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Beer : The New U-Brew School of Beer-Making


Following a recipe based on one first scratched in hieroglyphics some 7,000 years ago, I measured out two pounds of grain, ground it up, added nine gallons of water and waited.

Making beer, though it's as old as bread-baking, is these days a most precise art. To make it consistently well requires pristine equipment and, as Prof. Harold Hill might say, a cool head and a keen eye.

Many of those who decry the blandness of commercial American beer become home brewers, investing in specialized equipment and taking over some (or all) of the garage, carport or RV space.

But if you're unprepared for that kind of investment and still wish to explore the adventure of turning grain, hops and water into a sublime brew, you can now put your money where your mouth is and brew your own at a South Bay beer-making shop.

The Hamilton Gregg Brewworks, which opened July 1, offers adventuresome brewers a chance to see how beer is made. They then take home 48 (22-ounce) bottles--the equivalent of almost four cases--at a price not much higher than that of standard beers and even lower than that of some premium beers.

Located just off the Hermosa Beach Pier a block from the famed Lighthouse jazz club, the business catches the eye of dozens of curious boardwalk strollers who poke their heads into the doorway to see what's brewin' in the storefront operation.

At all hours of the day, but more often in the early evening, strolling couples pop in and look around at the six gleaming stainless-steel kettles, samples of past home brews, posters and other equipment.

Most merely browse; a few are fascinated with the idea of making their own beer and ask for particulars. Frequently, they return to brew some of their own. I did.

After I added the grain to the water at precisely 155 degrees, there was a 20-minute wait to gather the rest of the materials. I asked Anthony Gregg, one of the owners, exactly what kind of beer I was making.

"I think we have some that someone brewed last week," he said and went into the back. He poured me an ounce and a half of the same beer and asked if it was what I liked.

"I think I'd like it a bit more bitter--but maybe we'll leave the recipe alone this first time," I said, sounding as if I'd be back.

The rest of the beer-making process was simple. I added pitchers of syrupy grain extracts from a giant drum--some American extract (lighter in color and aroma) and some Continental extract (amber, more flavorful). I added some hops (Northern Brewer, which came in pellet form, and Cascade, which were fresh) and dextrose (corn sugar).

It all went into the kettle, which I then stirred with a huge wooden paddle--counterclockwise, so the trub (extraneous material, including the hops) would go to the center of the kettle. (If you stir clockwise, the matter would wind up on the outside of the drum and when you drained the tank, some would end up in the fermentation vessel.)

During the brewing process, brewers have 40 to 60 minutes to wait, and usually conversation begins.

"What are you brewing?" is the typical starter, and trades ("My beer for yours?") are commonplace.

Interestingly, this business didn't grow out of home brewing, which in the last decade has become quite a fad in California. Home brewers already know of the joys of boiling grain to extract its sugars, creating wort (pronounced wert)--the liquid into which will go the hops--and then adding yeast and fermenting the stuff until it's beer.

The brewworks is designed for people who know little or nothing about beer but want to learn, or those who simply want to make a beer or ale with more distinctiveness than standard American brews.

The benefits are that the producer can get beer in a wide range of styles and tell friends and neighbors it was hand-brewed. This means it's fresh, and with beer, the fresher the better. Patricia Spiritus, one of the owners of the brewworks, says that these products are best consumed within five weeks of production.

Price for this experience ranges from $80 for beer that would approximate American lagers such as Coors or Michelob to $120 for Ironman Barley Wine, a strong, near-dessert-style of brew. A comparable quantity of an American lager might sell for $60, while an equal amount of a super-premium such as Samuel Adams or an import like Heineken would be much more.

One of the attractions of this operation is the conviviality it generates. "People meet and they get to talking and one says he'd like to trade a few bottles of his beer for a few bottles of the other guy's," said Spiritus. "It's a place to meet people. A few people have started dating after meeting here, but we haven't been open long enough to host any weddings yet."

After the ingredients are mixed and brewed in a kettle, the liquid is transferred to a small tank where the fermentation takes place for about two weeks. After that, the brewer returns to the shop to bottle, cap and label the brew.

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