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Just brew it
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Almost as soon as humans discovered agriculture, they started making beer. It’s not surprising -- grain was the first domesticated crop, and beer’s brewed from grain.

Fortunately, humankind didn’t stop with that glorious milestone. In spite of beer (or maybe because of it?), humans have carried forth, building and destroying civilizations, inventing automobiles and soaring into space.

But those ancient home brewers left a lingering legacy. The art of home brewing has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, and many a modern basement or garage houses its own home brewery.

There’s a local organization dedicated to home brewing. The Savannah Brewers League is a gregarious bunch that meets the first Wednesday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at (where else?) the Moon River Brewing Co. on Bay Street.

Chris Stovall, who’s been brewing since the mid-’90s, is president of the league. “I went to the bathroom one night and they did a hasty vote,” he jokes. “Apparently that’s the usual way it happens.”

A waste-water engineer by day, Stovall does lots of fermentation projects. Using fermentation to make beer is a great way to relax. “It’s very enjoyable and a nice hobby,” Stovall says. “It’s definitely something interesting to talk about.”

The Savannah Brewer’s League has about 30 active members, and at least 20 of them typically show up at the meetings. “The club has been together since 1993 when the home brewing law was changed in Georgia,” Stovall says. “Before then, it was illegal.”

Until last year, the state banned the sale of any beer with more than 6 percent alcohol content. Ironically, this spurred the growth of home brewing as folks decided to brew stronger beer on their own.

“Now they’ve opened it up so you can buy up to 14 percent beer,” Stovall says. “But it’s still cheaper to make your own, and it’s better.”

Home brew is more flavorful than commercial beer. “I use a lot of spices when I make beer,” Stovall says. “I use a lot of coriander seed and orange peel.”

The league sponsors a yearly brewing competition. “We also hold impromptu competitions,” Stovall says. “We also brew mead and have a mead contest that’s comes up in February. A lot of guys in the group think mead is their specialty.”

Mead is a type of wine made from honey. Depending on how it’s brewed, Stovall says, mead can taste like a first-class Chardonnay or the bottom of a barrel of hooch.

Beer or mead, the league is a dedicated bunch. “It’s a good group,” Stovall says. “You make friends every time we meet.”

Can you ever have too much beer? Federal and state laws regarding brewing don’t always agree.

“Under federal law, you can brew 100 gallons per person or 200 gallons per household per year,” says Roger Carson, a real estate appraiser who has been home brewing for about three years. “In Georgia, you can brew only 50 gallons.”

Brew more than that, and you’re subject to a state excise tax. Five gallons of beer equals about two cases.

“Beer can stay fresh up to six months,” Carson says. “We like to drink home brew within 90 days.”

Beer has played an important role in the nation’s history. “Thomas Jefferson had a recipe for beer and George Washington had a recipe for beer,” Carson says.

At one point in human history, brewing was seen as a mystical practice. “They took grape juice and left it out and it turned into wine,” Carson says. “They didn’t understand how it happened.”

According to Carson, the typical brewer in the United States is over the age of 45 and a professional, typically employed in a science or math field. He says attending league meetings is “like going back to high school.”

“Some of these guys really have a passion for brewing,” Carson says. “One member decided to make strawberry wine, and when a guy gave him the strawberries, he was a like a little kid.”

Brewing involves a five-step chemical process known as zymurgy. (Brewers are therefore “zymurgists.”)

Malted barley is soaked in hot water to release the malt sugars, then the malt sugar solution is boiled with hops for seasoning. The solution is cooled and yeast is added to begin fermentation.

The yeast ferments the sugars, releasing CO2 and ethyl alcohol. When the main fermentation is complete, the beer is bottled with a little bit of added sugar to provide the carbonation.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But league members say brewing can be as simple or complex as the brewer wants it to be.

Members of the Savannah Brewing League love to experiment. “There are recipes galore on how to make different types of beer,” Carson says.

“The fun part is when you have a brew where you can take the recipe and move it around,” he says. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, people home-brewed because they couldn’t get the style of beer they wanted, so they brewed it themselves.”

The Savannah Brewers League is the only group of its kind in this area. “People come in from Sun City, Bluffton to Brunswick, and over from Statesboro,” Carson says. “We had one guy who came from New Jersey.”

Cleanliness is next to Godliness in home brewing. “One of the keys is to keep everything antiseptic so bacteria doesn’t fight with the yeast for food,” Carson says. “I just use Clorox. I sanitize everything to make sure it is clean.”

The beer is placed in a container called a carboy to ferment. “Most say the window of opportunity is November to March,” Carson says.

Jerry Lentini is one of the league’s younger members. “In my opinion, a lot of the beer that’s commercially brewed is of a lesser quality than what I can make myself,” he says.

“I definitely like experimenting. I like different styles,” Lentini says. “I don’t know too many people who do this. I think it definitely takes a certain kind of mindset to be good at it. After a while, you get the feel for what ingredients to use.”

Klugh Kennedy began brewing beer because he likes to cook. He recently won Best of Show in the league’s annual competition, the Bay Street Bash, with his Sour Flanders Broun, named Alison Peche.

This Belgian beer has a reddish gold color. “I used peaches to flavor it,” Kennedy says. “It’s pretty tasty.

“I’m a pharmacist, and brewing is half-way between pharmacy and cooking. I can never follow a recipe. That means I can’t reproduce a beer that has turned out good,” Kennedy says. “I do take notes and keep a log.”

Fellow league members say Kennedy is by far the best brewer in their bunch. But he says his first experience was a disaster.

“The first beer I made was made with my father, from a kit,” Kennedy says. “We followed the directions exactly, including adding several pounds of corn sugar. It tasted terrible.”

Fortunately, Kennedy has improved since then. “Once you learn how, you can brew beer better than any you can buy,” he says.

“You can even brew things you can’t find in Georgia,” Kennedy says. “The best beers I’ve ever tasted are home brewed beers.”

Lentini and Kennedy both agree that light is the enemy of good beer.

“That’s why homebrewers use dark brown bottles,” says Lentini.

“There’s a word for what happens when beer gets too much light,” says Kennedy. “We say it’s ‘lightstruck.’”

Kennedy says when a beer tastes “skunky,” it’s usually a direct result of exposure to sunlight.

“The light causes the same kind of chemical reaction a skunk does when it makes its scent,” he says. “That’s why it’s called skunky beer.”

John Findeis began home brewing when he moved to Savannah in 1968 to teach at Armstrong Atlantic State University. He’s a charter member of the Savannah Brewers League.

“You couldn’t buy beer supplies here then,” Findeis says. “We would go visit relatives in Chicago every summer and I would buy supplies there.”

At one point, Findeis dropped out of the league for a while because the Harley Owners Group met the same night. (A busy man with a wide range of interests, he is also a beekeeper.)

Findeis doesn’t experiment as much as some of the other members do. “I’m more of a recipe person,” he says. “I’m brewing a batch now. I buy extract and heat it up and put it in water in a carboy, then let it ferment for a number of days or weeks. It comes out pretty good.

“Compared to brand beers, home brew tastes better,” he says. “But you do have to develop a taste for it.”

When making a presentation on lager at a league meeting, Findeis prefaced his remarks with some anecdotes.

“It was the accepted practice in Babylonia 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride”s father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink,” Findeis said.

“Mead is a honey beer, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the ‘honey month’ -- or what we know today as the ‘honeymoon’.”

Findeis says that before thermometers were invented, brewers would dip a thumb or finger into the mix to find the right temperature for adding yeast. If the mix was too cold, the yeast wouldn’t grow, but if it was too hot, the yeast would die. This practice has given us the expression “rule of thumb.”

Another popular phrase also originated with alcohol. “In English pubs, ale is ordered by pints and quarts,” Findeis says. “So in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them to mind their own ‘pints and quarts’ and settle down. It’s where we get the phrase ‘mind your Ps and Qs’.”

Findeis claims beer was the reason the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. “It’s clear from the Mayflower’s log that the crew didn’t want to waste beer looking for a better site,” he says.

“The log goes on to state that the passengers ‘were hastened ashore and made to drink water that the seamen might have the more beer.’”

Along with beer comes another familiar practice -- the telling of beer jokes. Findeis has a good one.

“Two Irishmen were adrift in a life boat following a dramatic escape from a burning freighter. While rummaging through the boat’s provisions, one of the men stumbled across an old lamp. Secretly hoping that a genie would appear, he rubbed the lamp vigorously.

“To the amazement of the castaways, a genie did come forth. This particular genie, however, stated that he could only deliver one wish, not the standard three. Without giving much thought to the matter the man blurted out, ‘Make the entire ocean into beer!’

“The genie clapped his hands with a deafening crash, and immediately the entire sea turned into the finest brew ever sampled by mortals. Simultaneously, the genie vanished.

“Only the gentle lapping of beer on the hull broke the stillness as the men considered their circumstances. One man looked disgustedly at the other whose wish had been granted.

“After a long, tension-filled moment, he spoke: ‘Nice going idiot! Now we’re going to have to pee in the boat!’”

Tall tales and jokes aside, members of the Savannah Brewers League say it’s all about the taste.

“I’ve made beer that was good as anything on the market,” Carson says. “I don’t hit a home run every time, but when I do, it’s comparable to anything I’ve ever had.”

The Savannah Brewers League holds regular meetings the first Wednesday of the month at 7:30 p.m. at the Moon River Brewing Co. on Bay Street downtown.

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