dark, Just in Time Porter." A 4.9 percent alcohol chocolate porter with just a hint of cocoa at the finish.
Shenandoah Brewing Co., 652 S. Pickett St., Alexandria, 703-823-9508, www.shenandoahbrewing.com. Brewing sessions are Thursdays and Friday 4 to 11 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Private events by appointment.
Also in the area: The Flying Barrel, 103 S. Carroll St., Frederick, 301-663-4491, www.flyingbarrel.com.
Staff writer Josh White covers military affairs. Greg Kitsock's Beer column will return in December.