Northfield, Minnesota’s Home Brewing Movement

With impending finals and graduation, all things are quickly coming to an end. I regret to inform you that this is the last part in Melina Lamer’s three-part series on green brewing. Thanks to Melina for sharing her experiences, ideas and writing. Here’s Melina…

So, what do you do if you find yourself in search of an adventure? Where can you put all your pent up desire for trial and error, creativity and beer? Homebrewing is where it is at! With so much to learn and discover about the world of craft beer, it is easy to become a hobby of sorts. Micro brews offer a lifestyle, a culture. Macro brews do too, but theirs usually involves red Solo cups and a funnel. If you are wondering what a craft culture looks like…you are in luck, because I wondered the same thing. Instead of reading an article to answer my questions, however, I went exploring in my college hometown of Northfield, Minnesota.

As it turns out, brewers are the biggest geeks of all, and some of them may even work at your college…for food management, or something of the likes. My local beer geek guide is Randy Clay, an acquaintance/friend I made my freshman year in college and allegedly a pretty skilled homebrewer. After shooting him a quick email, he flagged me down later that day in the cafeteria to enthusiastically agree to my request. And just like that, Randy and I were teamed up to homebrew a local and organic beer. Through his patience, time and advice, I found that collaboration is what underscores the homebrewing movement, and ultimately the craft brewing movement.

Unlike a craft brewer, a homebrewer cannot sell their product due to the Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act), but with that comes a great sharing of ideas, enthusiasm for original and fresh brews and FREE BEER. Many towns, including little ol’ Northfield, have a homebrew club that get together and talk about recipes, contests and local events. Northfield’s club, the Milltown Mashers meets once a month and discuss certain topics over a beer or two (with occasional brew day get-togethers). They have even taught a “How to Homebrew” class at Just Food Co-op and the Contented Cow – both local businesses in Northfield.

Apart from local clubs, the American Homebrewers Association website is a fantastic one-stop source of information for homebrewers. It provides the basics including: homebrewing history, beer recipes, ingredients and recommended reading. It also provides the less basic, i.e. a list of national competitions, homebrewing rights, clubs, directories, scholarships and grants. My favorite thing to view on the site is “Homebrewing-101,” a simple video about brewing your own beer for the first time. It was pretty cool to watch both before and after I spent six weeks making my very own first brew.

Randy was useful, not only in offering his house, equipment and resources, but also in donating his very own ingredients. When I told him that I wanted to make a beer, I had only three restrictions: we had to purchase our ingredients locally (Minnesota), the ingredients had to be USDA certified organic, and our masterpiece could not be a hoppy, APA or IPA-like beer. Randy was super accommodating and resourceful; in fact, he had wanted to brew a local organic beer for sometime. He provided a recipe that he brewed once before without the local or organic ingredients – Maple Oat Stout.  I knew nothing about the qualities of a stout, but I knew that I loved beer, maple syrup and chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, so it had to be somewhat similar, right? Later that night, at The Happy Gnome in St. Paul, curious to try my taste at what I had just previously spent five hours brewing, I thankfully fell in love with the smooth, sweet, roasted coffee-like stout.

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If you recall, the four essential ingredients in any craft beer are: water, hops, barley and yeast, but in a Maple Oat Stout, there are two additional ingredients: grade B maple syrup and whole rolled oats. We took the water locally right from Randy’s tap, so that was easy to source, as were the hops – Randy is pretty cool in that he grows his own hops right up the pillars stabilizing his deck. It is difficult to source grain because it could be coming from all over, but the barley we purchased was an organic blend from Northern Brewer out of Minneapolis. The yeast was another donation on Randy’s behalf that he had collected from a previous batch of beer. According to Seven Bridges Cooperative – a well-known certified organic brewing ingredient store out of California – there has yet to be found a supplier of truly USDA Certified organic brewing yeast. Many homebrewers culture their own yeast or pick up a used batch from their local brewers for free, so there is no significant demand for the manufacturing of an organic pack/vial. After fermentation and filtering out your beer, liquid yeast can be collected from the bottom of the brew bucket, and reused for up to five generations if you just store it in the fridge between uses. Technically, you could keep reusing and reusing yeast for as long as your little heart desires, but if you push it beyond five generations the risk for strand mutations and wrong flavor profiles is heightened.

The last two additional ingredients, organic oats and organic maple syrup, were purchased at Just Food Co-op in Northfield. The oats were processed at Whole Grain Milling Company out of Welcome, Minnesota, which is only two hours southwest of Northfield. Anderson’s Maple Syrup processed the maple syrup in Cumberland, Wisconsin. So, technically, the maple syrup was not originally sourced locally, however Wisconsin is my home state and Minnesota’s rival for football, so screw it; that is pretty darn local. The last thing I want to note about the syrup is that it is grade B, which is important because unless you are from Vermont, you may not know that there are three types of grades: Fancy, Grade A, and Grade B. Fancy maple syrup has a very delicate flavor and is what you would put on your ice cream. Grade A syrup is your most common table syrup because the flavor is more pronounced than the fancy grade. Grade B is a thick, robust, and dark syrup. If you kept cooking it, you would eventually end up with maple sugar. As you have probably already assumed, grade B is the best for cooking and is incredibly efficient at fermenting, so much so, that the yeast will subsequently eat a lot of the flavor.

Only four days later, and our beer had already gone through the complete fermentation phase. Typically, it takes two weeks for an ale and six weeks for a lager to ferment, but with our addition of maple syrup, the yeast had a lot of sugar to feed off of. With fermentation complete, it was time to taste our flat beer! Randy poured me a glass and we spent the next two hours bottling our imperfect perfection, listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on 89.3 The Current, and laughing over stories of Hunter S. Thompson. When I thought we were done, he handed me a colorful sheet of homemade printed labels to put on the cap of each bottle. Each bottle smiled up at me as I felt a unique sense of accomplishment. As it has been said, having learned and discovered so much about the world of craft beer, it is quite easy indeed for it to become a hobby of sorts.

I was sad to leave Randy’s house that Saturday afternoon, as I felt our short time as the brewsome twosome had come to an end. As I was leaving, he mentioned he was having a party at his house on May 4 to celebrate the annual National Homebrew Day, and that I was most welcome to attend. I gladly accepted Randy’s invitation and showed up two weekends later for the get together.

Kids were running through the grass, spirals of imagined squirt-gunned water lassoed through the air, and cheap scooters jumped sidewalk cracks. Parents, friends and local brewers from both the neighborhood and Milltown Mashers congregated in pockets of Randy’s open garage and driveway. Rain may have been the weather forecast, but the smiling faces of Northfield’s craft beer enthusiasts, promised an exciting afternoon of pints clinking and beer swishing. I ran into a couple of familiar faces who stopped by earlier in the month to ask Randy advice on brewing technique when we were both brewing in his garage. I also saw a lot of new friendly faces that I ended up reaching out to, in a last attempt to learn from and bond with local homebrewers. The party was a brewing success and I was more than thrilled to be a part of it.

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While driving back up Ole Avenue towards the St. Olaf campus, my eyes started to glisten as I thought of my past three years here, and the fourth finally coming to a close, in the town of “Cows, Colleges and Contentment.” I could sense it coming into freshman year, that this small little farm town would sway me, but I could not feel it until that moment, just driving up a familiar road. These past years have been filled with moments of clarity, friendship, romance, and a looming pile of textbooks, presentations, exams, and papers. And if I have learned anything, it is that firstly, college is not for the creating of solutions, it is for the making of confused and creative individuals ready to hit the ground running for a gamble at the workforce, which is what we Americans call life. But most importantly, I have learned that life is not actually about work or success; it is about enthusiasm, failure and community. Community is the glue to every individual, whether it is a spiritual community, athletic community or a homebrewing community. Community provides the necessary break from the so-called real world, but also provides a break within this world of work. Communities should create collaboration across all realms of life and promote service and happiness. In these communities there needs to be room for failure, because – like beer – life is about trial and error and if a community is instilling fear of failure, there will be no push for individual creativity and community growth. And lastly, ENTHUSIASM! Find your niche; honestly strive to attain happiness, not wealth. Go about your work enthusiastically, and in the end, you may just find another welcoming community full of knowledge and new adventures. Cheers!

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