Home Sweet Homebrew: Where Jersey beer puts down roots

One frosty October weeknight, 10 people are gathered in a small warehouse around a stainless steel tank, drawing in deep breaths of warm, thick air that smells like honey. “Can I wet your whistle?” someone asks, carrying around a foggy brown bottle with a piece of masking tape on the neck. “It’s a barrel-aged imperial coconut porter.” Only a few people can turn away from the tank, but the 4-ounce glasses in their hands subconsciously tilt toward him, like tiny satellites pulled faintly out of orbit. Although tonight’s mission has taken them as far east as Vauxhall, where even their name sounds a little out of place, the Morris Area Society of Homebrewers is as much at home in a meadery as in a brewery or cider mill.

November 16th marks the beginning of the 2-day, 400-beer Morristown brewing showdown known as Motown MASH, and while most of the host club’s members are at home brewing their own individual entries into the contest, tonight these 10 have come together to create a new recipe, a one-of-a-kind collaboration with Melovino Meadery that will be served to the public at a 5-course dinner following the competition. The liquid in the kettle is the first step in a month-long process that will yield a 6.9% orange blossom honey mead fermented on ginger.

It is no accident that MASH, which is named after the porridge-like combination of grain and water from which all beer originates, does not include a ‘C.’ In fact the word ‘club’ would be misleading, because most meetings are open to everyone, and the eagerness with which MASH’s 70 members open their coolers to share their latest brews makes clear that in this crowd, any hint of exclusivity boils down to circumstance. Even as membership continues to grow, alongside New Jersey’s love of craft beer, the mission has remained the same: to pair the curiosity of a beer taster with the creativity of a beer brewer. If beer were a kind of language, then MASH would be less a book club and more of a writing workshop.

“Homebrewers are open about everything they do,” says MASH member Paul West, who is never without a DSLR around his neck, even at meetings. “A photographer would never share their secrets, but if you ask an award-winning homebrewer about their beer, the first thing they do is email you the recipe.” West owes his own introduction to the hobby to his son Andrew, also a MASH member, who bought him a homebrew kit for Father’s Day 6 years ago. As if to confirm his father’s assessment, the younger West promptly shares his own secret, precise heat regulation, which he ascribes to his own training as a mechanical engineer. “Every human, Alaskan or African, everyone’s body operates at 98.6˚, so thinking about a specific strain of yeast, it might say on the package that the ideal temperature is 65˚-70˚ but there’s got to be one in there that’s optimal. It’s your job to control that process and figure out what it is.”

The average MASH meeting could feature a group barrel-aging project, a microscope-guided exploration of yeast reproduction, a “brewers’ duel” between two members whose variations on the same style are put to a vote, or a formal tasting evaluation by graduates of the national BJCP Beer Judge Certification Program. Discussions range from pro brewer-led lectures on dry-hopping to informal debates on what distinguishes a “New England IPA” from the other 11 styles of India pale ale. Bus trips to up-and-coming breweries and bulk purchases of freshly pressed cider for home fermenting are a few added perks, along with a healthy dose of honest feedback for anyone who wants it.

Most homebrewers have the equipment to calculate alcohol by volume (ABV), the eyes to estimate Standard Reference Method (SRM) coloring, and the tastebuds to guess where a beer clocks in on the International Bittering Units (IBU) scale. But mastery of the brew is as much a matter of descriptive power as scientific method. “If you’re new to homebrewing, you don’t always have the vocabulary to describe the nuances in the finished product,” says Karl Weiss, 10-year homebrewer and president of MASH. “But it’s a fun exercise to try a beer with experienced tasters, to listen to their descriptions, commit them to memory, and over time develop your own understanding of those flavors. There are a lot of complexities, but ultimately when I’m tasting and evaluating a beer, I like to just think of each of the four ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast.”

At the same time, Weiss notes, this approach has its limits. The flavor of a pumpkin-style beer, for example, might come down to the medley of nutmeg, ginger and allspice that the taster associates with pumpkin pie, or it might lean on Mom’s secret recipe, and the way the kitchen smells the day before Thanksgiving. Other additives too, like fruit, coffee, chocolate, and even hot peppers can add another layer of complexity—not only as components to evaluate in their own right, but as part of a more abstract idea: flavor in context.

In the New Jersey State Fair homebrew competition this past summer, Weiss and fellow MASH member Robert Gianquinta created a beer called “Do You Know Sloppy Joe” in honor of the famous triple-decker sandwich, and entered it in the Jersey Pride category. The grain bill for this unlikely brew featured bread-forward Munich, British-pale, and rye malts, and the finished product included lactose, “as a nod to the cheese,” red pepper for Russian dressing, and a tincture of caraway seed and pickle juice added post-fermentation. “Horseradish in beer generally doesn’t taste very good, so we went the hot pepper route for the Russian,” Weiss explains. “But really the pickle juice is what ties the whole beer together. It makes you think of coleslaw and the relish in the dressing.”

Whether another sandwich-inspired beer will make its way into this year’s Motown MASH competition remains to be seen, but anything is fair game for the other 4 collaboration brews that will be featured in Saturday night’s feast, which is open to the public. The dinner, affectionately known as “For the Love of the Craft,” calls upon the top 5 nationally-ranked homebrew clubs in the state to invent a new beer, cider or mead with the help of one of New Jersey’s 95 professional craft breweries. Each brew then serves as inspiration for one dish in a 5-course banquet created by Chris Masey, executive chef at South Street Social in Morristown. November 17th will mark the fifth year of For the Love of the Craft, whose 2018 lineup will feature mead by MASH, as well as beers by Garden State Homebrewers, NJ HOPZ, WHALES and SCUBA homebrew clubs.

In the same way that “Do You Know Sloppy Joe” was meant to conjure up the sandwich, so too will the 5 courses aim to conjure up the beers with which they’ll be paired. “Each dish has to be a continuation of the beer,” says event director Nell Conway, who will also serve as culinary M.C., providing guests with background on ingredients and guidance as to when to eat and drink for optimal flavor melding. “The idea is that you don’t know where the beer ends and and the dish begins.”

Each course will also incorporate one ingredient straight from the brew, whether a traditional beer component like malt, or an unusual additive that finds its way into the recipe, like pickle juice. “It started out as a way to cheat,” chef Masey says. “But it doesn’t work like that, sometimes it makes it even harder to get the best flavor pairing when you’re cooking with the same ingredient.” Past years have featured some unlikely combinations, from sage-lingonberry ice cream on beer malt-encrusted shrimp to Korean bulgogi barbecue over risotto with cotton candy—and pushing the envelope remains his top priority, no matter what the homebrewers give him this year. “The whole brewing community is full of really unique, creative people,” he says, explaining the appeal of pairing his own craft with beer. “And the fact that pro brewers are so willing to work with homebrewers too, I love that, that they all remember their roots.”

Whether Melovino honey finds its way into this year’s For the Love of the Craft dishes is still up in the air, and so too is the identity of the Best in Show champion…whose prize will be an empty fermenter in Twin Elephant Brewing Company’s 5-barrel brewhouse, where he or she will scale up the winning recipe into a 155-gallon batch. But even if that brewer belongs to another club, Karl Weiss and a few other MASH members will no doubt be there helping to haul grain. “I think brewing is one of the best hobbies in the world,” says Weiss, on the heels of an American wheat ale brewers’ duel that pitted his ten years of experience against another member’s two: a duel which the president did not win.

He checks his phone, from which he’s been monitoring a new batch in his half-barrel, all-electric home setup. “There’s always something new to learn, another way to challenge yourself as a homebrewer,” he says, if not referring to his next beer, then to the backyard garden in which he’s planning to grow blueberries, raspberries and blackberries for fruited sours. It’s a motto that might as well be engraved above the 4-tap kegerator in his living room, because whenever he serves a new brew, he’s already thinking about what he’ll do differently next time.

“Sometimes it feels like a second career.”


A Word on Craft Beer

Whether it’s rare malt, rebuilt water, independently-grown hops or wild yeast that shapes its final flavor, every beer’s story begins in the ground somewhere.  Local is arguably the most sought-after trait in artisanal food and drink, and craft beer is no different:  indeed it is the stories of places, of cultural and natural landscapes, that spread from one brewer to the next on ProBrewer forums, or from one visitor to the next in a popular tasting room.

Recently, I wrote a piece in Edible Jersey magazine on a beer released by Flying Fish—one of New Jersey’s oldest craft breweries—and in researching it, spoke with the director of the Colorado organization Beers Made By Walking, with whom the owner of Flying Fish had partnered to create a uniquely New Jersey brew dubbed “Exit 5.”  The Denver-based organization invites brewers from across the country to plan a walk, and set out to create a “drinkable portrait of the landscape”—then eventually share it at the Great American Beer Festival.  Delving deeper into the story behind Exit 5, I interviewed naturalists at the Pinelands Preservation Alliance who had joined Flying Fish’s head brewer on his walk through the Franklin Parker Preserve.  One of them, an avid homebrewer and expert on local flora, suggested two unusual ingredients that in the end found their way into the brew kettle: the citrusy Pinus echinata and anise-scented Solidago odora.

Though Exit 5 is a small piece of the national craft beer landscape, I see stories like Flying Fish’s in nanobreweries as small as Twin Elephant and craft dynasties as large as the still-independent but not-so-micro Dogfish Head.  I interview brewers with backgrounds in microbiology, engineering, business and everything in between—most of whom are as excited to talk about the national craft beer climate as they are to talk about the climate in an experimental yeast lab.  Each of these men and women know the value of their craft, and together paint a rich portrait of American craftsmanship and ingenuity, and as a writer, I see immense value in their stories.

To establish something as local is to succeed as a storyteller:  and they are local flavors, I believe, that drive craft beer’s national appeal.


Edible Jersey Articles

Creative Juices:  Tasting notes from Twin Elephant Brewing Company
Family Heirlooms:  The next generation of Dreyer farmers
Craft Beer & Spirits:  Beers from the pines
Craft Beer & Spirits:  Five in Fairfield
Brew Town:  With three new breweries and a school for homebrewers, Hackettstown sees the rise of an industry
The Bottles Below:  A visit to New Jersey’s premier wine cellar
Food Truckers:  A visit to the state’s largest food truck festival
Bresse of Blairstown:  A chicken of tradition
Purple Temperance:  A brief history of Dr. Welch’s unfermented wine
Moral Fiber:  The sordid history of the graham cracker
Playing with Fruit:  A start-up syrup maker experiments, one flavor at a time