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Fun Is Brewing : At Hamilton Gregg, you mix and bottle your own beer while staff takes care of cleanup.

October 14, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For all the talk of body and aroma--lofty terms that brew enthusiasts employ--beer retains a rudimentary appeal.

It is likely your first alcohol of choice, a bicycle with training wheels that will carry you into the world of margaritas and martinis. It is the stuff you drink from the bottle, in large quantities.

Beer is fun.

Therein lies the charm of Hamilton Gregg Brewworks, a refurbished storefront off the Strand in Hermosa Beach. This do-it-yourself brewery, a rarity in the United States, offers amateurs access to stainless-steel kettles, hydraulic bottlers and a temperature-controlled fermentation room--equipment that smacks of gourmet beer.

But Hamilton Gregg avoids a highbrow ambience. Customers arrive in threes and fours, dressed casually for the sweet mugginess inside the place. They seem as eager to converse as to brew. And they tend to laugh rather than fuss while stirring the malty wort with long wooden paddles.

"You come to have a good time with your friends," said Richard Wong of Lakewood, watching over a nascent batch of Halloween pumpkin-flavored brew.

His compatriot, Steve Siedentop, explained: "This is a party place."

The brewery charges $100 or more for such frivolity. For that price, it provides both guidance and a choice of 45 recipes ranging from common American lagers to more expensive porters and ales.

Hamilton Gregg opened in July, 1993, the creation of three partners inspired by the popularity of "U-Brew-Its" in Canada. Since then, customers have cooked up some 2,500 kettles, or almost 37,000 six-packs, on the premises. That amounts to a lot of partying--and a lot of work.

At least two hours of measuring, pouring and stirring go into each 8 1/2-gallon batch. Brewers return after two weeks to fill and label their 48 22-ounce bottles.

Hamilton Gregg's owners try to make such tasks enjoyable. They want to attract more than just home-brew fanatics. So they have designed the 1,500-square-foot brewery like a nightclub, sleek and industrial, with brick walls and rock music playing from stereo speakers.

They have also emphasized a hands-on experience, promising customers a chance to scoop grain, turn steam valves and operate noisy equipment.

"Like playing in your father's workshop," says Patricia Spiritus, an aptly named co-owner. "You can play with all the toys. You can make a mess."

Not surprisingly, men comprise the majority of customers. On a weeknight, three women look out of place bottling their beer. Larissa Funtas explains that she and her friends first stumbled in on a Friday evening, mistaking the brewery for a bar.

"We were, like, why isn't anyone in here?" she says.

But the notion of brewing appealed to them. They chose a recipe for a wheat beer with a hint of raspberry.

"It feels like we're back in home economics class," Funtas says.

It can also feel daunting to a beginner, what with all the kettles and kegs, the scales and metal bowls. But Brian Wright and Ryan Aikens, two of the brewery's seven employees, specialize in nudging first-timers through the process.

"Do you like beer?" Brian asks. Receiving an affirmative reply, he smiles. "Then I like you."

The first step involves selecting a recipe. Most have been copied from well-known beers. Others were devised through the staff's tinkering.

With a decision made, the necessary grains are measured out. Hamilton Gregg's recipe for Oktoberfest beer includes a type of hops known as Hallertau, which sounds like an unfortunate physical condition. But it tastes harmless: Customers are encouraged to sample, whether it be a dry grain pellet or the brown brewer's concentrate, a syrupy mixture of barley and water that has gone through the mashing process.

These ingredients are poured at varying intervals into a steamy mix--the wort--and stirred. At the same time, customers swig from recent batches or store-bought beer they have brought along.

"The tough part is staying sober," says Mike Davy, who visits regularly with a friend, Lester Davidson.

The two men tried home brewing but disliked the mess. At Hamilton Gregg, employees clean up so customers are free to joke and to drink. Davy and Davidson have brought crackers.

"To clear the palate," Davidson explains.

In and around the conversation, not to mention the quaffing, the wort is prepared. Brewer's yeast is added and the batch is poured into a plastic vessel for fermentation and aging.

Legend holds that the Egyptian god Osiris first taught humans to brew. His was a myth of treachery, fratricide and dismemberment, activities which may or may not be readily associated with beer.

Spiritus offers more cogent trivia. The term "ale," she explains, is linked to the word "bridal" and derives from the English tradition of toasting the bride with beer. The wooden paddle used to stir the wort is called a "rouser" after the term "rabble rouser."

Romance and fighting seem entirely appropriate. This much becomes evident in the labels that customers design for their concoctions.

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