Homebrewers Tap Into Pennsylvania's Microbrew Frenzy

Mar 16, 2018

Pennsylvanians love their beer. The Brewers Association says that in 2017 more barrels of craft beer were brewed in Pennsylvania than in any other state in the U.S. California came in second.

But it’s not just businesses that are turning-out tasty microbrews.   Local home-brewers in Central Pennsylvania are getting into the act, too.

Brent Baskin, a member of the State College Homebrew Club, is in his garage in Port Matilda on a Saturday morning.  Sunlight is pouring in through the open door, gleaming off a couple of huge metal pots in his home brewery.

“This is kind of the first step,” Baskin says, “just getting the hot water ready that we’re going to later introduce the crushed grain to.”

He is just starting to brew a new batch of beer. And for that, the water has to be just right.  He says it’s important to know the exact temperature and mineral content of the water.

“So what I do with my water is I start out with distilled water,” Baskin says, “so I know that the mineral content is completely at zero.”

Baskin adds minerals to the water himself, measuring precisely.

“And then as far as temperature,” he adds, ”I’m taking readings all the time throughout the process just to make sure things are where they need to be.”

He’s getting the water ready to add to the mash tun, with the grain. The mash tun is a very large, tall pot with a gauge on the front. Next to it is another big pot, where Baskin is boiling the water.

“And so I’m looking for– let me check my notes here – so we want to get this water to exactly 163 and a half degrees,” Baskin says. “We’re shooting for very, very precise numbers here.”

On a long table next to the mash tun, there are clear plastic bags of different colored grains, a pair of red rubber gloves to use as potholders, and a little book of notes Baskin has written.  He consults those notes from time to time to make sure he’s doing everything right.

“You know, it’s a lot like cooking,” he explains. “When you first start out, a lot of times you’re just following recipes that people have online.  And as you start to experiment more, you just start extrapolating.  You figure out you know what flavors work well together, what definitely doesn’t work well together.  And then you just kind of get a handle on it as you go.”

The recipe Baskin is brewing now, for the first time, is his own creation. 

“And the one in particular I’m doing, I’m trying to model it after s’mores.”

S’mores? The traditional campfire snack of toasted marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers – in a beer?

“Yeah, with a smoky kind of chocolaty flavors,” Baskin says. “So I have some chocolate malt here; English brown malt, which is typically responsible for toasty and kind of coffee-ish type of flavors.  I have flaked oats, which are going to add body to it, make it feel a little bit thicker, almost more viscous. And then, just to kind of hit the nail on the head with the s’mores, I have some cherry wood smoked malt.”

Where does one get all these grains?

“You can nowadays get just about everything online,” Baskin says. “But we also do have a homebrew shop in State College at the barn in Lemont.”

Baskin pours each grain into a bowl on top of a small kitchen scale so he knows exactly how many ounces of each he’s putting into his brew.

He mills the grain, and adds it to the mash tun, pouring in the hot water.  The smell is incredible.  Like bread in the oven: a dark, chocolaty pumpernickel bread. But Baskin is used to the glorious smell.

“Yeah, the combination of all these malts, once you smell them all kind of hanging out together, it really paints a picture,” he says.

Baskin stirs the grains and water mixture in the mash tun with a long wooden paddle.  

“So the term for the water and the grains all mixed together is called ‘the mash.’ And as far as ‘tun’ I have no idea what that means,” he says, laughing.

After stirring, the mixture has to rest for awhile.

“And I’m going to be taking readings the whole time,” Baskin says. “PH readings, to measure the acidity of it. And then also just reading how much sugar is in it, so we know whether we’ve gotten all the sugar out of it, or if we have to wait a little bit longer.”

Baskin, a software developer who is still in his 20’s, says he started brewing when he was 21.

“Right when I became legal,” he says.

He was inspired by a little brewery called “Free Will” in his parent’s hometown of Perkasie, Pennsylvania.

“One of my friends had gone there and said ‘This is incredible.  You need to check this out,’” Baskin says. “Because at the time, all we were drinking was Keystone Light, or whatever light lager beer was on the shelves that was 50 cents a can. I thought that that’s all that beer was, and I hated it.”

But microbrews changed his mind for good.

“We went there, sampled a whole bunch of different stuff: dark beers, light beers, hoppy beers.  And I just fell in love with it.”

Baskin says he’s always been into cooking, trying to replicate dishes he’s had at home.  And he wanted to do the same with beer, trying his hand at all kinds of recipes, and brewing a whole lot of beer.

“I would say 30 to 40 different styles of beer.  Some of them blur the lines a little bit,” Baskin says. “You know, when you’re talking about porters, there’s three different types of porters. There’s six or seven or eight different types of IPA’s.”

So who drinks all this beer that Baskin brews?

“My girlfriend and I are both huge beer fans,” he says. “My one neighbor is also a big beer fan so I take stuff over to him in exchange for mowing my lawn every once in a while. “

And he says the State College Homebrew Club is glad to help to drink what he brews.

“We have regularly I would say 20 to 40 members attending these meetings, Baskin says. “And everyone is always bringing all the beer that they have on tap to kind of share them and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing.  Let me know what you think.’  It’s just a very cool learning experience.  And I’ve gotten much, much better since I started doing that.”

Baskin has a few freshly-made beers on tap in his garage, and gives me one to sample. (At 9:30am, it was the earliest I’ve ever consumed beer.)

“So this one is an American stout,” he says, ”which is similar to what we’re brewing today, but a lot more hops in it. So we’ve got some piney hops which pair really well with like the dark chocolate types of flavors.”

The beer is delicious.  It tastes vivid, fresh and complex.  Beer you buy at the store can’t hold a candle to it.  Now I understand why Baskin spends so many hours in his garage.

Baskin joined his colleagues in the State College Homebrew Club on March 13 for a special public tasting event in the attic of The State Theatre in State College.  Several beers were poured for the audience, as they listened to talks on porters and stout, and on the brewing process – complete with elaborate charts and photos.

As the audience mingled over beer after the talk, club member Phil Goeling of State College, who’s originally from the UK, says the Homebrew Club has grown dramatically in recent years.

While breweries in Pennsylvania have grown around 300 percent in the last 6 years, he thinks the club has pretty much kept pace.

“Probably about the same, I would guess, going by our numbers, Goeling says.  “We started with 75 online members back in 2014.  And we’re over 300 now.”

At the event, Baskin had some exciting news about a competition he entered.  His Double IPA won a prize, judged by a State College brewery, in the State College Homebrew Open Competition.

“My beer took the brewer’s choice award,” he said, “which was judged by the brewers at Robin Hood and selected to be brewed on their commercial system.”

So Baskin will have his moment in the big leagues sometime this summer, when you’ll be able to get his brew, called “Regular Cat,” on tap at Home D. Pizzeria and Robin Hood Brewing Company in State College.