ADVERTISEMENT

You could say Terry Felton inherited his home-brewing habit.

After a friend died in the 1990s, Felton received the man's beer-making equipment and supplies, everything needed to start brewing, if he was so inclined.

He wasn't. But the beer changed his mind.

"When he passed away, I got 100 gallons of his draft beer," mostly English ales and bitters, Felton said. "After drinking that with my meals every day for a year, I said, 'Now what the hell do I do?'"

That was 12 years ago. Since then, Felton has made about 150 different kinds of beer, fine-tuning his recipes and measuring his progress with the help of home-brewing contests like Amber Waves of Grain, New York State's largest home-brewing competition, whose 15th edition runs this weekend.

These contests mix elements of beauty pageant and coaching seminar, becoming a sort of finishing school for home brewers. The best bottles in each category compete for the coveted "best in show" award, Felton said. But every entry gets at least two detailed analyses written by trained judges, identifying strengths and flaws of the beer, and giving specific suggestions for improvement.

"You get some pretty quality critical feedback on what you're doing," said Felton, who will be an entrant and judge in this weekend's contest. "Both stylistically -- how close you come to the standard for that beer type -- and how clean and correct your process is, as presented to an unbiased taster."

A trained judge can tell a novice where he needs to work on his game, said Felton. "If they detect a flaw, they're supposed to tell you what caused it or how to avoid it," he said. "Or where you missed on the style -- the hopping level, the amount of residual malt backbone you left in the beer, or whether you let the yeast go too far, and it got thin."

This year, Amber Waves of Grain is drawing more than 400 entries from close to 100 individual brewers, said contest registrar Tim Collins, an engineer and veteran brewer. Nearly 40 trained judges will evaluate up to 80 styles of beer, mead and cider.

Home brewing's surging popularity might account for the contestant list including "30 new people we've never had before," Collins said. "That includes a lot of young people, which wasn't necessarily always the case."

Brad Robbins is one of the younger ones. He's 27, a professional bassist and lives in Cheektowaga with his brother, Kyle. They are entering five beers in this year's Amber Waves, his first time in the contest.

"The science-y aspects of the gear and the scientific measurements appeal to the inner geek that a lot of the home brewers seem to have," said Robbins, who has an environmental science degree. "Then there's the artistry. It's not just follow a process and add X, Y and Z. I mean, you can do that and come out with beer. But there's also that intangible level of experimentation, and craft, and just sort of pure art."

People his age are known for drinking beer more than making it, he acknowledged. But that might be changing, Robbins said, as a new generation of brewers finds its own reasons to carry on the craft.

"There's so much traditional knowledge -- brewing's been going on for thousands of years," said Robbins. "In the last decade or so, with the advent of technology, there's the danger that that knowledge has been marginalized, but people seem to be realizing that brewing is worth it."

In a digital age, when modern life moves fast, it's especially satisfying to make something delicious and satisfying in essentially the same way as pyramid-building Egyptians.

"When I home-brew a beer, I'm doing something that people in Mesopotamia did 4,000 years ago, for most of the same reasons," Robbins said. "It's sort of a way of reaching back into history and sipping from the deep wellspring of humankind."

For many home brewers he knows, Robbins said, brewing is related to a more general desire to cook and tinker with food. A vegetarian, Robbins said he has his own herb garden and likes to make dishes drawn from Thai, Indian, Mexican and Italian cuisines.

It wasn't much of a stretch when he made a beer for Christmas designed to emulate Indian chai milk tea. He started with a sweet stout recipe and added cardamom, cloves, ginger and cinnamon as spices. He also added lactose, which adds sweetness and body, and contributes to a more creamy texture, evoking chai's milky character.

"A lot of people ended up liking it," he said. But if it wasn't for the encouragement and knowledge of other home-brewing club members, he might not have had the nerve.

He joined the Niagara Association of Home Brewers "as soon as I started brewing," Robbins said. "When you have other people around who've been doing it for 10, 15, 20 years, you can learn a lot."

John DePaolo is a trial attorney and a 12-year home brewer who enters contests like Amber Waves of Grain partly to measure his work against others' efforts. "Strong, dark British beers, barleywines and Belgian beers, that's pretty much what I make," said DePaolo. "Those are the beers that cellar well, can last almost indefinitely, and this time of year, when it's cold out, help fortify the soul against the cold weather."

At work, DePaolo bills an average rate of $175 an hour. So why does he invest some of his precious free time making beer that he could easily buy?

His answer speaks to the pride of craftsmanship, the fact that he can make a special drink with his own hands. At an upcoming wedding, the guests will toast with his mead, a unique benediction that ties into mead's historic connection to weddings.

"Sure, I can go buy mead," he said. "I don't think it's as good as mine. Nonetheless, I was able to make this mead, and will be giving it to my future brother-in-law and sister-in-law for their wedding."

For many home-brew rookies, the best way to brewing happiness is finding a local home-brewing club. Kate Dee of Hamburg, president of the Sultans of Swig home-brewing club, started home brewing in 2007 after moving to Western New York from Portland, Ore.

"I went to my first meeting in February 2009, and instantly felt a kinship with fellow brewers, who welcomed me with open arms," she said via e-mail.

Dee knew that as a woman, she'd be in the minority. "I was nervous, but felt too passionately about the hobby to let that interfere with joining," she said. "I had recently befriended a club member who encouraged me, and told me that I wouldn't be the only female member, anyways."

Now the president, she credits the club with helping her fine-tune her Amber Waves entries, as well as placing in a nationwide women brewers' contest. "The feedback from club members, some of whom have been brewing for decades, has greatly improved the quality of my beer, she said.

If you're interested, she said, find a home-brew club. Take courage in the fact that the love of beer can overcome other differences.

"Some of these very technical brewers may be harder to get to know, but they are very supportive and have a wealth of knowledge," Dee said. "Once you speak their language -- the language of home brewing -- we never stop talking about beer."

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com