Learn how to craft your own beer at home:
WHO: Erica Shea and Stephen Valand, authors of "Brooklyn Brew Shop's Beer Making Book."
WHAT: Home-brewing seminar and book signing
WHEN: 1 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Chef Central, 240 Route 17 north, Paramus, 201-576-0178, chefcentral.com
HOW MUCH: Free.
I'm in Saddle Brook on a bright Friday afternoon, munching pizza, and sipping a beer. Or, two. Or, five.
Hey, it's a living.
My host, home-brewing aficionado Anthony Scillia, is whipping up a fresh batch of Belgian tripel (a strong pale ale) in his kitchen, while his brother-in-law, Marc Mastromarino of Elmwood Park, is rummaging through the fridge in search of a similar tripel we can sample during the brewing process.
"You're supposed to serve this in a chalice," Scillia eventually says, as he pours the chilled tripel into brandy snifters, "but these glasses are the closest thing I have."
As I sip the tripel drawn from the fridge — the batch Scillia is brewing won't be ready for weeks — I look it up in a book called "The Brewmasters Table."
The nose, as the book explains, is "hops, wet iron, tangerines and preserved lemons" with an aftertaste that is "herbal, slightly sulfurous, a mixture of hops and bell peppers."
Even without the chalice, I'm hooked. Not just on the ale, which is delicious, but on the whole experience of watching it being made and kicking back, sipping slowly and paying attention to the taste, the nose, the notes … everything.
Oh, and the buzz. After just a few sips, I can tell this isn't the beer you're going to want to chug down this summer after mowing the lawn.
Scillia laughs, and points to the label: "Alcohol: 9.5 percent."
A fad in the 1970s, home brewing is approaching near-epic hobby status, particularly among under-40s who, unlike their parents and grandparents, grew up in a world awash in exotic ales and lagers and don't mind taking the time necessary (about three hours for this tripel plus about four weeks to ferment) to make their own.
Gary Glass, director of the Colorado-based American Homebrewers Association says that, based on ongoing AHA surveys, close to 1 million Americans now brew their own beer at home.
"We started to see the numbers really pick up around 2005," Glass adds, "and we see it as a generational shift, spurred on, in part, by the local brewer movement as well as the popularity of farmers' markets and locally grown produce." (Based on the AHA's surveys of stores that selling brewing supplies, 45 percent of beginner kits are sold to people 29 and under; 46.8 percent to those aged 30-39.)
"Another thing we've seen is that most home brewers also like to cook, which makes sense, since brewing your own beer is a lot like making a gourmet meal at home."
Among the movement's most visible proponents in the Northeast are Erica Shea and Stephen Valand, who began selling their Brooklyn Brew Shop kits from a stand at the Brooklyn Flea Market in 2009 before making the leap to specialty stores and online. Their motto, more or less: With a kit and a little space you can make beer at home for a fraction of the cost you'd pay elsewhere.
The Brooklyn Brew Shop one-gallon starter kit includes a choice of mixes, which contain grain, hops and yeast; a glass fermenter; a three-piece chambered airlock; a screw-top stopper, a thermometer; plastic tubing; a tubing clamp; racking cane; and sanitizer. The basic kit sells online for about $40. Most home brewers say the hobby requires an initial investment of between $100 and $150, the bulk of which goes for pots and other kitchen equipment used solely for brewing.
Shea and Valand will conduct a beer-making seminar on Saturday at Chef Central in Paramus, and will also sign copies of their "Beer Making Book," loaded with tips and more than 50 recipes.
Their followers include Scillia, 29 and Mastromarino, 24, who started making their own in the fall of 2010, after Scillia picked up a Brooklyn Brew Shop kit at his neighborhood Whole Foods Market.
"For Christmas," Scillia recalls, "I made a gingerbread ale and it came out great. I brought it to a cousin's party, everyone loved it and that was it.
"I went back to the store, picked up another kit, and the next thing you know I was making rose beer, lavender beer, a peanut butter porter and this last one," Scillia says, opening another bottle, "coffee and doughnuts."
I'm immediately skeptical. Coffee and doughnuts … beer?
"It's made with coffee, coconut and chocolate," Scillia explains. "Oh, and some toffee notes."
I try it, expecting to taste some misbegotten malted. Instead, I get a stout that is full-bodied, delicious and not the least bit cloying.
Please, sir, may I have some more?
Home brewers are free to follow the kit instructions to the letter, or experiment with other flavors that strike their fancy. Scillia likes to experiment.
So do a lot of other local home brewers, according to Jimmy Corrado, a co-owner of Corrados, which sells supplies for beer and wine making in its Clifton store. "We added the home brewing [department] in the mid-'80s, and it's been growing consistently since then," he says. "And it's a surprising mix — young, old, male, female. We have people doing the basic kits, people who experiment, and people who want do it all, even crushing their own grain."
Most home brewers mix up about 5 gallons at a time — which makes about 50 bottles of beer. Or, they can zip down to Freehold. In addition to selling supplies, The Brewer's Apprentice lets home brewers make and store their brews there. As Jason Meehan, one of the managers, explains, "You do your own brew; we take care of everything else. And we're set up to do 15 gallons at a time — which yields about six cases of beer. You can use your own bottles. Some put it straight into kegs!"
The refrigerator in Scillia's kitchen is brimming with beer bottles, to the chagrin of his wife Elmina, who never touches the stuff. "She doesn't even like wine," Scillia laments.
And then there's the Scillias' basement, cool and dark with a huge shelving unit at the base of the stairs that stores, yes, 99 bottles of beer on the wall. And, then some.
"See anything you'd like to try?" Scillia asks.