Crafting better beer
Saturday's Brewfest offers up a 100-beer selection of labels from microbreweries
Published: Friday, September 27, 2013 at 6:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 27, 2013 at 6:39 p.m.
Forty years ago, with the nation embroiled in the unfolding Watergate scandal, Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko focused his keen eye on what he considered a more-pressing problem.
IF YOU GO
When: Sept. 28 1-3 p.m. VIP tasting; 3 p.m. general admission
Where: Ocala Hilton, 3600 SW 36th Ave.
Cost: $35 VIP, $15 general
When: 3-7 p.m. Oct. 19
Where: Pi on Broadway, 110 SW Broadway St.
Info: 369-5100; pionbroadway.com
“America's beer,” he wrote in early 1973, “tastes as if it were brewed through a horse.” Harsh words in a beer-drinking nation, and some readers didn't like it (his words, not beer).
Yet despite the sour taste his commentary brewed, he also helped untap today's wave of craft beers. At that time, there were only a handful of local microbreweries around; one of them, Point Special from Stevens Point in Wisconsin, won a taste test Royko arranged that summer. Budweiser came in last.
Today, the craft beer movement is a multi-billion dollar industry; last year it brewed up $10.2 billion, up from $8.7 billion the year before, according to the most current statistics from the Brewers Association. Today, there are some 2,347-plus smaller breweries cranking out 13.2 million barrels of craft beer.
In 1979, there were only 44 breweries in the U.S., according to the Beer Institute's Brewers Almanac, a number that included the big boys AND their craft counterparts. In 1965, there was but one craft brewery in the country, noted Tom Acitelli in his “The Audacity of Hops: The History of America's Craft Beer Revolution.”
Though the number of craft beer barrels — each barrel, by the way, holds 31 gallons of beer — keeps increasing each year, it still remains a fraction of overall U.S. beer output; that number is 200 million-plus barrels, Brewers Association statistics show.
But craft beer aficionados don't want numbers, they want flavor — be it tangerine, blueberry, chocolate, pumpkin, even balsamic vinegar — and not the weak, sometimes bitter pale yellow fizzy liquid we've grown up with.
“For so long it's been more and more about less taste and less flavor and just getting drunk with typical American light beers,” said Wes Hetrick, Gainesville's self-described “craft beer geek.” “People are moving away from that.”
He discovered craft beer at a wedding in Vermont, and brought his newfound craving home. Since then, he's quaffed dozens, even hundreds, of craft beer available in Gainesville — often reviewing them on his website, craftbeergeek.com — and compiled a guide to the city's best craft beers.
And the newest flavor he's found is something called “sour beer; to a new person, they may taste like a balsamic vinegar,” he said. “It sounds kind of strange, but it has an interesting flavor, and sometimes, sour is something I want to taste.”
Nowadays, most craft beer fans are introduced to the richer, more robust flavors at a tasting festival, where a phalanx of small brewers gather to offer samples.
There is a pair of such festivals in Ocala within the next few weeks: the first Brewfest at the Ocala Hilton today, and the third annual Craftoberfest on Oct. 19 in downtown Ocala. Gainesville's annual Hogtown Craft Beer festival typically is in May.
JVC Media, which owns four radio stations in Ocala and Gainesville, is hosting today's Brewfest which boasts some 100 labels to sample.
“I did one years ago in Orlando, and our New York station does one,” said Shane Reeve, JVC vice president and marketing manager. “We thought it would be a good fit for Ocala. We're going to find out.”
He said most of the tickets are sold out by now, though once VIP tasting between 1 and 3 p.m. is done, the gate will be open to anyone old enough with $15 for a poolside party. Remaining beer will be sold by the sample, he said.
A few weeks later, it's Craftoberfest's turn; organizers said it'll feature between 120 and 150 different varieties.
“These are the cream of the crop of craft beers,” added organizer Tom McDonald, owner of the sponsoring Pi on Broadway. Many of them are in the rotation on Pi's 10 taps.
“Craft beers are an expression of some brewers to take things back to their original state, back before beer was macrobrewed,” he added, “back to the basics, back to quality.” He said he discovered a yearning for craft beer in Ocala at one of Pi's earliest events. He had two kegs available: one of Miller Lite and the other a Colorado craft beer Hazed & Infused.
“At the end of the night, the craft beer keg was gone,” McDonald said.
Craftoberfest opens at 3 p.m. and runs four hours on the streets outside of Pi at 110 SW Broadway St. After that, it's a block party open to anyone.
This year, Craftoberfest benefits the Ocala Outreach Foundation, an organization to assist people who need help and can't find it through more conventional means, said founder Sam Betty – also a craft beer aficionado.
“Worldwide, it never died out like it did here,” Betty said. A wide variety of ales, lagers, pilsners and such always have been available elsewhere. “When I was growing up I had no idea the variety of beers available.”
One of the stars of Craftoberfest is the area's best-known craft brewery, Swamp Head in Gainesville.
Luke Kemper began the brewery in 2008 after he bought the microbrew gear from the Spanish Springs Brewery in The Villages. He'd been in Colorado where he discovered “the really good beers” out there and decided, why not here?
Swamp Head brewed its first batch in April 2009, and sold it a few months later in November. That first year, Swamp Head brewed 700 barrels; this year, the brewery will crank out some 6,000 barrels, Kemper said.
The growth of craft beers, he said, “is part of a greater movement back to smaller, independent, local businesses. Ever since we had that drop off in 2008, people are more aware of where they're spending their dollar, and they're spending it locally.”
It's a movement that's not going away anytime soon. “I don't see it as a craze,” he said. “There might be a decline in the number of breweries, but you'll continue to see people enjoying craft beer and being more excited about it.
“It's artfully crafted, full flavored and people put their full love and attention to it.”
Swamp Head — a name his wife, Katie, suggested to recognize its Florida roots — brews five core beers. The brewery offers tastings of the five-beer flight between 4 and 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
And some fans brew their own. For instance, Micheal Coons in Ocala has been making his own kitchen brews for almost two years now. He's also a member of the Brick City Brewers, a home brewing club that meets the second Sunday of the month at Pi.
For some, home brewing is a simple matter of mixing the ingredients — malt mash, hops, yeast — and setting it aside a couple of weeks to ferment. Kits are widely available. Others go in for a more complicated process.
Either way, “it's chemistry, it's science,” he said. And generally the results are good. “Everybody shares and has a good time,” adds Betty.
“We want people to come and enjoy,” Coons added. “We're trying to help everyone make better beer.”
Rick Allen can be reached at email@example.com or 867-4154.
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