by Peter Bailey

There’s a man in Edmonton who dug up his urban backyard and planted a barley field. Another man has a schedule of the beer he’ll brew every three weeks for the next two years. These men are homebrewers.

They walk among us, these homebrewers, and they come bearing homemade beer. But fear not – if, years ago, you were well-advised to run shrieking when offered a bottle of homebrew, today’s homebrewers are making beer as good as commercially brewed beer.

Indeed, the line between the talented homebrewer and the capable craft brewer is fluid.After all, it’s not the size of your hydrometer that matters, it’s what you do with it.

No one understands this better than Edmonton’s Neil Herbst,founder of Alley Kat Brewing.Before making the leap to commercial brewing Neil was an accomplished homebrewer.

Since starting Alley Kat in 1995,Neil has paid it forward, supporting the homebrew community that helped him on his way. Alley Kat hosts meetings of the local homebrewing group, the Edmonton Homebrewers Guild. This delightful idea has been emulated across the Prairies, with former homebrewers hosting their local groups at Calgary’s Wild Rose (brewmaster Dave Neilly), Saskatoon’s Paddock Wood (brewmaster Stephen Cavan) and Winnipeg’s Half Pints (brewmaster Dave Rudge).

There’s something about Edmonton though. Life is elsewhere? Nope, we’ll make our own fun thank you – and our beer, too. Homebrewers are paragons of the Edmonton ethic:an unpretentious, down to earth,(dare I say it) get ’er done attitude plus an appreciation of things well made,by hand. That Edmonton feeling of community – hey, let’s figure this out together – is strong in the homebrew crowd.

The Edmonton spirit was on display at a recent meeting of the Edmonton Homebrewers Guild. Neil Herbst flipped burgers as Yukon Brewing’s Dave Gardner chatted with guild president Owen Kirkaldy. Owen spoke about the guild as a supportive community where “homebrewers come together to share ideas, share knowledge, share beverages and to develop our appreciation of beer as one of the world’s great pleasures.” Owen had been a homebrewer on his own for over10 years, but when he joined the guild his “beers went from okay to outstanding almost overnight.” Holding court by the bar is the man with the barley field for a backyard, Eamonn McKernan(yes, he lives in McKernan!). As we enjoyed some tasty Hefeweizen, Eamonn described the tribulations of being an über beer geek. To get his urban barley field going, he had to import seeds from Florida. As Eamonn chatted on about the nuances of malting barley, we noticed a young man listening in, looking worried, his eyes widening. When we learned he had only just started brewing, Eamonn was quick to assure him it wasn’t necessary to grow, malt and mash one’s own barley to brew a good beer.

In fact, it is surprisingly easy to brew good beer, much easier than when I was homebrewing back in the early 90s. Back then, I only had the garbled advice of the kid at the brewing supply store plus Charlie Papazian’s classic 1984 book, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing.

Ask around about homebrewing today and you’ll be told, “go see Andrew.” That’s Andrew Stephenson, owner of Winning Wines Plus in Lendrum (aka “The Brew Crew”). A long-time guild member, Andrew will assure you that homebrewing is “bloody easy”and get you started for under a$100. And, no, you don’t need your own barley field.

Owen points out Ernie Boffa, calling him “our resident mad scientist,” notorious for over-the-top beers like Bacon Porter. I find Ernie serving a delicious Dunkel at the bar. He shows me a scrap of paper from his back pocket with an ambitious two-year brewing schedule. It is clear from his list that Ernie is an absolutely fearless brewer. His list runs from yummy sounding,like his latest, Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Stout,to Thanksgiving Stuffing Brow Ale (Um, no thanks). A version of his prize-winning Neapolean Neapolitan Stout, made with chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream, was brewed by Alley Kat for Sherbrooke Liquor. I’m astounded to learn Ernie has only been brewing for a year and a half– a brewing prodigy.

I head to the back of the room to talk to guild treasurer Ray Duperron. At 62, brewing fo rover 20 years, Ray has probably seen young turks like Ernie Boffacome and go over the years. But he’s quick with praise for Ernie and fellow homebrewers, a trait shared by everyone I talk to. Homebrewing is a meritocracy,with talent, creativity and hard work generally rewarded. Ray has been rewarded handsomely, winning the inaugural Canadian Brewer of the Year award in 2010.

Recently, Ray invited me to his place to see where the magic happens. Ray freely admits he drank crap beer before he met Greg Houston in 1989. Greg had been brewing for years and a few bottles of his homebrew quickly showed Ray the error of his ways. Greg went on to become brewmaster at the late-lamented Strathcona Brewing before moving to Australia. Left without a brew pal, Ray joined the Edmonton guild, found a community of beer folks and hasn’t looked back.

One might assume Ray has mellowed over time, but he notes his favourite style is the full flavoured IPA. “Why not more?”might describe his brewing philosophy. He remembers wistfully the beer he brewed for an Iron Brewer contest a few years ago. He and brewing partner Patrick Doyle packed their beer with rosemary, including a sprig in each bottle, and named the brew Unforgettable.

Winning Brewer of the Year was a testament not only to Ray’s brewing talents, but also to his organizational skills. Growing his own hops, gathering malts from Didsbury, Alix and Armstrong,BC, brewing various styles and carefully shipping them aroundthe country begins to sound like a full-time job. Ray chuckles when he describes brewers that get obsessed with the gear, not the beer, but he does speak lovingly of his new wort chiller.

These homebrewers remind me of punk rockers – garage brewers instead of garage bands. Punk had three chords and the truth; homebrew has four ingredients and a brew pot. Tired of bland,boring corporate rock? To hell withit, I’m going to make the music I want myself. That DIY aspect is strong in homebrewing. Tired of boring old macro-lager? Grab a brewkit, talk to the friendly beer guys at the guild and do it yourself.

Peter Bailey is an Edmonton-area librarian who is not afraid of your strange brew. Bring it on.