Homebrewers pour their hearts into Butler competition

Chris Togneri
| Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, 9:28 p.m.

Joe Stakel poured out two fingers of the golden Octoberfest, then got to work.

He carefully checked the beer's head retention, its aroma and clarity. He held it up to a light, declaring the color to be “beautiful; perfect.”

Finally, he sipped.

“That's a nice beer,” he said, noting berry undertones in a German lager that does not typically taste of fruit. “A very nice beer. This guy'seither brilliant, or he's crazy.”

Stakel was one of about two dozen judges last weekend at the Butler Homebrew BASH, a contest in which homebrewers from Western Pennsylvania submitted original beers to be judged and ranked.

Organized by the Butler Area Society of Homebrewers, or BASH, the first-year contest drew 182 beers — a strong showing that officials said proves homebrewing's increasing popularity.

“I mean, who doesn't like beer?” BASH member Jason Irwin said. “And with homebrewing, you can make anything you want, beers that aren't on the market. It's become hugely popular. Our club's been around three years, and we've gone from two or three guys drinking our beers to more than 20 members.”

There are an estimated 1.2 million homebrewers nationwide, two-thirds of whom began brewing since 2005, according to the American Homebrewers Association.

Nate Banks, 35, of Slippery Rock brewed his first batch a year and a half ago. At the BASH competition, he entered five beers: a Weizenbock, India Pale Ale, American Pale Ale, Stout and Robust Porter.

“My wife and I love going to breweries, and we've always had a dream of opening our own brewery some day,” Banks said. “So one day she said, ‘Well, you better learn how to make beer.' I finally went to the local brew shop and bought the equipment. I haven't looked back. It's so enjoyable, so gratifying.”

And it's legal. Last year, the Alabama legislature voted to legalize homebrewing, making it the last state to drop laws banning “basement brewing.”

Ken Scott, who organized the BASH competition, said homebrewing will maintain its popularity because once people start, they don't stop.

“When I see people selling off their stuff, it's usually because they're moving and can't afford to take it with them, or they're moving up in terms of their equipment,” Scott said. “It's never, ‘Oh, I just don't want to do it anymore.' ”

Enthusiasts say they're drawn to homebrewing because it's easy and allows creativity. Virtually anything can be added to a homebrew, including cinnamon, watermelon, hot chilies and jalapenos.

Irwin once made a chocolate and peanut butter-flavored beer. “And I just made a coffee porter and added pumpkin spice,” he said. “It turned out wonderfully.”

Competitions like the Butler Homebrew BASH allow brewers to get feedback from judges certified through the national Beer Judge Certification Program, which was established in 1985. Some of the reviews are harsh: A judge who sampled a brown ale entry wrote on his score sheet: “Acrid sourness and parmesan cheese (flavors) take over. Hard to drink.”

Others, including a Berliner Weisse with peaches and a fruit beer from Andy Weigel of Munhall that won Best of Show, are revered.

“I've been judging for 27 years, and this is some of the best beer I've judged in a long time,” said Stakel, 57, who traveled from Hudson, Ohio, for the competition. “I'm surprised.”

Getting started requires a bit of an investment — starter kits generally cost around $100 or more.

But making unique, quality homebrew is cheaper than store-bought beer. Depending on the style of beer, ingredients for a five-gallon batch, which yields about two cases, can cost as little as $15, BASH members said.

That's why Scott wasn't too upset when one of his favorite homebrews — a hoppy ale that went down perfectly on a summer day, he said — recently disappeared.

Scott took his family on a trip to Hershey, but left his college-age son at home. When he returned, he tried to pour a beer from his keg, but it was empty.

“And I know I had four gallons in there,” he said with a shrug. “I can't blame him, though. If he's going to drink beer, it might as well be good beer. And that was good beer.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 orctogneri@tribweb.com.

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