Sometimes redemption comes in the form of a big, frothy glass of beer.
Two months ago, College senior Jason Haensly and his friends reached a turning point. Living out the dream of every beer-drinking college student, they had recently started brewing their own beer. The first batch was good, but the second was a disaster. (“It tasted skunky,” Haensly recalled). They weren’t ready to give up on home brewing, but if the new batch was bad, their passion may have waned.
“If there had been two in a row like that, that would’ve been crushing,” said Graham Wells (’07C), Haensly’s roommate and fellow brewer.
They opened the newborn bottles of beer — a Valencia Orange Hefeweizen, to be exact — with trepidation. Nervously, they sipped.
It might be a stretch to say that first sip was a revelation. But, to paraphrase Maya from “Sideways,” it tasted so damn good.
“I was floored,” said College senior Nora Kleinman, Haensly’s girlfriend and another one of the brewers. “I had no idea we could make something that good, that quickly.”
For decades, beer has been the black sheep of the alcohol family. Wine equaled elegance, scotch meant sophistication, but beer was identified with binge-drinking college students and middle-aged men with bellies dangling below their belts.
This is starting to change. As the popularity of specialty beer in the United States increases, so has the number of home brewers. Around 9 million six-packs of beer are home-brewed annually, and, according to the American Homebrewers Association, this number is on the rise.
Georgia is at the forefront of this shift. Two years ago, the Georgia House of Representatives allowed high-alcohol beers to be sold in the state for the first time. This change, along with the popularity of local breweries such as Terrapin and Sweetwater, is fueling Georgia’s beer evolution.
Enter Jason Haensly.
Haensly is built like a linebacker, with curly brown hair that falls over his forehead. He speaks with a deep, confident voice, and sprinkles words you would only find in a thesaurus effortlessly into conversation.
You would be hard-pressed to find someone more suited for home brewing. He is a biology and neuroscience and behavioral biology double major, and the co-founder of the Emory Culinary Club. An interest in science and a passion for mixing ingredients are prerequisites for home brewing.
So are understanding roommates. Eclectic would be the best way to describe Haensly’s three roommates. They’re all musicians — that’s how they met — and it’s not unusual to hear a trumpet or tuba blaring at all hours of the day.
For months, he and his roommates would go to Taco Mac (Wells’ girlfriend works there), sip beers and talk about how they wanted to brew their own.
When Wells went away one weekend, Haensly decided to act out on what he describes as a “researched impulse.”
He bought a starter kit for $70 and brewed a batch. Wells was pleasantly surprised.
“I came back and saw the beer, and was like, ‘Yes!’” Wells said.
Last weekend, I went to the house Haensly and his roommates rent to watch them in action.
The house was only six miles from Emory, but it might as well have been in a different state. A driveway no wider than a sidewalk winds alongside a stream and through a grove of trees before leading up to a rambling, wood-framed house. The trees were so thick, I couldn’t see another house from the porch.
When I walked through the door, I felt as if I was walking into a teenage guy’s fantasy. There was a billiards table, an air hockey table, a dart board, a homemade bar and a pyramid of kegs. And that was just the living room. There was also a kegerator filled with Guinness, a beer pong table and two cats named Xandir and Foxy. On the wood beams hanging over the living room were more than 75 empty bottles of liquor. And on the wall was a faux-inspirational poster featuring a bunch of college students doing a keg stand that read: “T-E-A-M-W-O-R-K: Teamwork is the ability to work as a group towards a common vision. Even if that vision becomes extremely blurry.”
This was a house that screamed for beer to be made in it.
On the day I arrived, Haensly, Kleinman and Wells were brewing Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA.
The Dogfish Head Craft Brewery — motto: “Off-centered ales for off-centered people” — is the fastest growing brewery in North America, and a favorite of home brewers. Its founder, Sam Calagiano, started as a home brewer, and has written a seminal book on the subject, Extreme Brewing: An Enthusiasts’ Guide to Brewing Craft Beer at Home
. This book might as well be a beer bible for Haensly, Kleinman and Wells.
The beer-making process is surprisingly simple: Place a bag of grain into boiling water, add in hops (which give beer flavor and aroma) and then put in yeast. This takes about two and half hours. The ingredients cost between $30 and $60 per batch.
The beer stays in a sealed vat for about two weeks and is then bottled. The bottled beer must sit for another two weeks before it is ready for consumption. All told, the time from when you start brewing to when you can drink the beer is about four weeks.
It’s a process that requires patience, but in the hour it took to add the hops, I began to see its appeal.
Relaxed by the citrusy aroma wafting through the air and the homemade brews we were now sampling — upon further review, the Valencia Orange Hefeweizen is a revelation — the conversation began to flow as freely as the beer.
Wells expanded on his critique of mainstream beer (“If you think Sweetwater 420 is the best pale ale you’ve ever had, then there’s something wrong.”) and Haensly talked about the relaxed atmosphere of home brewing (“How seriously can you take yourself if you brew beer in your house?”) Haensly joked, “If everything else fails, if I don’t get into grad school, I’ll just get a job at a brewery.”
Five hours after its start, I was sorry to see the afternoon come to an end.
Later that night, I went to a bar, ordered a pint of Dogfish Head 60 Minute and thought about the afternoon. For Haensly, Wells and Kleinman, and for a growing number of beer drinkers like them, brewing beer isn’t about getting drunk.
It’s about appreciating the unique flavors that can arise out of slight changes to the process. And it’s about enjoying each other’s company along the way.
As I finished my beer, I realized I was leaving something out: It’s also about the fact that, when you get that magic combination of grain, hops and yeast just right, it can taste so damn good.
— Contact Steven Stein at email@example.com.