Making Their Pint

Irregulars pour their hearts, and a little science, into brews that are becoming strong stuff in statewide competitions.

October 29, 2003|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Homebrewers like to say you can tell when you've stumbled onto their premises if your shoes sound like Velcro when you walk across the kitchen floor.

You can also tell when you've stumbled onto a meeting of a local homebrew club if you bump into a scattering of sticky-shoe folk clutching bulging brown grocery sacks outside the door of your favorite pub.

On a recent Tuesday night in Baltimore, a group of these sticky-shoe, self-professed beer geeks showed up with paper bags at Sean Bolan's Irish Pub on Light Street. They unloaded a dozen or so of their freshest brews in an upstairs room and proceeded with an evening of ritual competition.

Outside, a chilly rain began to pour. Inside, members of the Cross Street Irregulars Brew Club did some eventful pouring of their own.

Despite the friendly jibes and general glad-handing, a homebrew competition these days includes a healthy measure of willful pride and zealous one-upmanship. With so many amateur brewers now having eight to 10 good years of experience under their belts (so to speak) and the heretofore suppressed knowledge of master brewers' secrets now unleashed by Internet newsgroups, today's mere hobbyists are making some of the world's most delectable mashes.

Tonight, for instance, October's Pale Ale competition brings out a few aspiring masters among the Irregulars. The club's most winsome pair, Bo Lenck and Christiane Mattes, are regarded as among the best homebrewers in Maryland. Together they have produced 13 gallons (about five cases) of beer every two weeks over their six years as a couple. "It does seem like an awful lot of beer," admits Mattes, who also works at Maryland Homebrew Inc., in Columbia. "We give a lot of it away, but honestly, I don't know where it all goes."

Also among those crowding the table: Ron Kodlick, the club's Homebrewer of the Year the past four years, and two Ph.D. scientists from the Johns Hopkins University, Alan Meeker and Shawn Lupold.

Kodlick has just arrived home from the Great American Beer Fest in Denver, where he spent his time talking up traditional, "naturally conditioned" draught beers - that is, beer that must be pumped from a wooden cask. As Chesapeake representative of The Society for the Preservation of Beer From The Wood, Kodlick has transcended from simple brewer to American missionary of "The Wood."

Meeker and Lupold have just arrived late from their labs, where they conduct cancer research - specifically, in urology. ("I know, I know," says Meeker, who has heard more than his share of beer, yeast and urinary tract jokes.) The scientists would seem to be formidable competitors based on lab skills alone. But not everyone is awed by their credentials. "It might help with the yeast part," Mattes later says, privately, "but other than that, I don't think being a scientist makes that much difference."

Tonight, since Kodlick has decided to forgo any more club competitions, odds-makers in the crowd know the contest most likely will stack up between the Lenck/Mattes juggernaut and Meeker, a yeast expert who actually grows his own hops and produces his own "farm" of beer-making yeast cultures. His buddy Lupold, whose major scientific effort involves exploiting common cold viruses for battling prostate cancer, is notably quiet after a frustrating day in a Hopkins lab. He says he has a couple of modest entries, an American Pale Ale and a German Kolsch brewed two months ago to celebrate the birth of his first child. As a relative newcomer to the art and to the club, Lupold will join the evening's dark horses.

"Let the competition begin," someone shouts.

All manner of bronzed brews slip out of paper bags and hit the table. Stacks of score sheets pass through the crowd. Meeker pops the tops on several bottles and pours his lathery liquid into the first pitcher.

It smells, looks, tastes and feels, as it touches educated palates, like a beer befitting an etched glass schooner.

Around the table Irregulars sample Meeker's entry, and slowly, from every corner, there arises the warm sounds of connoisseurial approval: "Ahh ... "

About 25 years ago, Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko observed that American beers tasted "as if they were brewed through a horse." When the nation's beer industry raised an outcry, Royko apologized - to the horse.

"At least with the horse, we know what we're getting," he said.

Today the variety of tasty, world-class American beers is astonishing. Spearheading the change: microbreweries, brewpubs and homebrewers, these hobbyists that king of beer writers Michael Jackson has called "the shock troops of the beer revolution."

Some of the country's late 20th-century homebrewers, like these Irregulars in Baltimore, pioneered a fledgling industry over the last 25 years by making the first American ales. One of the oldest microbreweries, Boulder Brewing, for example, was started in 1979 by a physicist using homemade equipment in a goat shed. Another pioneering business, Seattle's Red Hook ale, started in a trolley barn.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.