Knoxville's Homebrew Believers

Sometimes, the best beer you'll ever have can't be purchased for any price—you have to make it yourself

Toasted Coconut Porter, Butter Nut Squash Ale, and other one-of-a-kind beers usually cause a line to form behind Paul Hethmon's tent at the Brewers' Jam. Beer tasters return frequently for seconds of the "famous" coconut porter, made by a colleague, or to see what flavors the latest keg change offers.

The drinkers almost always ask Hethmon and other brewers at the tent the same question as they are sipping beers and chewing on pretzel necklaces, "Where can I buy it?"

It should be an easy question for a brewer to answer at a beer festival with more than 40 commercial breweries and microbreweries from around the world, many of which have beers that could be found with some digging at a local grocery store, liquor store or brewpub.

However, you would have to be invited to Hethmon's Farragut basement or John Peed's patio in Oak Ridge to try the beers at their tent again. That is where they make them.

"I always get, ‘Where can you buy it?'" Hethmon says. "And I say, ‘Nope, sorry. You can't buy it, but I can tell you how to make it.'"

Hethmon and Peed are part of the Tennessee Valley Homebrewers, who will have their own tent with about 15 different homemade beers at the 14th Annual Community Shares Knoxville Brewers' Jam this Saturday. It gives the group members a chance to showcase their hobby, passion, and talent for home beer brewing.

"It's really one of the few opportunities for homebrewers to serve our beer to the public and get direct feedback from the public," says Patrick Beeson, 30, of Fountain City. "We'll have beer you are not going to be able to find at any commercial brewery."

Anyone can brew their own beer, local homebrewers say. It can be as simple as adding water to barley extract and boiling it, or it can be a much more complicated process of mashing grains, adding your own carbonation, and influencing every tiny step with slight changes in water temperature or wait times to create the perfect brew.

Making good-tasting beer of any variety is what homebrewing is about.

"I got to the point in the early '90s when I really didn't care for any of the beers available, especially here in Knoxville," says Hethmon, a 46-year-old software developer.

All he could ever really find were Miller or Anhueser-Busch products. His wife bought him a homebrewing kit for his birthday about 17 years ago and he has been brewing on and off since.

Beeson started brewing two years ago to be able to make any beer he wanted at any time.

"I believe I can make the best beer for me," Beeson says. "There is something about the beer you brew yourself, all the sweat you put in it, the money you put in it. People always ask me, ‘What is your favorite beer?' It's whatever I brewed last night."

These Knoxville beer lovers are part of a growing trend of people homebrewing, says Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association in Boulder, Colo. In the early part of the decade, there were fewer than 500,000 homebrewers in the country, and that grew to about 750,000 by 2009, the association estimates.

"A lot of people are doing things more locally," Glass says. "They go to farmers' markets to get locally grown produce, they use local businesses."

There is also a big do-it-yourself movement, whether it be home improvements, cooking, or brewing beer, Glass says. People are getting into homebrewing younger than they used to, he says. It's not just the baby boomers. The majority of people buying homebrewing kits are under 30.

"That generation is more into individual expression and homebrewing is definitely that," Glass says. "Whether it is scientific or artistic, you are creating something that is personal."

People are more conscious of what they eat and drink, Beeson says, and everything is going green.

The first Tennessee Valley Homebrewers meeting that Peed, 64, went to in 2000 consisted of about six members. Now, a typical monthly meeting consists of 15 to 20 local homebrewers sharing beer, food and recipes, with total membership around 50.

"People seem to be turning to craft beers, good beers," says Jerry Herrmann, owner of Ferment Station, a wine and beer brewing supply store on Kingston Pike. "At a restaurant, they treat it almost as if it is a wine."

Over the last several years, his homebrewing customer seems to be middle-aged or younger and semi-professional like himself, a former lawyer. He has a lot of University of Tennessee graduate students come into the store, who have gotten the taste of some good microbrews and want to try to make their own. Some are engineers or scientists who bring their calculations and spreadsheets.

Members of the Tennessee Valley Homebrewers range in age from mid-20s to mid-60s and they are an eclectic group of people, Hethmon says. Most of them like to tinker and learn how things work. Peed is an applications engineer while Beeson is content manager for the E.W. Scripps Interactive Newspaper Group.

Herrmann says his customer is looking to create a good beer, something unique, and a product that isn't mass-produced to be consumed in large quantities.

Beeson bought his first beer kit for about $70 and used "the extract" method of brewing in which he took a concentrated product from malted barley, boiled it while adding hops, cooling it back down and then adding yeast. The yeast converts the sugary liquid to alcohol over time and the net result is beer.

"If you can follow a recipe in a cookbook, you can brew beer," Beeson says. "As long as you have a kettle, a heating source and a ferment container, you can brew the easy method."

Herrmann has beginner kits with extract that already has the hops in it like a prepackaged cake mix, and more advanced kits with separate ingredients. Some people like to shop for their own mix of ingredients.

About 5 percent of his customers use an all-grain method where they create the extract, or "sugary wort," themselves by grinding barley and soaking it in a process called mashing. It takes more time, skill and equipment.

Hethmon began using the more advanced method about five or six years ago when he joined the homebrewers group. Also, he had to renovate his house because of asbestos, which allowed him to finally create his own "beer cave" in the corner of the basement complete with a wet bar, natural gas burner, sink and refrigerator with four taps on it and room for four soda kegs.

"It gives you more control and variety in what you can do," Hethmon says. "It's also a little cheaper."

However, he has invested more than $1,000 in brewing equipment for his basement, some of which he has built himself and the rest he bought from homebrewing stores.

It takes Hethmon about six to seven hours to brew about five gallons of beer, or 60 bottles, whereas it would only take him about three hours with the extract method. It takes a few weeks to ferment and be ready for drinking. The process can get fairly technical, if you want it to: testing water for exact temperatures, calculating alcohol content and finding different cooling methods. The more specific and technical a brewer gets and more elaborate his equipment, the better chance he has for repeatability, which is what Hethmon says he is now shooting for.

His favorite beer he has brewed has been an American Amber Ale. He's brewed it four times this year, but it's difficult to repeat a beer's taste exactly.

"I respect you as commercial brewers, you have to get it right every time," Hethmon once told a commercial brewer. "If Paul doesn't hit his numbers or missed a step in the brew process, it doesn't matter. I still have a good beer."

He also uses a homebrewing software to record what he does each time he brews.

"It allows you to say, ‘This is exactly how I did it that time and I need to change this,'" Hethmon says. "You might be following a recipe you got from somewhere, someone. But everyone's equipment is a little different in the homebrewing community. You might follow a recipe the first time and then vary it."

A lot of brewing is identifying a problem, figuring out how to fix it and applying it to the next batch, Beeson says. "As long as that first batch is drinkable and good enough, you'll want to try again," he says.

Peed's first batch in 1976 wasn't very good. He tried again, but his results never met his expectations. He didn't achieve the taste he wanted until he joined the homebrewers club.

"I've become a pretty decent brewer," Peed says. He has several first and second place finishes from the American Homebrewers Association national competition.

The group taught him a lot, especially about cleanliness, and gave him people with a similar interest with whom to talk.

Brewers must spend a lot of time making sure equipment is sanitized since they use a live organism, yeast. "There are three reasons you fail: cleanliness, cleanliness, cleanliness," Herrmann jokes. Beer can taste terrible—"like a Band-Aid"—if it becomes contaminated, he says.

"You are not raising anything that is harmful to you," Herrmann says. "You just wouldn't want to drink it."

Hethmon says his brewing has become more frequent, efficient, and better tasting since he joined the club. Members aren't secretive about recipes and techniques and they are constantly sharing their results. Many of them still consume a variety of store-bought microbrews from all over the world, but only if it's "good beer."

They want to share the results of years of perfecting "wort" cooling methods and experimenting with coconut or chocolate with the Knoxville community, too. Besides serving their beer at the Brewers' Jam, the group also volunteers with brewery check-in and carrying heavy kegs.

The Jam is just one way for these beer lovers to improve the palette of Knoxville drinkers—that and making pretzel necklaces.