There’s more to home brewing beer than drinking it. This is a hobby that attracts like minds, and when like minds get together, they enjoy comparing their creations with other aficionados. But until just recently, that activity was an illegal one if home brewed beer was taken away from its original place of brewing.
For members of the Brewing Innovators and Enthusiasts of Rhinelander, that was reason enough to toast Gov. Scott Walker, who signed a bill this past week in the Northwoods allowing brewers to transport and share home-brewed products outside their homes. They also had another reason to celebrate this advancement, and did so at the home of Denny and Laurie McGill. Denny, who is an enthusiastic member of the club, received a unique Christmas gift from his sister and nephew this past Christmas-an original 53-gallon wooden-staved barrel that was used to distill whisky at the Jack Daniels Distillery in Tennessee.
Denny’s nephew Chris King works there, and he managed to procure the barrel, which was given to Denny last Christmas. It eventually made its way to his home outside Sugar Camp, where he decided to fill it with home brewed beer. But he needed help, and so he recruited his pals and fellow beer enthusiasts from the Innovators Club.
“I thought it would be fun to brew a special batch of beer just for this barrel,” said Denny. “It’s a type of beer that has to sit for a while, and so this barrel is perfect.”
The club met last week to begin the brewing process. The cool air was filled with steam that had a delicate and sweet, grain-like aroma. Turkey fryer outfits were in full roar in the front of the McGill garage, where malted barley was soaking in boiling water to release its malt sugars. This particular batch would require brewing and soaking 115 pounds of grain to fill the barrel.
It was evident that these brewers are also innovators, because the methods they came up with to brew the grains were varied. Some poured the hot liquid into coolers, and some used beer kegs wrapped in insulation and old flannel shirts. And while their techniques for brewing are diverse, they all result in the same base going in for the Olde Luddite brand of beer Denny choose to make to fill his barrel.
In between the brewing steps, these enthusiasts sampled each other’s private blends. Some raised eyebrows in delightful surprise, while others asked questions of the beer brewer to learn more about technique and flavoring.
“There’s a basic process to brewing beer,” said Denny. “But there’s a million ways you can flavor it. That’s what makes brewing beer so much fun.”
The process begins when malted barley is soaked in hot water to release the malt sugars. The malt sugar solution is boiled with hops for seasoning. The solution is cooled and then 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 bit of added sugar to provide carbonation. But many creative brewers add their own signature to their concoctions with everything from wild berries to dried herbs. They also tweak the process to produce such libations as light and delicate pilsners to dark and hearty lagers and ales.
Home brewing beer has exploded in popularity in the last few years, but antiquated and long-forgotten alcohol laws were still on the books before Walker signed the bill. The old rule prohibited brewers from transporting their products outside the domicile where it was made. Some of these laws date back to prohibition days, and while they were rarely enforced, they posed a problem for home brewers. As the hobby has grown, home brew festivals and competitions have become popular, and that limited brewers who liked to share their quaffs with like-minded hobbyists.
However, the bill that was recently signed exempts home brewers, and wine makers, from permit requirements and taxes as long as they don’t make more than 100 gallons for one person in a household or 200 gallons for two people in a household. As with current law, home brewers cannot sell any beverage they make.
While the old law did not prohibit members of the Brewing Innovators and Enthusiasts of Rhinelander from pursuing their craft in their own homes, they are happy they can now bottle up their creations and take it on the road to share it with like-minded enthusiasts.
“I know this hobby will continue to grow and attract more people,” said Denny. “And this new law will make it easier for that to happen.”