Homebrewing with the Pros

When Matt Cole homebrews, it’s no small production. A 20- or 30-gallon batch means that five or six carboys must be sanitized, along with six pots and all the utensils. Three to five burners are lit, depending on the likelihood of asphyxiation. Ingredients are gathered and, of course, beer is consumed.

Cole is head brewer at Cleveland’s Rocky River Brewing Co. He homebrews with another pro, Rob Gerrity, production manager at Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland. There are always extra hands to sanitize, as several patrons of the two brewpubs take the opportunity to brew their first all-grain batch with a couple of pros. Though they are both professional brewers, Cole and Gerrity turn to home-brewing for creativity and a love of the craft.

Cole worked hard to become a professional brewer, but he found he had to continue homebrewing to produce some of the beers he loves. Gerrity enjoys his work at Great Lakes’ large production facility, but homebrewing is his chance to experiment, to have fun with beer.

The first time Cole walked into Pennsylvania Brewing Co. he knew he had to make beer. Instead of waiting tables or working in a bookstore to help him through college, he chose to sell beer for the Pittsburgh microbrewery. “I caught a whiff of that mash and from that day decided that I at least had to homebrew,” he says.

“My first brew was all-grain. I bought a malt mill and got yeast from a brewer. I had a false-bottom pot and a Corona mill that pulverizes the (grain). I had a stuck mash that was horrendous. I sewered it.”

He stuck with it, so to speak, and 10 all-grain brews later, he had it figured out. He started brewing mainly British ales and then lagering, getting yeast from the brewery. “I was lagering and was never satisfied with it,” Cole says. He was working at Pennsylvania Brewing Co., a
brewery that had mastered the German lager, and was constantly disappointed with his own attempts.

“I tried to dabble in too many styles,” he says. He finally settled on pale ale and brewed at least 20 consecutive batches. “Instead of trying to tackle every style, master (one) and move on to something else. That’s important, especially to all-grain brewers. Pale ale is nice because you can do an English bitter, India pale ale, and then a barleywine. They are all pale ales, one bigger than the next.”

After attending Siebel Institute of Technology in 1995, Cole’s beer started to resemble commercial beers. “I would have five or 10 people over,” he says “and we were knocking out 20 gallons at a time. We were getting results, and that’s what drew people to it.”

Now that he is brewing for a living, there are beers that he isn’t allowed to make. Ohio state law forbids commercial production of any beer that’s more than 6 percent alcohol. So he and Gerrity get together every other month and brew the beer they can’t brew at work. Cole is partial to imperial stouts and barleywine, while Gerrity prefers Belgian beers.

Cole admits that part of the fun is having many of the luxuries most homebrewers only envy. These include a 25-gallon pot with a false bottom, a half-barrel system in the basement, and a refrigeration system for lagering. Even with all the equipment, brewing is a major production — which explains the infrequency with which they do it. Each chooses two beers to brew on their typical four-beer brew day.

The day before a brew session is spent sanitizing, weighing ingredients, and crushing malt. Cole digs out all six pots that he owns and fires up the burners. “We start the first mash and once we have lautered, we start the second batch,” he says.

The beers Cole makes at home sometimes become the beers he makes at work. He says he was surprised to find how accurate his homebrew recipes were after he scaled them up to fit his Rocky River system. He found himself adjusting hopping rates but leaving the grain bill as originally constructed.

That is not to imply that all the homebrew turns out well. “When we homebrew we have big aspirations, but it doesn’t always turn out perfect,” he says. “Sometimes we just do stupid stuff.” Their most common mistake, he admits, is overhopping. Once they made a beer with a bitterness of 100 IBUs, about twice that of a standard IPA.

Brewing together is a social occasion as much as an opportunity to be creative. “It’s an excuse to drink beer,” Cole says. True to their schools, Cole prefers his favorite, the Rocky River’s Cooper’s Gold Kölsch, “a session beer at 4 percent alcohol.” Gerrity prefers the Great Lakes Dortmunder; the Great Lakes Barrel Select Pils, which is really hoppy for a pilsner; and the Holy Moses Belgian wit.

In the Beginning
Gerrity and Cole met while brewing together at Great Lakes Brewing Co., where Cole says they would pull a half-barrel system up on the loading dock and make pilot batches of beer. “There we were on the loading dock, brewing beer,” he says. “It was great fun.” Now he has that same system in his basement and is constantly reminded of another reason he homebrews: “I have too much money invested in it not to.”

Gerrity began homebrewing as a learning tool. When he started brewing at Great Lakes, he had never homebrewed and admittedly had a lot to learn. “I had a long way to go,” he says. “This is a way to play around with different ingredients. I can become more familiar with off-beat malts, hops, and techniques.”

Cole agrees that hands-on is the most valuable approach for anyone interested in learning to brew like the pros. “Do as much all-grain (brewing) as possible, dabbling in a lot of different ingredients,” Cole says. “See them, taste them, notice what they contribute to the beer.

“I learned more from hands-on (brewing) than from any textbook.”

At the brewery Gerrity is tied to a very regimented set of procedures designed to produce a very consistent beer. At home he can experiment. He chuckles when noting that as Great Lakes has gotten bigger, his homebrewing has scaled down. Originally he would brew 15-gallon batches, and then 10, and five, and now, when he’s not brewing with Cole, he often brews three-gallon batches. Freshness and quality are more important to him than quantity, he says.

Like Cole, some of Gerrity’s homebrew recipes have found their way as commercial beers, including a stout that he formulated at home.

The Art of Homebrewing
Both brewers talk about the respect they have for the legacy of brewing. The history of beer is what got Gerrity involved with Great Lakes. He was working on a master’s degree in history when he began at Great Lakes as a tour guide. Brewing is a tie to the land, he says. “At work, it’s a factory environment,” he says of his job as production manager of a large production facility. “It’s very urban. At home I tend to gravitate toward the more rural, agricultural side of brewing.

“Commercial brewers have really become divorced from the hop field,” he says. “Winemakers are out there with their grapes, and I try to get that in homebrewing.”

The next time he and Cole brew together they will be tackling an organic beer using hops that Gerrity found at Snake Hill, an organic farm near Cleveland. Gerrity would like to create a farmhouse beer, perhaps a bière de garde. He has been to the same farm for maple syrup and honey, which might surface in an upcoming beer.

Cole has also learned a lot by traveling in the United Kingdom and Germany with his Real Ale handbook in hand, drinking beer. First came a tasting at Bass, with lots of high-gravity, chewy beers. Then a malt plant, Pauls Malting, and pub after pub. He even found himself pouring beers at a CAMRA event in an old barn where he spent the night in an apple box. CAMRA, Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale, is a longstanding advocacy group for fresh, hand-crafted beer.

It was the old German towns with their copper kettles and dedication to doing one style well that endeared Cole to the German styles. The history of women doing the brewing and brewing being a central part of the culture are part of what attracts Cole to the craft.

He helped a guy move kegs in a pub in Dusseldorf. He met a man who took him to eight pubs in Bamberg and then toured Erste Kulmbacher Actienbrauerie, home of high-powered beer EKU 28. “No matter what time you were there, it always smelled like wort,” he says of Kulmbach.

In the Dusseldorf area he became intrigued with German ales, which he hadn’t been able to find in the United States. “Until about two years ago I couldn’t think of any bottled kölsch or alt.”

Back to Basics
Gerrity homebrews to please himself and recommends that other homebrewers do the same. “Experiment, but don’t try to emulate professionals brewers,” he says. “Brew to your own taste. A lot of homebrewers take it too seriously. They don’t have the means to have that kind of control. Abandon that and brew what you like.”

For all their serious brewing systems and technical advice Cole and Gerrity brew because it’s fun. They get together, drink a bit, make a lot of high-gravity beer, and play darts on Cole’s new electronic dartboard in the basement. It’s all for the sake of professional development.

Issue: May 1999