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2014 Spring Issue 6 (May 16, 2014)

The New Brew-haha: Inside Carleton’s Brewing Community

May 18, 2014
By Drew Higgins

“In the fall, Jordy and I were both under loading, and we figured we were going to need a hobby. So, we googled ‘good hobbies for young men,’ and this was on a list among many things. It said, like, ‘you don’t have to spend much time, and it’s really rewarding, and you get beer in the end,’ ” commented junior Peter Downie, about why he and his roommate, Jordy Cammarota ‘16, started brewing beer last fall term.

Downie and Cammarota are a few of the many students making their own alcohol on campus. The alcohol of choice varies, from hard-cider to wine, though beer is likely the most popular. The trend is nothing new: in 1993, Jesse Christensen described the brewing community on-campus in his Carletonian article, “Bitten by the brewin’ bug.” But twenty years ago, there were only ten known home-brewers at Carleton. Today, though no exact statistic exists, the number has certainly grown.

Senior Jonathan Kagan-Kans, co-president of Carleton’s Hill O’ Three Oaks brewing club, commented, “I’m always surprised by how many people you hear about— ‘oh I made batch in a dorm kitchen, or whatever.’ We have a good number of people who come and are interested in the club, but there are definitely a number who don’t come and also home-brew, so it’s hard to tell exactly. It’s definitely more widespread than I had thought.”

I spoke with eight student and one alum. At the end of each interview, the interviewee would invariably suggest I contact some other Carleton brewer he knew. I even found two freshman brewers on accident, when I emailed a student I’d heard was making his own alcohol. The student wrote back that I was mistaken, and must be thinking of Jacob Frankel and Daniel Lewitz—who both, indeed, are brewers, but were not the student I was originally thinking of.

One aspect that has not changed about Carleton’s brewing community since 1993 is its gender ratio. All of the brewers I met are male. Christensen also mentions this odd fact. He writes, “all of the Carleton home brewers seem to be men, although no one seems to know why.” Indeed, although ideas about the stereotypical masculinity of brewing’s do-it-yourself nature and of beer itself come to mind, like Christensen, I can offer no explanation.

Regardless, the trend is growing. Left and right, Carls are experimenting with the process of brewing and fermentation, with various results and mishaps.
Sophomore Jackson Bahn began brewing cider and wine his sophomore year in high school, under his desk at home. When he came to Carleton, he continued brewing in his closet in Watson. At first, he avoided acquiring equipment. “When you have all this equipment, it feels like a kit,” he said. “It doesn’t feel as personal… I liked the idea of just figuring out your own equipment.”

Consequently, Bahn would ferment in whatever he could find—usually glass jars, which were manageable though not ideal. Eventually, however, his makeshift equipment led him astray.

“I didn’t have enough [glass jars] so I just used an old liquor bottle. I forget what it was, but it had a glass handle,” he said. “And one day, my roommate last year said, ‘it smells very cidery in here.’ So I said, ‘well, you know, there’s cider in here.’ But then as the day went on, it got stronger and stronger, so I looked in the closet and 1.75 liters of cider had exploded all over.” Suffice to say, Bahn now owns a carboy (which, for those unacquainted with brewing vernacular, is simply a large glass jar made for fermentation).

Alum and former C.A.N.O.E. house member Griffin Williams ’13, who is in the process of opening his own brewery in Seattle, commented on this common pitfall: “Only once did I blow the lid off a bucket during fermentation. But being a prepared, CANOE-y, I’d wrapped the fermentor in a backpacking sleeping pad, so the mess was pretty well contained.  It’s not too common for a fermentor to pop it’s top like that, but it seems every home-brewer has a story or two before they figure out how to prevent it.” (More vernacular: a fermentor is simply a vessel within which fermentation occurs—not to be confused with fermenter, which is the organism that ferments liquid.)

For most, the first stabs at brewing or fermentation include much trial and error.  Regarding his and Lewitz’ early batches, Frankel commented, “I don’t know what  the official chemistry definition of beer is, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t meet that definition.”

One freshman, who preferred to remain anonymous, also struggled with the initial learning curve. In the fall, he fermented wild grapes he had picked around Lyman Lakes. “I ruined the first two batches, at different times,” he remarked. “I also ruined the third batch at a different time because I didn’t have the proper equipment… But in the end, the reason I was doing it wasn’t for the end product. It was for the process.”

Complex and finicky as it is, the brewing process is indeed loved by the truly devout. Brewing has a lot of wow factor, and as a result, many individuals express initial interest that quickly wanes when the involved nature of the activity is revealed. Commented Frankel, “a lot of people signed up for brew club being like, ‘yeah, brewing! beer!’ and then they show up and its a six-hour process and most of it is washing out old buckets and letting things boil.”
“It’s definitely delayed gratification,” added Lewitz.

When I asked Williams what his favorite part of brewing was, he replied, “Has to be the process. I get really excited about checking off steps and keeping track of progress. Every step in brewing rewards you with some new outcome, whether it’s sweet steam boiling off the kettle or a shiny, just cleaned fermentor.”
He continued: “A common adage about brewing is that the hobby (or profession) is a small part drinking and relaxing, and an extremely large part cleaning and paperwork. 

Definitely doesn’t appeal to everybody, but for myself, and I think most brewers, the whole hobby is about the process.”

Real brewers tend to enjoy even the cleaning part of the drawn-out affair. Downie said, “it’s fun just cleaning the equipment ahead of time, because it’s pretty goofy. We have these food grade buckets, cleaner and sanitizer, but the only place we can really clean everything is in the handicap shower. We all get our swimsuits on, walk in with these buckets and weird stuff, and people give us funny looks.”

For some, the goal is not the final product either.

“To be honest, it’s not the alcohol I’m doing this for,” said Frankel. “I don’t really like beer. I just like the process of brewing. I learn a lot, and I’m introduced to a whole new understanding of the concept of creating alcohol.”

Granted, this sentiment is probably rare among brewers (when asked what his favorite part of the process was, Bahn resolutely replied, “the beer”), but it highlights the way in which the process of making alcohol often changes an individual’s relationship with the beverage.

Bahn said, “Home-brewing is a really drawn out process. It takes hours, and every bottle you drink is one less bottle of homebrew you have, so you really treasure it. Like, you don’t put out a rack of home-brew for a party. Maybe when you have friends over, you put out a couple of glasses.”

In this sense, he added, “I would say it encourages less destructive drinking habits.”

The college does not appear to have any official policy regarding student brewing, but seeing as the school funds a brew club, the issue is ostensibly not an issue.

Administrators may even perceive that alcohol appreciation diminishes alcohol abuse. At the end of February, The Cave hosted a “Regional Craft Beer Tasting,” and just last month, ran a wine-tasting workshop called “Savor the Flavor.” The strategy seems wise, considering that, as Bahn said, “People are going to drink. Better that they drink things that taste good in small amounts rather than a lot of cheap gross things.”

But an event at The Cave and students producing their own alcohol is a different matter. Although it is legal for individuals over the age of eighteen to brew beer in the United States (though not to consume it, of course), some students have had difficulty brewing in dorms.

Downie and Cammarota began brewing in a Nourse kitchen, but  Cammarota reported, “The RA wasn’t comfortable with it, and she talked to the hall director, who was like ‘yeah, just do it somewhere else, that’d probably be better for everyone.’ ” Similarly, Frankel and Lewitz “were asked not to brew in the lounge again.”

Most agree that off-campus houses are the best places to brew, for multiple reasons. Senior Jesse Gourevitch said, “I did it in Memo last spring, and I don’t know if my roommates appreciated it that much. It’s definitely easier being off-campus… In terms of space and cleaning, it’s easier having your own space.” Downie and Cammarota are currently searching for an off-campus location, and Frankel and Lewitz now use The Hill O’ Three Oaks equipment, which is located in the Crack house basement.

In spite of the fact that only a handful of students know it exists, The Hill O’ Three Oaks equipment is available to the entire campus. Unfortunately, beyond making this equipment available and running a few meetings, the club has done little else this year. Kagan-Kans himself admitted its stagnancy: “We’ve been really slacking this year, running the club,” he said, speaking for both himself and for Marcus Rider ‘14, his co-president. “We’ve both been busy and shit.”

The club was much more active when Kagan-Kans first began brewing. Members ground their own grains, and there was a chemistry major who grew the club’s yeast. “Nowadays we’ve transitioned to using pre-packaged kits, and it kind of feels like cheating,” Kagan-Kans said.

At one point, the club even applied for an interest house, and attempted to get their beer served at The Cave and spring concert. Their application was denied, however, and serving home brew to students ultimately raised too many questions about health and sanitation.

Still, even while he was at Carleton, Williams said, “Three Oaks definitely drew some groups together and added a few more curious souls to the hobby, but most people were doing their own thing.”

According to Williams, this is not unusual.  “Homebrewers are generally very friendly and very excited to talk to other brewers, but they are also notorious for doing things on their own and making up their own experiments.  Even if they come together for club meetings and whatnot, brewers have strong opinions on their methods and ideas, so they’re often honing their brewing skills in private or with a smaller group of friends,” he said.

Brewers therefore may not form the most cohesive communities. Many feel that the brewing process is inherently social, but at Carleton--and perhaps elsewhere--it seems as if it is a process shared with a few friends, and not with a larger club or group. The Carleton brewing community is probably better described as many pockets of brewers, rather than one large mass.

There is no doubt, however, that a brewing cohort exists on the Internet, and in Gourevitch’s opinion, “There is a big online community.”

“For every beer you buy, there are hundreds of reviews… I just scroll through reviews and see what looks good,” he said.

Frankel echoed this sentiment. “Legitimately if you have a question about brewing and you Google it, someone has asked the question to some brewing forum on the internet somewhere. So, it’s very easy to figure out how to do things.”

For those looking to start brewing, Williams provided the following advice: “You can make beer with just about anything, but small expenses and dedicated equipment can make everything go more smoothly… See what works for your budget. But if you go cheap, you have to have a little extra patience.”

The aformentioned anonymous freshman felt that everyone should attempt to make their own alcohol, “even if they are ruining these batches under their bed.”

“Just more people should get interested in it, because it’s really easy, and it’s really simple, and it’s really rewarding,” he remarked.

He also strongly suggested students utilize the dining halls’ discarded buckets. “LDC has tons of food grade buckets, so anyone can just go out and take them… right behind LDC.”

A special thank you to Jesse Gourevitch, who generously gave me a six-pack of his home-brew after our interview. Jesse: how did you know I liked bitter beer?

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