The true brew

Steamboat's homebrewers revel in the fresh taste of a genuine craft

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Visit the AHA Web site for complete homebrewing resources, a guide for beginners and information on the National Homebrewers Conference, which returns to Denver this summer: www.beertown.org.>

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Empty glass beer bottles wait to be filled with a homebrew at Stephen Craig's house in Steamboat Springs on Friday

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Homebrewer Stephen Craig displays two carboys full of fermenting brown, left, and amber beer at his home in Steamboat Springs on Friday.

— It all started for Charlie Noble when he moved to Steamboat Springs from Boulder 13 years ago with housemate Wulf Levenshtein.

"He's the guy who taught me how to homebrew," Noble said. "He had the homebrew kit, and I had the keg fridge - it was the perfect marriage."

As Noble began making batches and experimenting with different ingredients, he would pick the brains of the brewmasters from the two brewpubs in town at the time - Heavenly Daze and Steamboat Brewery and Tavern.

"I could combine their two different approaches and come up with my own," Noble said.

The other breweries have since closed, but Noble's passion for making beer has remained. Now Noble owns Mahogany Ridge Brewery & Grill and is Steamboat's only active, bona fide brewmaster.

What started as a hobby has come full circle. Brewing more than fifty 300-gallon batches of beer a year, Noble's production - dumping 242 pounds of cherries in for a summer batch of cherry ale - has grown beyond his sole control, and he has enlisted help from Levenshtein, another passionate homebrewer who's still at it.

"Beer is good; beer is life," Noble said. "It's helped civilizations survive. It was a pure source of water in medieval times because of the boiled water. It is liquid bread and each style and taste has developed according to distinct regional needs."

The Yampa Valley Yeast Ranchers club of a dozen or so local homebrewers has fizzled away, but the craft is alive and well in basements, utility rooms and garages across the county.

"Homebrew is so pure - if I'm only going to have two or three beers, I'm going to make sure it's homebrew and not something that will mess with my system," said Stephen Craig, an engineering professor at Colorado Mountain College who started offering a once-a-semester "beginning homebrewing" course. "I can spend $15 to make two cases of the best beer you've ever tasted, have three pints and never have a headache and never have a hangover."

Craig also picked up the craft in Boulder, on the cusp of homebrew and microbrewing's renaissance in Colorado. In 1990, he bought his first 5-gallon glass carboy vessel from Colonel John, "this salty old guy from the Navy who was selling the equipment out of his house."

Craig's ability to hone into the right grains for a perfect raspberry wheat or a thick coffee stout increased as the popularity of "craft brewing" took off in Colorado.

"Our membership peaked in the mid-'90s," said Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association - which was founded in Boulder in 1978 by Charlie Papazian, the creator of the Great American Beer Festival and author of the so-called "homebrewer's bible," also known as "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing."

Glass assured prospective homebrewers that despite the current market being flooded with inexpensive craft beers, the hobby continues to grow in the hotbed of Colorado.

"Our membership is up 20 percent from last year and in Colorado, relative to the population, there's definitely a large number - more members than any other state," Glass said. "Colorado is unique in the U.S. with its laws for brewers in that small breweries can self-distribute. There's over 100 breweries in the state. There's also laws against multiple retail liquor stores, so you have mom-and-pop stores instead of chain liquor stores and without someone doing the large-scale buying, you can deal with lots of small breweries."

Glass also believes the trend to support localized production is helping, along with a shifting demographic from the "settled-down, middle-aged man" to younger adults that want more variety and can acquire the products and know-how online.

"When I really started to like beer, in college, I knew that I'd just want to sit down and enjoy one, and not 12 just to get ripped," said Andy Stewart, a 31-year-old Steamboat resident who began homebrewing seven years ago and now orders supplies from www.nwbrewers.com. "I've never made the same batch twice. In the winter, I like a stronger, darker beer, and in the summer, I like the lagers and the blondes."

While Stewart enjoys the inexpensive cost of brew kit grains and the simplicity of "just adding water" to basic ingredients and then sitting back and having total quality control of his taste buds, Craig is fascinated by the chemical complexities of the brew process.

"It's just a handful of ingredients, but during the fermenting stage, when gas is being released, there's actual energy going on and particles moving in a wild circular motion," Craig said, stating the common thread that connects all masters of their personal beer domain: "The thrill is creating something that's more than just a drink. It represents my sweat and my work, and I know when that glass hits my lips, it's going to be better than anything I can buy."

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