All across Ventura County lurk practitioners of the ancient art of zymurgy. Gathering in the backrooms of local establishments, they revel in their craft and discuss the progress of their latest machinations.
While this may sound insidious, it isn’t. Zymurgy is not some sort of primordial sorcery. Rather, it is the study of fermentation, particularly as it relates to brewing beer. More commonly known as homebrewing, the hobby has gained popularity as a result of America’s growing appetite for craft beers. Despite the recent infatuation, the art itself is as old as human civilization.
Historians estimate that beer was being made as early as 9500 B.C., when Neolithic cultures began farming cereal. Reliefs in ancient Egyptian tombs depict rudimentary brewing processes in use as far back as 2400 B.C., while the Sumerians revered a goddess of beer, Ninkasi, to whom a hymn was written around 1800 B.C. This “Hymn to Ninkasi” doubled as both a prayer and brewing recipe.
Much later, brewing became an integral part of colonial life, owing to the fact that harmful pathogens could not survive or flourish in beer as they could in water. In 1587, the first batch of beer was brewed at Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony in Virgina. One of the primary reasons the Pilgrims decided to settle at Plymouth Rock in 1620, well north of their intended destination, was because they had exhausted their supply of beer.
Our Founding Fathers also had an interest in brewing. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were all homebrewers — though Martha Jefferson oversaw much of the production, churning out 15 gallons of beer, made from ingredients grown on the Monticello plantation, every two weeks.
The enactment of Prohibition in 1919, however, stifled the growth of homebrewing in the United States for the next 60 years. When the 21st Amendment was passed in 1933, a clerical oversight resulted in the words “and beer” being omitted from the statute that had legalized home winemaking. It wasn’t until 1978, when President Jimmy Carter signed HR 1337, a bill that exempted homebrewed beer from taxation, that aspiring zymurgists were finally allowed to resume perfecting their craft.
That same year saw the founding of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) by Charlie Matzen and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing author Charlie Papazian. Today, the AHA boasts more than 37,000 members nationwide and estimates that more than 1 million Americans are homebrewers. Among them is President Barack Obama, whose aptly named White House Honey Ale is made with honey harvested from beehives kept on the South Lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. President Obama began brewing in early 2011, when he purchased a brewing kit out of his own pocket.
Homebrew kits are a vital component of the fledgling homebrewer’s arsenal; they contain everything necessary for brewing and bottling a batch of beer, such as a fermenter, a bottling bucket, various hoses and brushes and a device for capping bottles.
One of the most affordable kits available to the novice homebrewer is the Mr. Beer system. Despite its ease of use and minimal impact on one’s wallet, the Mr. Beer kit does have limitations, namely a two-gallon capacity, which many homebrewers — once bitten by the homebrew bug — quickly grow out of.
Instead, most opt for a larger version, capable of tackling an unofficial standard homebrew batch size of five gallons. The cost is slightly more than Mr. Beer’s, but assuming that those new to the hobby can supply their own brew pot and empty bottles, a mere $120 (give or take) for a kit and ingredients can swing wide the doors of endless beer-making possibilities.
With the proper tools in hand, the process of brewing is remarkably easy. The AHA claims that anyone who can successfully cook a can of soup can make delicious, drinkable beer at home. In truth, it really is that simple — the most difficult part of the process can be the waiting required for the magic to happen.
Many introductory-level ingredient kits include four basic components: malt extract, hops, yeast and corn sugar. The extract, a concentrated syrup of malt sugars, is boiled with water. During the boil, hops, the cone-shaped flowers of the perennial Humulus lupulus plant, are added to provide bitterness and prevent spoilage. This mixture, called wort, is allowed to cool and then poured into a fermenter — typically a large food-grade plastic bucket or glass bottle — whereupon yeast is added. The yeast then converts the sugars from the wort into alcohol, a process that takes roughly 10-14 days. Afterward, the fermented wort is mixed with corn sugar and placed in bottles to carbonate. In a week or two, the beer is then ready to drink.
As easy as this sounds, reaping the rewards of homebrewed beer can still seem a daunting task to those new to the craft. Thankfully, there are a number of resources available to the novice zymurgist. Aside from a plethora of books, articles and online forums dedicated to homebrewing, local homebrew shops often offer classes that cater to every experience level.
Homebrew Express in Simi Valley is one such location. After 14 years in the U.S. Marines, UCSB graduate and Simi Valley native Jeff Graves opened his shop late last year and has been hosting regular wine-, cheese- and beer-making classes ever since. The classes, which cost $25 and last about two hours, cover every aspect of the brewing process.
“We go over all the ingredients and equipment that you use, how to use it, and how you put it together,” said Graves. “We walk through a mock batch. So, we go through the entire process from start, to bottling and drinking, minus the wait time.”
Surf Brewery in Ventura also holds brewing classes in addition to offering a fully stocked homebrew supply shop attached to the tasting room.
“From the beginning, I insisted on including a home brew shop in the business model,” said Doug Mason, one of the co-founders and brewers for Surf. “It is a great way to expose existing home brewers to Surf’s brews while promoting home brewing education and interest in the hobby. Many customers may not have even know that brewing beer at home was possible until they saw the homebrew shop in the brewery tasting room.”
They may also not be aware of another resource lurking inside Surf Brewery, one that may be the most valuable of all. Each month, members of the Ventura Independent Beer Enthusiasts (VIBE) gather in a storeroom at the back of the brewery to discuss that month’s featured beer style, trade samples of homebrewed beer, and — most importantly — share their knowledge.
Photo by: T. Christian Gapen
Anacapa Brewing Company’s head brewer Jason Coudray
gets his equipment cleaned and ready to transfer brew.
Homebrew clubs are where many professional brewers get their start. Mason started VIBE in 2007 with several friends, including current VIBE president Dan Baker. The AHA estimates that there are currently almost 1,500 homebrew clubs in the United States. In addition to VIBE, three are active in Ventura County: the Ojai Beer Barons, Thousand Oaked Homebrewers and Brew Club Simi Valley.
Behind VIBE, Thousand Oaked Homebrewers is the longest-running club, having celebrated its two-year anniversary last month. Club president Todd Slater is head brewer at Sundowner Brewery, a nano-brewery inside Wade’s Wines in Westlake Village.
The best thing a novice homebrewer can do? According to Slater, it’s joining the local club.
“Find a club or somebody that knows about it so that they can help you out,” said Slater. “Homebrewers are extremely friendly and helpful and everybody loves to talk and share their craft.”
That same level of congeniality was apparent at the July meeting of Brew Club Simi Valley, where just slightly more than a dozen homebrewers gathered in front of Homebrew Express to present their homebrews, discuss their processes and garner advice from more experienced members.
Among those sharing samples were Brandon Belshin and Jason McSherry, both of Simi Valley. Belshin, a recovery specialist for the U.S. Army who plans to start his own brewery in the next year or two, shares an Irish Rred. It was his first attempt at brewing that style and the results were well-received.
Photo by: T. Christian Gapen
Surf Brewery head brewer Chas Cloud.
“Everything just went perfect with it,” Belshin said.
McSherry brought a sample of one of the first beers he’d ever made, a hefeweizen. Having only been brewing since earlier this year, McSherry became interested in the hobby after a container of apple juice accidentally fermented in his refrigerator. The result was a rudimentary, but quite drinkable hard cider.
“It was a pretty cool experience,” McSherry admitted.
As samples of the hefeweizen are passed around, members quickly strike up a discussion about the ideal way to add malt extract during a boil. The conversation is constructive, engaging and entirely without condescension. It’s exactly the sort of exchange that club president Brian Young, a detective with the Simi Valley Police Department, wants to see.
“Jeff [Graves] and I wanted a club that was an easygoing, non-pretentious environment where brewers of all skill levels and experience could meet and talk shop,” said Young. “We wanted a place where everyone comes together to improve, not brag about how awesome their beer is. I think we have achieved this so far, and we intend to keep the atmosphere of the club this way.”
In addition to camaraderie, eligibility to compete in club-only competitions and discounts at local homebrew shops, membership in a homebrew club also provides the opportunity to join the California Homebrewers Association (CHA).
Founded in 1991, the CHA hosts the annual Southern California Homebrewers Festival, which has been held at Lake Casitas in Ojai since 2008. The festival is a two-day affair where homebrewers from all across the state gather to share their love of the craft, listen to live music, attend lectures by brewing experts and sample more than 800 varieties of homebrew.
“It’s a remarkably unique experience,” said Mike Sunny, president of the CHA. “There’s nothing like it anywhere.”
The festival isn’t open to everyone, however, entrance is granted only to CHA members. More exclusive still, CHA memberships are only offered through participating homebrewing clubs.
While admission to the CHA’s self-proclaimed “homebrewer’s dream” is an incentive to take up the hobby, there’s really just one basic motivation that drives all homebrewers, affiliated or not.
It all comes down to making good beer.
With the right equipment, some patience and a little know-how, making good beer — beer that you and fellow aficionados will enjoy drinking — is easier than you might think.
“With homebrewing it is very possible to create beer that is every bit as good as, or better than, any commercial beer that you can buy,” said Mason. “It is a hobby that is not only enjoyable during the actual acts of recipe creation and brewing, but rewarding when enjoying the final product and sharing with friends.”
Take one down, pass it around
From home brewing to brewery in VC
by Justin Formanek
Jason Coudray admits that Ventura County’s palate is still evolving.
“The beer culture here is still kind of in the budding stage,” he said.
As head brewer at Anacapa Brewing Company, Coudray is keenly aware of which styles of beer are the most popular and which aren’t. Sour ale, which is made by intentionally allowing bacteria to invade the beer during the brewing process, is of the latter category. It is, says Coudray, an acquired taste that has gained favor in more metropolitan areas like Los Angeles. Venturans, however, are a bit more skeptical.
Still, Coudray remains undaunted.
“I’m doing my part to slowly try and convert them,” he said.
But it isn’t easy.
According to the Brewer’s Association (www.brewersassociation.org), craft breweries and brewpubs like Anacapa sold more than 400 billion gallons of beer in 2012. Despite this, the top five-selling beers in the United States last year were all light lagers such as Budweiser, Coors and Miller.
America’s fondness for the style allowed mass producers to dominate the post-prohibition marketplace. By the end of the 1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies nationwide, the fewest in American history.
The legalization of homebrewing in 1978, however, breathed new life into the industry. Those that dabbled in beer-making in garages and basements soon started expanding their operations. The 1980s saw the emergence of several prominent craft breweries, such as Anchor Brewing Company and Sierra Nevada, signaling the dawn of an American beer renaissance.
Since then, the industry has continued to explode. The Brewer’s Association reported that there are more than 2,400 craft breweries operating nationwide. California alone boasts a staggering 316 of these, more than the second- and third-ranked states — Washington and Colorado, respectively — combined.
It’s this abundance of craft beer makers that, Coudray says, is the key to getting people to branch out and try new beers.
“We need to have variety so someone can go from the light American lager to the German-style Kolsch, to an American-style blonde, to the American ambers, then the English brown, then a stout, an IPA,” he said. “It’s a web of concoctions.”
Ventura County brewers are doing their part. Several local breweries have opened their doors in the past few years, offering selections of beers as flavorful and varied as the neighborhoods they represent.
Photo by: T. Christian Gapen
Jason Coudray scoops some of the barley that goes into his local brew.
Founded by a collection of self-proclaimed “homebrewers, surfers and beer lovers,” Surf Brewery in Ventura serves an assortment of L.A. County and California State Fair award-winning beers like the lighter-bodied Mondo’s Cream Ale, the pleasantly spicy and floral County Line Rye Pale Ale and the rich, malty Oil Piers Porter.
To date, Surf is the only brewery in the county to bottle and distribute their beers to local retailers. It also has a homebrew supply shop on premises, something co-founder Doug Mason insisted be included from the very beginning.
“Where else can you grab a pint of the freshest possible beer and enjoy it while shopping for your homebrew supplies?” said Mason.
Enegren Brewing Company in Moorpark also fields a selection of award-winning beers, namely the crisp, refreshing Golden Spur Saison and Valkyrie California Altbier, one of the brewery’s year-round offerings. For brothers Chris and Matt Enegren, brewing runs in the family.
“Back in the mid-1800s, the Enegrens’ relatives had a brewery in Sweden and they were known for their Baltic porter,” said co-founder Joe Nascenzi, adding that they plan to begin brewing a recipe based on this in the next month or two.
Additional options stand ready to reward craft beer aficionados willing to breach Ventura’s periphery. Sundowner Brewery in Westlake Village flanks the county’s south side, while a mile-long stretch of road in Agoura Hills is home to both Ladyface Ale Companie and the Lab Brewing Company.
To the north lies the Island Brewing Company, a Carpinteria landmark since 2001. Nearby, Santa Barbara offers a robust selection of craft breweries. The Brewhouse, Telegraph Brewing, Santa Barbara Brewing Company, and Union Ale are all located downtown.
Institution Ale Company recently opened in Camarillo, a 2,900-square-foot brewery off Pleasant Valley Road, as father Roger and sons Ryan and Shaun Smith are now serving an assortment of American-style ales.
There are even more breweries on the way. The local craft beer pipeline is bursting with homebrewers and non-commercial nano-breweries poised to make the transition to full-scale operations, of which Lil’ Man Brewing in Ventura is just one example.
“I’m shooting for two years as far as having a brewery that the public can enjoy,” said owner Maurice Garcia.
And the public is thirsty.
Anacapa Brewing Company owner Danny Saldana admits that he can barely keep more popular beers in stock. House favorite Pierpont IPA takes nearly a month to make and often sells out in little more than a week. It’s a phenomenon that leads Saldana to a single irrefutable truth.
“People like good, handcrafted beer,” he said. “They like local beer.”
Breweries and Brewpubs in Ventura County
Institution Ale Company
438 Calle San Pablo
Enegren Brewing Company
680 Flinn Ave.
Ojai Beverage Company
655 E. Ojai Ave.
BJs Restaurant & Brewery
461 W Esplanade Drive
Draughts Restaurant and Bar
398 N Moorpark Road
Anacapa Brewing Company
472 E. Main St.
4561 Market St., #A
Lab Brewing Company
30105 Agoura Road
Ladyface Ale Companie
29281 Agoura Road
30961 Agoura Rd
For more information about Ventura County’s homebrew clubs, or to join, please contact the following:
Brew Club Simi Valley
Contact Brian Young at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.brewclubsimivalley.com
Ojai Beer Barons
Email email@example.com, or visit www.ojaibeerbarons.com
Thousand Oaked Homebrewers
Contact Todd Slater at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.toaked.com
Ventura Independent Beer Enthusiasts (VIBE)
Contact Dan Baker at email@example.com, or visit www.vibebeer.com