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Fitchburg homebrew club provides camraderie, education

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On January Seventeenth a group of mostly men was milling around Martin Hawkes’ dining room table. On the table was a pitcher of pale ale that Hawkes had brewed himself. In the next room, the kitchen, there’s a poster in World War II propaganda-style that reads “Join the fight against crappy beer. Start homebrewing today.” There’s also a wooden plaque that reads, “Beer, it’s not just a breakfast drink anymore.”

The group in the dining room was a homebrewers’ club called the Fitchburg Order of Ale Makers (FOAM). They meet in a different member’s home on the third Friday of each month. At their meetings, they discuss brewing technique, taste craft beers, and plan events.

The January meeting began, in earnest, a little after seven with a discussion of the beer style of the month, barleywines. The discussion was lead by FOAM president Scott Buchanan. He described the differences between American and British style barleywines, read from the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines and mentions how some of the style’s characteristic flavors are achieved. He explained, for example, that caramel notes can be achieved from a long boil time. “How long is long?,” one member interjected. Buchanan answered that ninety minutes to two hours is best.

Throughout the night, group members posed each other questions of this nature and offered responses. When member Mike Roache brought out a dry cider for tasting, for example, the group members break into a spirited discussion of what yeasts are best for fermenting a cider. When one member suggested Rudesheimer Riesling yeast, there was some good-natured ribbing at his pronunciation of the German word. It seems that these meetings blend business and pleasure.

Beer tastings serve this dual purpose. After ending his discussion, Buchanan offered up the first tasting, Thomas Hardy barleywine. He opened it with the FOAM official opener, a Harpoon UFO bottle opener attached to the end of a brewer’s mash-paddle which was carved by woodworking group member Matt Steinberg (who runs his own woodworking company, Stone Mountain Studios). Throughout the night, whenever a member raised the paddle, conversation died down and all eyes turned to him who offered the next tasting. The Thomas Hardy, representing English barleywines, was followed up by Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, representing American barleywines. Steinberg suggested that the strong hop character of Bigfoot is an odd match for the complex malts. There was some light debate over this matter. Buchanan, in turn, suggested that the mix of the big malt body and strong hop character in American Barleywines was one of the factors that led to the development of the double IPA style.

The next barleywine up for offer was one made by the group as a group project. In these projects, group members each brew five gallons of a predetermined recipe and then the batches with the best results are blended in a barrel to be aged long term. The process starts with some back and forth over FOAM’s email list (which has around thirty members). Once the style is decided upon by a group vote, members research recipes, including whatever they can learn about commercial examples. With this information, the group develops the recipe that will be used by consensus. Once all the members have brewed and fermented their batch, there is a tasting and those batches deemed the best go in the barrel. Once the beer is done aging, it is shared amongst the members. Those members whose beer did not make the cut can still get some of the barrel-aged beer, if they share their batch among the other members. This both keeps the sharing equitable and allows those members to get feedback on their brew from the group.

In the past, the group has barrel aged a Wee Heavy (a Scottish ale style), the Barleywine, and an Imperial Stout. They also dry hopped an IPA with several pounds of hops in a plastic 55 gallon drum. The other beers were aged either in bourbon barrels from the Buffalo Trace distillery or in Sam Adams Utopia barrels. Currently a Belgian style Quadrupel is aging in the barrel. It was removed on February 9, and a mead (a fermented honey beverage) will go in the barrel. The Quad spent about six months in the barrel and the mead may stay in for as long as a year. A Baltic Porter may be their next barrel-aged project.

This sort of project cannot easily be undertaken by a single homebrewer and is therefore one of the great advantages of this sort of a group. Newer brewers can garner feedback on their work and even experienced ones can learn about barrel aging and dry hopping, for example.

Another opportunity that the group provides for brewers to develop their talents is a series of contests throughout the year. These include a contest where each brewer must brew with an ingredient drawn from a hat, one where each brewer must brew a style drawn from a hat, and an open competition in a style selected beforehand by the group. In the coming year, the open competition will be for an ice brew. Whoever has the best record from these contests is named the group’s Homebrewer of the Year (won in 2013 by Steinberg) and receives as an award, a wooden tap handle carved, incidentally, by Steinberg. Although the group was once primarily composed of highly experienced brewers, they have been making an effort in recent years to include members new to brewing. One way to accomplish this is using a two-tier difficulty system in the contests. For example, an easier ingredient to work with may be orange peel, while a harder one may be cucumber. A sticke alt (a type of strong German ale) may be a more difficult category, while a dry stout (think of Guinness) would be a more familiar one. Still, the Homebrewer of the Year title tends to go to a very experienced brewer. Even some long term members have not won the award, since it is not, after all supposed to be easy.

Although many members were actively seeking a homebrew group through homebrew supply stores or through the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) when they found FOAM, the group also attracts new members through its public appearances. For example, in March, FOAM will be at the Gardner Deer Club, participating in a homebrew competition. In June, the group will be attending the Hyper-Local Craft Brew Fest in Somerville, Massachusetts.

FOAM also received an invitation to appear at an event in Fitchburg with another homebrew group, the Mid-Mass. Malt Mashers (M4). Although there were some jokes that the M4 were invading their territory, in reality, the homebrew groups share positive relations with each other. Members from one group frequently find themselves judging beers of the other groups in competition. Nine FOAM members are Beer Judge Certification Program judges. Although they have tried to plan events with other groups, including a possible “Iron Chef of Brewing” competition, so far those attempts have “never amounted to anything,” reported FOAM secretary Greg Menafo.

With all this activity, the group certainly had a lot to talk about, but eventually formal discussion had to come to a close. A homemade dinner was served. Some members started talking about the Patriots chances against the Broncos, but in Hawkes’ kitchen, some were still talking about equipment. Roache showed off a cell phone photo of a grain mill he bought. He sought advice on what equipment to purchase from the FOAM email list and got four or five reviews, based on brewers personal experience, “right off the bat.”

More tastings, more conversation, and more advice followed. Certainly it seemed like the FOAMers thoroughly enjoyed their meeting, but they also seemed to be learning a lot from each other. Whether asking what equipment to buy or what on Earth Rudesheimer is, the collective group knowledge served to help anyone interested in becoming a better homebrewer. Those looking for feedback on their brews, expert advice, a little friendly competition or some new projects would certainly benefit from finding a group like this one. To find a homebrew group near you try the AHA’s Find a Homebrew Club page. The AHA lists more than thirty groups in Massachusetts alone.

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