Beer has only four ingredients—water, hops, barley and yeast—but the devil’s in the details when it comes to turning them into something transcendent. There are limitless ways these building blocks can be manipulated and combined, meaning there are limitless ways to screw up a batch.
So it’s good, perhaps even comforting, to know that we have some very talented amateur zymologists in Las Vegas. Weston Barkley, Matt Breen and Kyle Weniger are three, and they’re all members of the Southern Nevada Ale Fermenters Union, or SNAFU, a local brewing group that was honored with the coveted Gambrinus Club award at the National Homebrew Competition in San Diego last month. The award means SNAFU had several members who racked up a lot of points in the national competition—no small achievement given that the contest drew nearly 7,000 entries from all over the county.
Barkley, Weniger and Breen all crafted beers that made the first cut in the competition; Barkley went on to place second in the final round in his category. We talked to them about their secrets and learned that in homebrewing, there are no secrets.
Barkley, SNAFU’s president, is justifiably proud of his club’s showing, though like all good coaches he chafes at some of the referee’s calls. “I was happy we won,” he says, “although I feel the [club’s] four entries that didn’t place were wonderful. The beers that won must have been really good.”
His own beer, a California common, won a silver medal in the Amber Hybrid category. Despite the name, California common is a fairly uncommon style; the best-known commercial example is Anchor Steam from San Francisco. California common uses lager yeasts at temperatures suited to ale yeasts and is considered the only truly American style of beer. It originated in the Bay Area in the early 20th century, when brewers without access to refrigeration used large vessels to cool the fermenting beer in the chilly, damp air.
To replicate that Bay Area atmosphere in his Las Vegas garage, Barkley uses a chest freezer with a modified thermostat. “You have to have control over the temperature, or it will come out funky,” he says. The result is a crisp, bright orange brew with some upfront bitterness and toasty, caramelized malt flavors. He adds Willamette Cascade hops for a fruity character to make it his own.
This is homebrewing taken several steps beyond plastic buckets. Barkley, 26, is an auto technician by trade. He’s only been homebrewing for three years, but he’s already thinking about how to make beer his day job. “There are only two ways to get into the brewing business,” he says. “Work your way up or own your brewery. I can’t really afford to quit my job and work my way up, so I think I’m going to try to come up with a large amount of money.”
Weniger, 24, has only been brewing beer for about two and a half years. But he’s already come up with a recipe that he says bridges the beer-flavor divide between the sexes: chocolate coconut porter.
“It got a lot of attention every time I brewed it,” he says. “Guys like it because it’s strong and dark; women like it because it has the coconut and chocolate flavors.”
He brews a traditional porter, then gooses it with flake coconut soaked in Malibu rum, and cacao nibs, an elementary chocolate favored by brewers and chefs. The resulting beer is thick, heavy and high in alcohol at about 8½ percent. That and his apple wine made the cut at the regional level, but were beat out at the nationals.
He’s undeterred, though, and serious about his hobby. (Full disclosure: Weniger is an employee of WENDOH Media, Vegas Seven’s parent company.) His setup takes up a quarter of his air-conditioned garage. And like Barkley, he’d like to make a living at this beer thing one day. “I don’t know how realistic it is, but that’s the goal. It’s turned into a full-blown passion for me at this point.”
At 52, Breen is the elder statesman of this trio. He’s also the one who’s had the most experience as a homebrewer, dating back to his first attempt in 1990. “I brewed rocket fuel,” he says. “It was horrible.”
He got serious about the hobby about four years ago, and unlike Barkley and Weniger, Breen has no aspirations of turning pro. For the NHC, he brewed an English brown ale similar in style to Newcastle, and co-brewed a Belgian dark strong with partner Alex Graham. The English brown is a malt-forward ale with the earthy hops typical of the style. It’s about 5¾ percent alcohol, and it’s popular at St. Patrick’s Day parties, he says. The Belgian dark strong is a high-alcohol concoction that shows off fruit flavors that originate in the malt and hops. Chimay’s Grande Réserve Blue is a comparable commercially available style.
Breen’s another garage brewer—one of the three stalls at his house given over to brewing equipment and refrigerators to chill and display the results—and while he enjoys the beers he brewed for the NHC, he’s particularly excited about a batch of Russian Imperial stout aging right now in his garage. In a year it will mature into a rich, full-bodied brew with about 10 percent alcohol. Well worth the wait.
Breen is an IT guy by day, and for him homebrewing is an endlessly fascinating mix of art and science. “What you do with those four ingredients gets down to the microbiological level,” he says. “There are about 20 books out there just on water. There are 200 or 300 things you can do just with barley.”