Los Angeles Times

Resident gets crafty with home brewing

An officer in a Huntington Beach police cruiser coasted by Jon Welfringer's garage on the west end of town several times on a recent afternoon, perhaps curious about what the resident was doing.

Three large silver kettles near his driveway glinted in the sunlight while steam was released from the tops while he brewed a batch of beer.

"I tried to wave him down so we can chat, but he turned the corner," said Welfringer.

Welfringer, 47, is one of an increasing number of home brewers in the United States.

Even the White House is known for brewing and serving honey ale and honey porter to the president.

According to Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Assn. in Boulder, Colo., about 1.5 million people across the nation are brewing beer in their homes, and the number is growing rapidly.

He said the increase in craft beers — those produced in limited numbers by small, independent breweries — and people turning to do-it-yourself hobbies, as well as the overall support for utilizing local materials and businesses, have contributed to the rise in home brewers.

"When it comes to beer, it doesn't get any more local than home brews," Glass said.

Welfringer wasn't concerned about police officers talking to him about his afternoon activity because it's legal to brew, within certain limits.

According to California state law, no permit or license is needed to make beer, but a household with multiple adults can brew only 200 gallons a year (100 gallons per single-adult household), and the beverage cannot be sold for profit.

Additionally, the beer can be transported to events from the place where it was manufactured, so long as no fee is involved.

On this afternoon, a few friends joined Welfringer in brewing 10 gallons each of his Fresh-Hopped Cascade American Pale Ale and Centennial Blonde Ale.

He creates and fine-tunes most of his recipes through multiple brew sessions. Welfringer said he also enjoys doing online research and then trying to copy beers made by microbreweries.

"It's not that hard to prototype a recipe," he said. "I use software to do it. It allows me to add grains and hops to see what the calculated beginning and finished gravities are and what the alcohol content is going to be."

The smell of freshly milled grain filled the air when the brewing process began that morning. The three 20-gallon kettles were simultaneously being prepped for each of its duties. The first one is used for boiling water for the second vat, which is used to mash the grains.

Mashing is the process by which grains are boiled to break down the starch into sugars, Welfringer said.

The aroma began to strengthen considerably when the wort — the liquid extracted from mashing that will be fermented to create beer — was moved into the third kettle and boiled with hop pellets and fresh Cascade hop buds.

This entire process took about four hours per batch, but it wasn't a big deal for Welfringer and his friends.

The group would chat about brewing and cars while pouring pints from his custom-built kegerator — a device used to store, chill and dispense beer — and eating pulled-pork sandwiches made by his wife.

But when a loud buzzer went off, everyone stopped what he was doing and immediately checked the kettles or the computer that was monitoring the process, telling them when to add the next cup of hops or if the next step was about to begin.

After the brewing process, the beer must ferment for two or three weeks before being transferred to another canister for an additional week.

Welfringer, who spent about $5,000 for his equipment, considers his brewing rig one of the more high-end and complex systems.

Using his information-technology background, Welfringer has been able to work with multiple control units monitoring temperatures and regulating liquid flow and cooking time.

Every now and then, the kettles' burners would automatically turn on to maintain the proper heat.

"I've always been a home-automation junkie. Every light in the house can be remote-controlled, or when the wife wants to jump in the spa, I can turn it on with my cell phone," Welfringer said. "When it comes to brewing, it was more of an extension of what I was already doing."

He would not have been one to pick up a control system that most people can buy at a local home brewing store. Dissatisfied with the stock program and interface, he decided to redo everything himself.

Helping with Welfringer's brew day was long-time friend Brian Cockle, who also brews his own beer.

Cockle, 38, of Garden Grove, ran the system like clockwork, knowing each step of the process and only asking Welfringer about certain things just to double check.

Cockle said he likes the creative freedom that comes with making beer.

"I like the craft of it," he said. "It's one of those hobbies where you can be as scientific as you want or as artsy as you want."

Welfringer's wife, Susan, Huntington Beach Downtown Business Improvement District manager, said it took her a few years to get used to him brewing, but she confessed that he had turned her into a beer snob. She started with the more subtle blonde and pale ales and now enjoys the more bitter India pale ale.

"The way I did that was that I added more and more hops to the pale ale I was brewing, making it more bitter," Jon Welfringer said. "Then every time she had the pale ale, she would tell me that she liked that one. So I kept pushing it."

Susan Welfringer said that because of their developed palates, the two tend to go to only a few restaurants, depending on what was on tap.

"He doesn't look so much at the food menu but instead what the beer choices are," she said.

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