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May 15, 2014
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Craft brewfest on tap at Douglas County Fairgrounds Saturday

What am I smelling?

Eugene-area beer writer and homebrewing educator Denny Conn gets other questions from new brewers, like “What’s beer made of?” and “When do I put the alcohol in?” But they often need help describing what they’re taking in.

Is it grass? Toffee? Dirt? Model airplane glue? Electrical fire?

“The idea is to describe it,” Conn said. “It’s not necessarily a value judgment.”

Wine gets the glory in this part of Oregon, but an emerging home and craft brew culture might have something to say about that — perhaps a little too loudly, while standing a little too close to your face. With beer, anyway, once you know what you’re drinking — and what you like to drink — you can make it yourself, and rather affordably and with relative ease.

This Saturday, the Douglas County Fairgrounds serves up a new event, the Brew Ha Ha, a beer festival benefiting Umpqua Valley Habitat for Humanity. Conn, a certified judge of beer and wine, will be there offering instruction in something many might think they already know how to do: drink beer.

But are they really tasting it?

“The whole idea is to help people develop a sense of what they like about beer and how to ask for it,” he said.

Conn is a retired audio engineer with a taste for good beer and a good grasp of what he likes about it. He’s been on the governing board of the American Homebrew Association for nine years and watched in that time the organization grow from 8,000 to 40,000 members. He writes recipes and articles, and according to president of the Umpqua Brewers Guild Diane Griffin, “moderates about every home-brew forum out there.”

Conn helps brewers realize their visions, calling himself an “architect” of beer. His latest book, “Experimental Homebrewing,” isn’t a how-to; it’s intended for people who already know their way around a kettle and a cooler. But it explicates how to get the most out of basic equipment and the few ingredients at a beer maker’s disposal.

Despite his depth of knowledge, Conn took up brewing only in 1998, after his wife bought him a kit for his birthday. The longtime foodie and college chemistry major found the pastime to be a blend of his interests.

“It became pretty clear that brewing is a combination of cooking and biochemistry,” he said. “And I have a tendency to geek out on any hobby I get into.”

More so than wine, beer is judged by how closely it fits with well-established style guidelines. Conn himself prefers Belgian beers, specifically those made by Trappist monks. But he’s also a fan of the more readily-available Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which he calls “archetypal.”

“It’s just a perfect beer,” he said.

At “Brewniversity” at the Brew Ha Ha, Conn will sample five Roseburg-area craft beers and one home-brewed beer along with his students, so everyone’s on the same page. He’s already been given the beers by Griffin. He called the pale ale by Tom Johnson of McMenamins Roseburg Station Brewery “fantastic” and “perfect for the porch on a summer day.”

“There are people down there that are brewing some great beers,” he said.

The Umpqua Brewers Guild began in 2008, when a half dozen or so people responded to a classified ad in this newspaper. Now with 36 members, the group has outgrown several meeting places. Along with their best work, Griffin encourages members to bring their “mistakes” to meetings. They sometimes find appreciative drinkers.

“There are hundreds of people in Roseburg who home brew,” Griffin said, from guys who use extract to more serious set-ups.

On the serious end is Loyd Price. The retired Yosemite National Park administrator brews three batches a month on his computerized three-pot system at his house near Whistler’s Bend. Having tight control over his equipment aids in repeatability, Price said.

“I can basically brew any beer,” he said.

Along with the brewers at McMenamins, Sam Eslinger of Draper Draft House has crafted a flight full of beguiling ales, including a decadent chocolate porter. The crews at Two-Shy Brewing and Old 99 Brewing Co. are also doing good things, Griffin said. And Roseburg’s home brew supply store, Dog Barrel, is said to be pursuing brewing on its own label.

Griffin has been a home brewer for three decades, beginning not long after President Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing in 1979.

Getting into it cost less than she was expecting. Even these days, $100 buys a decent starter kit. Working with extracts, rather than grains, also saves money on ingredients, as well as grain-crushing equipment, for the real DIYer. The basics, say home brewers, are surprisingly simple. The finer points of temperature control and knowledge of the vagaries of yeast come later.

Conn was delighted with his first effort, a “straight-ahead” American pale ale.

“I didn’t have any problems. That batch turned out fantastic.”

More than 450 cooks later, that recipe has changed little.

But transferring home-brewing skills to a commercial setting can be a trick, as K.C. McKillip has learned. In late 2012, the Roseburg resident and his friend and fellow home-brewer Ben Looney started Backside Brewing Co. With the recent additional of two industrial-size vats, the pair are nearly ready to begin large-scale production.

They’re currently open weekend nights, serving guests from small batches. They’re still perfecting their six recipes, which includes all the basic styles.

A hop shortage arising from the increased interest in home brewing has meant the Backside boys have had to alter a few formulas. McKillip said you can’t change one of beer’s few ingredients and not expect the finished product to taste radically different.

Beer is simple, but it is important.

“Beer is something that’s grown in every small community from time immemorial,” Griffin said.

Conn credits it with the establishment of civilization itself. Growing grain was one of the reasons humans began living in permanent communities, a move that set the germ of civilization on its rapid course.

That’s not all.

“Believe it or not,” Conn said, “the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because they ran out of beer.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated May 17, 2014 01:13PM Published Jun 2, 2014 09:44AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.