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Wednesday, June 26,2013

The rise of homebrewers

by Shawn Parker
“Good things come to those who wait”: A dusty proverb tossed around haphazardly whenever someone’s patience is tested. But for the dedicated artisans who practice the art of homebrewing, it is nothing short of a mantra.

When Michigan Brewing Co. closed its Webberville brewery and supply store in April 2012, it was a blow to the homebrewing community — at the time, the only other seller of brewing supplies was the Red Salamander in Grand Ledge. However, the following six months resulted in a flurry of activity that resulted in two new businesses to fill the void.

Todd Branstner, owner of Capital City Homebrew Supply, has a simple answer when asked why he set up shop.

“Why not?” he said. “It makes people happy and (puts them) in a good mood.”

Branstner, who has been brewing for almost 30 years, opened his store last September. He calls the first batches he made “really bad, but alcoholic,” but was emboldened with the possibility.

“I knew I could do better,” Branster said. “I took some loan money, and bought the gear to make it the right way.”

Over the following decades, he refined his techniques and recipes, culminating in the opening of Capital City Homebrew Supply, 1824 E. Michigan Ave. in Lansing, where he said he gets to meet and assist the distinctive homebrewers types.

“It’s people who like to cook, who like to garden,” Branstner said. “The do-it-yourself types.”

Kyle Coffey, assistant manager of That’s How We Brew, echoes the sentiment.

“There is that satisfaction of making something from scratch,” he said. “You can brag about it.”

Karl Glarner, who opened Red Salamander in Grand Ledge in 1997, said there was one other brew supply store in the area that closed soon after he opened. Statewide, he guessed there was less than a dozen brew supply stores. Back then, it was hard to find quality, fresh ingredients — unlike today.

“With the help of fellow small breweries in Michigan, the demand for these ingredients got so big,” Glarner said.

That’s How We Brew, 3000 Vine St. near Frandor Shopping Center, also opened last fall. In addition to supplying the usual hardware and ingredients, it offers the occasional brewing class and hosts events. 

Branstner and Coffey agree that “clone recipes” — recipes that aim to duplicate popular brews — are the most popular items sold. They said it’s a simple and safe way to enter the world of homebrewing, which gives you experience before you segue into other styles of beer. The ultimate step is concocting your own recipe. 

A first-time homebrewer can walk out of a supply store with all the items necessary to brew — other than a large cooking pot and the bottles — for around $100. 

But homebrewing doesn’t end with your first drinkable batch. There are resources for the aspiring Lansing-area homebrew master, such the Lansing Brew Crew. The club was founded last November. Club secretary Charles Garwood, who has been brewing for six years, says Lansing Brew Crew was started to help brewing rookies.

“A lot of beginners wanted feedback [on their beers] and to just learn more,” he said. A typical meeting — held the first Sunday of every month next door to That’s How We Brew — is free and open to everyone. Meetings consist of in-depth discussions and provide a forum for socializing and networking with other brew lovers. 

Oh yeah, and tasting. Plenty of beer tasting. Members also do quarterly beer judgings for those who want to pit their brews against others in a hops-fueled cage match. 

For Lansing beer lovers with a bit of start-up money and some steely determination, the rewards are many.

“Not all of us can say we own a vineyard,” said Sarah Kilbourne, a novice brewer. “But you can say, ‘Hey, I brewed some beer — wanna try it?’”

And beyond the satisfaction that comes with brewing it yourself, everyone we spoke with seemed to agree on one thing: homebrewed beer just tastes better.

“It’s like comparing mom’s spaghetti sauce to Prego,” Coffey said.

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