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Craft beer aficionado enjoys the challenge of home brewing

Home brewer Jeff Smith adds malt to heated water as he begins brewing process with mashing, converting the starch in the
Home brewer Jeff Smith adds malt to heated water as he begins brewing process with mashing, converting the starch in the grains into sugar, as he makes 10 gallons of pale ale in the garage at his home near West Liberty on Friday August 28, 2020. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)
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Despite growing up around beer — his dad owned a tavern in Dubuque for many years — Jeff Smith didn’t really think about it much until he was an adult.

“Looking back, it was odd that I wasn’t interested in it, but I just wasn’t,” said Smith, 56, of West Liberty.

Now, he’s not only brewing his own beer, but he’s winning state and national club awards with some of his home brews.

HOBBY IN THE MAKING

Brewing beer was largely illegal in the United States until 1978, when then-President Jimmy Carter signed a bill allowing individuals to produce up to 200 gallons of beer for use by family and friends. Until that time, brewing anything with more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume wasn’t allowed.

It was a few years after this change in the law that Smith was in college and started hearing stories of people doing their own versions of home brewing.

“You always wondered how good could it be,” he said.

Jump forward to a conversation in 2011 when Smith learned one of his co-workers at Quaker Oats was heavily involved in home brewing.

“He’d been doing it quite a while, and I had no idea,” Smith said. “I kept talking to him about it. I thought it was pretty cool that you could make your own beer at home.”

That conversation led to Smith sitting in on a few brew sessions with his colleague and eventually starting his own brewing.

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“One of the things people really need to consider is what all is involved,” he said. “I thought this would be interesting but didn’t know what I needed and what it was going to cost.”

Though there were some initial start-up costs for proper equipment, “it wasn’t real expensive,” Smith said. After one gets started, ongoing costs are mostly limited to the ingredients needed to brew.

FINDING THE RIGHT BREW

For his first batch, Smith used an extract brewing process, using a malt extract — a dry powder made from barley. He made 5 gallons with that initial batch — and that was the last time he used extracts.

“You don’t have as much control over the end product as you do when you use all-grain brewing,” Smith said. “You can make an excellent extract beer, but you’re limited.”

His colleague was doing all-grain brews, “and I was impressed with the stuff he had made,” Smith said.

The all-grain batches involved getting some extra equipment, he said, but it ended up being less expensive in the long run. And a bit more fun.

“It’s turned into a real family hobby,” Smith said. “I brew the beer and my wife, Melba, is the taster. We brew and share with family and friends.

“We had our first Oktoberfest party and invited some friends and family — about 60 people. I had seven different beers I had brewed, each distinctively different: a German stout, Belgian ale, Irish stout and a few others,” he said.

He started off brewing 5 gallons at a time. As his hobby grew, so did his production. After five years, Smith started brewing 10-gallon batches.

THE PROCESS

Home brewing is not for the impatient. Smith said the actual brew process — from turning on the burners to cleaning up — can take about eight hours. And don’t expect to drink the beer right away.

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“Usually, from grain to glass, it takes about three weeks,” he said. “There’s 10 days in fermentation, then transferring it to the keg, then carbonating it. I don’t try to speed up the process — I set it at a certain temperature and pressure and let it ‘work’ for a week.”

Even then, he said, some beers need to age. A Belgian straw ale he took to the Iowa State Fair aged in the keg for six months. That brew went on to win first place in the style category and ended up on the Best in Show table.

“Some beers just take more aging than others,” he said.

Smith’s home brew station is set up in the third stall of his three-stall garage, but he said other brewers have their operations set up in their basements or spare rooms.

“Your heat source doesn’t matter. You’re just having to deal with steam,” he said. “If you’re brewing inside, you have to make sure you have a fan and an open window.”

LIKE-MINDED CLUB

Early on, Smith connected with a local club — THIRSTY, or The Honorable Iowa River Society of Talented Yeastmasters — in Iowa City. The club has helped him expand both his brewing knowledge and skill.

“You can only talk to your friends so much about brewing beer before their eyes start to glaze over,” he said. “They’re more interested in tasting the beer.”

Through the THIRSTY home brew club, he said, he’s able to meet fellow brewers, exchange ideas and feedback on brews, and learn about upcoming competitions. A few of the THIRSTY members are certified beer judges with the Beer Judge Certification Program — something Smith said helps members understand what a judge may be looking for in different competitions.

“They can give you some recommendations on the kinds of malt to use, for instance, or other ways to improve your brew,” he said.

“It’s really trying to get better at what I’m doing,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about whether it tastes good.”

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To learn more about the Iowa City home brew club, go online to thirstyhomebrew.org or visit the website for the Cedar Rapids’ home brew club, cedarrapidsbrewingsociety.org.

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