Heads up

Basic home beer brewing is easy, but for the Washoe Zephyr Zymurgists and the folks at The Reno Homebrewer, perfecting the alchemy is a way of life

Rob Bates owns The Reno Homebrewer, a store where customers stock up on fresh ingredients, equipment and beer-brewing advice, and drop by to discuss the fine points of concocting your own foamy nectar.

Rob Bates owns The Reno Homebrewer, a store where customers stock up on fresh ingredients, equipment and beer-brewing advice, and drop by to discuss the fine points of concocting your own foamy nectar.

Photo By David Robert

“There are only three skills you need to successfully brew beer at home,” says Rob Bates, owner of The Reno Homebrewer. “You need to be able to boil water, keep it sanitary and have the patience to wait for three or four weeks.”

Three basic skills, and you’re able to take control of your own guzzling destiny, creating your ideal beer and having it fresh and cheap. (The equivalent of an $8-$9 six-pack of respectable brew costs about $4-$5 to make.) Plus, there’s the belly-filling satisfaction of a job well done.

“Brewing is like dining,” says Bates. “You have your TV dinners, your gourmet meals and your good ole down- home cooking.”

The next important factor of home brewing is the ingredients. You need fresh grains, hops and yeast, and this is why you’ll visit The Reno Homebrewer, 2335 Dickerson Road. Simply put, The Reno Homebrewer sells supplies to make beer and wine at home. This simple premise fosters such an empowered, independent way of life, it’s no wonder that some customers joke that Bates is the visionary leader of a cult.

“We drink the blood of virgin beer drinkers,” he says. The store sells all the necessary equipment and a variety of malts, grains, hops and yeasts, as well as pre-packaged recipes and $75 start-up kits that have everything needed to make five gallons of beer. There are also supplies for root beers and other sodas and kits for wine-making. The store offers brewing classes, usually (but not always) the first Monday of every month.

Photo By David Robert

“And we do have recipes for crappy beers, if that’s what you want to make,” says Bates.

The shop is a beer aficionado’s paradise. There are approximately 990 bottles on the wall.

“Unfortunately they’re all already empty,” says Bates. “But it was a pleasure emptying them.”

The store’s relative isolation means that it doesn’t get a lot of drive-by customers. The clientele is limited strictly to the brewing cognoscenti. “You’ll never find a home brew shop in a mall,” says Bates. “Never. They wouldn’t be able to afford it, and the parking’s always lousy.”

Bates’ own latest brew is a delicious, strong holiday ale with coriander and orange peel flavors. It would be illegal for him to sell it—licensing requirements make that prohibitively complex—but he has the recipe, if anyone is interested.

Though he can’t sell any homebrew, Bates always keeps a few great commercial beers on tap, and the store has a hand-picked selection of bottled microbrew, foreign beers, specialty beers and, perversely, Coors Light.

Photo By David Robert

“It’s actually a good beer to drink if you want to be able to walk at the end of the day,” Bates says.

He stresses that The Reno Homebrewer is not a bar. Non-brewers who might want to stop by and have a have a few stiff drinks are discouraged. The beers are offered strictly as a courtesy to home-brewing customers.

However, despite the fact that The Reno Homebrewer is not a bar, you’re still likely to find a cheery group of guys hanging out, talking about blues guitarists. But these guys are all brewers, and most of them are members of the local brewing club, the Washoe Zephyr Zymurgists (WZZ, pronounced, appropriately enough, “whizz"). They come from a variety of social and professional backgrounds, but the uniting thread of the WZZers is that they all love beer. And they love to brew it themselves.

There are innumerable hobby clubs that get together on a regular basis to socialize and have a few tall, cold ones—but rarely is the hobby itself so intimately tied to that perennial club activity.

The WZZ, originally known as Sierra Unorganized Draft Suckers (SUDS), has been around since the summer of 1985. The current WZZ president is John Tull, the only Nevadan awarded the rank of master judge by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), an organization dedicated to, according to its Web site (bjcp.org), “promot[ing] beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer and to recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills.”

The BJCP examination is rigorous. “I’ve had friends who have taken both the BJCP exam and the California Bar exam,” says Tull. “They say the bar is easier.” The highest rank awarded by the BJCP is grandmaster judge, and there are no Nevadan grandmasters. In addition to Tull, Eric McClary, the late Great Basin Brewing Co. brew master and founding member of the WZZ, had also been awarded the rank of master judge.

Photo By David Robert

Tull says he sees the role of the beer judge as helping brewers improve their craft. This includes all brewers, from beginners using pre-packaged kits to experienced, all-grain brewers who brew beer “like baking cakes from scratch.”

The big event of the WZZ calendar is coming up next month. The Washoe Zephyr Zymurgists Homebrew Competition is Feb. 27 at Silver Peak Restaurant and Brewery. The event is BJCP recognized and sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association. Prizes include kegs from Silver Peak and the Great Basin Brewing Co. and gift certificates from The Reno Homebrewer.

The WZZ will bring in more than 30 judges, including grandmasters, many of them from California. There’s a variety of style categories ranging from light lagers to Belgian strong ales, and also including fruit beers and smoke-flavored and wood-aged beers. There are also categories for meads and ciders. There were 125 entries last year, and Tull anticipates even more this year.

The beers are judged by the expert panel based on, among other things, color, aroma, mouthfeel and, of course, taste. Attention is paid to the qualities of the bubbles and the thickness of the head. Of utmost importance are any clues as to the sanitary conditions of the brewing; astringent tastes and sulphuric odors can be warning signs that the brewing was either rushed or not perfectly sanitary.

“But even if it’s swill, as a judge I’ll drink some because it’s my duty to provide feedback to the brewer,” says Tull. “The flip side is that even if I really love a beer, I can’t drink too much of it because I’ll still need to taste a lot more beers.”

As will we all.

The entry deadline for the WZZ Homebrew Competition is Feb. 19. Applications are available alongside the rest of the necessary supplies at The Reno Homebrewer.