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The Pleasures of Home Brewing

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Paying for our sins is something New Yorkers have come to expect given the high price of alcoholic beverages in this state. The price of beer, in particular, seems to put a bigger strain on our wallets each year. One of the ways you can beat this trap is, of course, to brew your own. Home brewing is fun, it's aesthetically pleasing, and you get to thumb your nose at the man while sipping on your latest concoction. What could be more satisfying than that?

So, you're convinced. You're ready to give home brewing a try, but it's not as if you can just pop down to the supermarket and pick up a box of Betty Crocker beer mix. There's a bit more to it than that. The good news is that there are great home-brewing resources right here in the Mid-Hudson Valley, all of which are designed, in one way or another, to get you started in your homebrewing-endeavor. With a relatively small investment—about the price of four or five cases of craft beer—you can purchase everything you need to brew your first batch. You'll also find there are lots of other brewers out there who are eager to share in their knowledge, and to make sure your first-time brewing experience is successful.

Keegan Ales
Hudson Valley beer geeks are very familiar with Tommy Keegan's award-wining ales. But you may not know that Keegan Ales is a place for you to pick up home-brewing supplies, and is also a great resource when it comes to learning to negotiate the brewing process. Whatever your beer-related need is, Keegan Ales can help.

"Across from the brewery [in Kingston] is our warehouse, and in there we have a storefront with our home-brewing shop," Keegan says. "And, because of the volume we do compared to other home-brew shops—we buy things in bulk and them repackage them—we can do things a lot cheaper. We use the buying power of the brewery itself to feed our store."

You can purchase everything from fermentation carboys, to siphoning and bottling equipment, to a range of top-shelf ingredients. Keegan says that one of his goals is always to try to keep costs as low as possible. Most home-brew shops charge customers to mill grain, for example, something Keegan does for free. The price of ingredients, too, reflects this economy-of-scale.

"A lot of homebrew shops buy their hops prepackaged and then sell them like that," Keegan says. "I buy hops in 44-pound bags and we repackage it ourselves. You pay a fraction of the cost."

And this can add up, something that might tend to frighten away the uninitiated home brewer, so keeping initial costs as low as possible can only help a fledgling brewer achieve success. But what if you're the type who hates the textbook approach and learns best through demonstration? In that case, Keegan Ales hosts home brewing classes that offer a unique combination of sensory experience.

"We just hosted a beginner class, and hosted an intermediate class the next day for those who were ready to take it to the next level," Keegan says. "We serve you lunch and do a beer and food pairing. It's $50, but it comes with four pints of beer, a five-course lunch, and, of course, the class itself."

Keegan says that the home-brew curious shouldn't be intimidated by the process, and that it can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. A simple batch made exclusively from malt extract can be whipped together on a stovetop in just a couple of hours, while a more elaborate, all-grain brew would require a larger investment of time and money. You can even go nuts and purchase self-contained brewing systems that run into the thousands of dollars.

Keegan also recommends that you try not to jump around a lot when it comes to the style of beer you brew, at least at the beginning. Instead, you should think about what you like to drink and then make that style of beer several times. If you like India pale ales, for example, make several batches over a period of a few months, along the way ironing out any kinks in your process. The point, according to Keegan, is to get it down to the point where it becomes second nature—and that you can replicate a high-quality beer consistently.

Pantano's and the Mohonk Home Brewers Association
Another great resource we have at our fingertips is Pantano's Wine Grapes & Home Brew. Situated on Route 32 just south of the village of New Paltz, Pantano's has in short order become one of the key home-brew suppliers in the region. But Jerry Pantano never set out to become a home-brew supplier. Initially, Pantano's was selling wine grapes each year. This eventually led Pantano to take on a modest inventory of winemaking equipment. The equipment sold very well, it turns out, so when a customer approached him about adding home-brewing supplies, it was a natural progression.

"The guy says, 'Why don't you sell beer making equipment? You already have half the stuff here,'" Pantano says. "I didn't have any concept about beer. So, I ended up researching beer products—malts, and hops, and grains, and all the equipment."

Pantano even did some demographic research and learned that there was a serious dearth of home-brew supply shops in the area, with most having gone out of business at the end of the home-brew craze in the late '90s and early '00s. There was a serious demand, according to Pantano. "What I really wanted to do was capture an audience of people," Pantano says.

And the audience was certainly there—so much so, in fact, that a brewers club became the next logical step. Pantano teamed up with brewers Aaron Schecter and Lenny Scolaro to form the Mohonk Home Brewers Association (MHBA), a group that now has an enthusiastic membership, despite the fact that it's been in existence for just a few short years. Schecter, like many other home brewers, stumbled into home brewing because he didn't like the taste of the mass-produced stuff most people drink.

"I didn't like the taste of beer [back in the mid-'90s]," Schecter says. "Craft beer really didn't have a strong foothold in the market at that point."

But a moment of revelation came when Schecter tried his first craft beer—and absolutely loved it. In the following years he devoured as many home brew-related books as he could get his hands on. Now he's the MHBA president. He's been so successful, in fact, that he will be featured in an upcoming issue of the American Homebrewers Association magazine.

Schecter says that the MHBA mission is to provide brewers with the kind of knowledge resources that will ensure that the experience is, and continues to be, a positive one. In addition to regular classes that are hosted at Pantano's (you can see photos at the Pantano's Facebook page), Schecter conducts private classes in his home. And, of course, he is always eager to answer questions. Joining the MHBA, Schecter says, is a good way to network with others who can help get you going in the right direction.

Lenny Scolara, who is vice president of the MHBA, says that he keeps brewing because of the satisfaction it provides.

"I enjoy the brewing process, the technical and skill aspects of it. I enjoy everything about it, really," Scolara says. "And, of course, I enjoy the end product."


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