Call them chefs, artists, craftsmen.
Or simply call them guys (and some gals) who love good beer.
It's Brew Day for the Barley Bandits, Orange County's oldest homebrewers club. Standing beside a pair of converted kettles in his back yard in Orange, which sort of resembles a makeshift chemistry lab, club president John Edwards pours the pellet-shaped hops into the boiling wort--a step that will give this batch of ale its distinct bitterness.
"It's very much in the senses," Edwards says of beer making, taking a whiff of the herbal, grassy aroma. "Smell that? Mmmm."
Minutes later, he jokes, "This is like watching water boil. Geez! Good thing we've got beer!"
The club, established in 1984, is made of about 40 beer enthusiasts as diverse as their DIY brews--there's a project manager, a video editor, a teacher, a mortgage banker, a pastor. They meet every third Tuesday of the month at the Olde Ship British Pub & Restaurant in Santa Ana to taste one another's creations and discuss club activities, which include beer-float socials, New Orleans-style crawfish nights, bus trips to San Diego breweries, serving as judges for the homebrew contest at the OC Fair, and heading up to Lake Casitas for the annual Southern California Homebrewers Festival, happening this year on April 30. On their own time, members get together to roll up their sleeves and make beer, a process that can take a month and a half or longer, with more experienced homebrewers, or "brewmasters," guiding the rookies.
Edwards, a 49-year-old systems engineer, began homebrewing about three years ago when he started developing a palate for good beer. He met a couple of homebrewers at Hollingshead's Delicatessen in Orange, who introduced him to the Barley Bandits. The homebrewing process turned out to be quite simple, which surprised him. "If you can follow a recipe, you can do this," he says. "We're taking a recipe and playing with it."
His wife, Teri Edwards, also homebrews. "It's an art," says the 56-year-old schoolteacher, who prefers red and brown ales and lagers. "Once you appreciate it as an art, it's not about drinking--it's about savoring the flavors. There's nothing like it."
Most of the Barley Bandits are "all-grain" brewers, making beer from scratch using ingredients purchased online or at local shops such as Addison Homebrew Provisions in Fullerton. Today's brew is a clone of Rogue's Hazelnut Brown Nectar, an American brown ale that blends the flavors of chocolate, roasted malt, hazelnut and caramel. Edwards pours a sample so everyone knows how it should taste--mild and semi-sweet with a creamy texture and light carbonation.
One of the more fun steps of the process is naming your brew. Matt Conrad, 24, of Orange, named his first batch of beer, a Rye IPA (India pale ale), "EXGF," as in ex-girlfriend. "Because it's bitter," he explains. Another Barley Bandit, Steve Benlien, uses song titles in naming his brews--"Rye of the Tiger" and "In Your Ryes" are a couple of his more memorable inventions. One of the club's batches was dubbed "Beetlejuice" because a beetle fell into the kettle during the brewing process.
Homebrewing can also be the most cost-effective way to drink good beer. Basic beginners' equipment kits start around $80, and ingredients cost about $25 to $45 per 5-gallon batch, depending on the style of beer being brewed (5 gallons makes about two cases of 12-ounce bottles, with 24 bottles per case).
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That's one of the reasons why 64-year-old retiree Vin Ludwig started homebrewing back in 1984. He was a fan of imported beer, but it was so expensive. "I thought, 'Hey, I can do this myself,'" he says. "It's a nice hobby, and you get to drink the result."
Wanna start brewing? Check out a homebrewers club like the Barley Bandits, or ask the experts for guidance at a local homebrew store.