Beer is near and dear to many: some pursue it in its domestic six-packmode, some in its import incarnations, some in drafts pulled at micro-breweries.
Then there are those, people like Kevin Verble of Orange, who will settle for nothing less than making it themselves. Brewing beer--high quality ales--at home has been his hobby for nearly a decade. "I started back then just because I liked beer," he said.
Not surprisingly, he likes it now more than ever since he's learned to fine-tune the flavor. Brewing at home has been legal for more than 15 years, but it has been more recently that home brewing has really caught on. It is a phenomenon that seems linked to the corresponding growth in popularity of imported beers and micro-breweries.
Entries more than doubled this year for the brewing contest at the Orange County Fair, a fact some say testifies to the rising popularity of home brewing. Last year there were 115 entries, contrasted with 267 this year. "I think home brewing is definitely on the rise," said Tim Higman, organizer of the fair competition. "We also had more entries because we advertised in the two national magazines that cater to home brewers."
Higman said he was overwhelmed by the number of entries: The judging, which was supposed to take one day, took four. And that was with 30 judges.
Many say the explosion of micro-breweries in the Pacific Northwest has added to the increase in home brewing. The legalization of home brewing in 1978 was the start of the movement, according to Dana Jordan, manager of Fun Fermentations, a beer- and winemaking supply store in Orange.
"It's really been on the rise for the last four or five years. It wasn't legal for such a long time that it's taken awhile for it to catch on," he said.
The interest in home brewing has spawned a number of businesses that cater to brewers' needs. Some are home-run operations, such as the Brews Brothers of Lake Forest, which sells supplies by mail order and provides phone consultations. There are specialty publications, clubs and computer bulletin boards dedicated to the subject.
Home brewers often get launched using starter kits, which cost $50 and up and contain everything needed for a batch of beer except the pot to cook it in and bottles to store the beer. Part of the attraction of home brewing is the relatively low cost of the equipment and the ease of the process.
Batches of beer are usually brewed in five-gallon measurements, which yield about four dozen 12-ounce bottles of beer. The process varies slightly depending on the type of beer being made. For an ale, the most popular type of beer for beginners, the process takes a few hours.
One way that home brewers can evaluate their beer, in addition to the views of friends and family, is to have it judged by a beer club.
These regional clubs, which are part of a national network, often host competitions. A few years back, Verble won an award for his wheat beer. He also placed first in that category at this year's fair. "Winning competitions is rewarding," he said. "But even better is having your friends ask for more."
Verble said both he and his wife enjoy home brew; he makes so much, in fact, that he has periodic parties in which friends can sample the current batch while watching the next being made. "It's a lot of fun. People get a kick out of seeing the beer made," he said.
Fun, taste and personal satisfaction are the reasons most people get involved in home brewing. "It's partially the challenge and also just something fun," said Doug Williams of South Laguna, who has been brewing for about two years. "And it's the creativity; everyone has a little creativity in them, and this is a good way of getting it out."
Another attraction to home brewers is the ability to brew award-winning beers as a novice. A majority of the first-place winners at this year's Orange County Fair were people who had been brewing for only a year or two.
Williams has brewed for little more than a year and took first place in the stout competition at the fair. "I did a sweet stout that had more of a chocolaty, malt taste compared to some of the others," he said.
Home brewing is also a relatively safe procedure--the most common accidents are boil-overs and a few exploding bottles. The boil-overs and smell from home brewing has found many hobbyists banished to the garage by family. Williams began brewing on a propane stove in his driveway after his wife kicked him out of the kitchen.
Verble had a more peculiar problem a few years ago when he was boiling some brew in his garage. "Neighbors saw the flames and called the fire department," he said. "A few of the firemen were very serious and told me to I had to stop. But a couple of them said if I put up a barrier in front of the stove, people wouldn't be able to see the brew from outside. That's what I did."