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A Brewing Trend : Thousand Oaks Class Tapping Into Popularity of Homemade Beer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Historians have surmised that long, long ago in the early days of Mesopotamia and Egyptian cultures the first beer was brewed. It was homebrew! -Charlie Papazian The Joy of Homebrewing

Joel Steinberg has but one ambition in life: to make a better beer. But the 47-year-old “taste hunter,” whose wild gray hair and bushy mustache more closely recall Jack Daniel than Adolph Coors, is not going at it alone.

Steinberg earlier this year formed the Brown Bag Bootleggers, named after his Thousand Oaks deli, and began teaching home brewing free to anyone with a thirst for knowledge. In only eight months, the Bootleggers club boasts 300 members.

“There are much larger clubs, but I’m not aware of any that have grown this fast,” Steinberg said. “It’s almost a cult kind of thing.”

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The reason for such strong interest in this increasingly popular art is simple, Steinberg says. “Home-brew is better.”

“People are tired of paying $5 a six pack for trash, when they can brew at home for $2.50 or $3 a six-pack of wonderful, creative, rich quality beer,” he said. And best of all, he added, it’s easy.

“I started teaching the class for free because not enough people are aware of the simplicity of the process,” he said. “It’s less complicated than baking a cake.”

The only ingredients needed are water, malted barley (fermentable sugars), hops, yeast and assorted flavorings. The process essentially involves combining and cooking the ingredients to a given recipe, and then allowing the beer to age anywhere from a week to several months.

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“If you can make spaghetti or boil water for tea, you can make beer at home,” said Steinberg, who makes his money selling home-brew kits and supplies. “The first couple of batches will come so easy to you, you will wonder why you didn’t get involved earlier.”

Steinberg’s classes are held once every two weeks at the Brown Bag Deli in the Janss Mall and usually have about 20 students, with a mix of newcomers as well as experienced brewers.

“We had a class recently with 46 people in it,” Steinberg said, adding that most Bootleggers are working professionals. A recent gathering included a microbiologist, a public accountant, an aerospace engineer, a college student and a heavy equipment operator.

Surprisingly, there was not a beer belly among them.

“The diversity in the crowd is indicative of where the home-brewing industry is going,” Steinberg said. “It’s not a slum business. It’s middle- and upper-middle-income clientele. These are people with expendable incomes looking for hobbies.”

Jamey Johns, a 27-year-old certified public accountant and well-respected member of the Bootlegger’s Club, said he took up the hobby three years ago because he loves his beer in a variety of styles, colors, tastes and aromas.

“It’s just like cooking,” said Johns, a Thousand Oaks resident. “There’s gourmet chefs, and there’s gourmet beer.”

Fellow Bootlegger Matt Gilling, a 32-year-old ad sales manager for USA Today, said he finds great satisfaction in being able to create something entirely his own.

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“It’s like a personalized signature,” said Gilling of Thousand Oaks. “We’re only talking beer here, but for people who have creative energy but can’t paint or write poetry, they can still make something that people are going to enjoy.”

Indeed, home brewing in recent years has emerged as one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the country. The American Homebrewers Assn. estimates there are about 1.5 million amateur brewmeisters nationwide.

“There’s a renaissance going on,” said Lori Tullberg-Kelly, marketing director for the Colorado-based group. “People are rediscovering beer. Because of new technology and the information that is now available, people are discovering that they can make really outrageous beer at home, and they can make it exactly to their taste.

“Plus it’s easy,” she said. “I can’t cook. But I can brew.”

Michael J. Lewis, a professor of brewing science at UC Davis, which offers the only bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in the country on beer making, said the growing interest in home brewing should not be dismissed as a fad.

“A fad implies that it won’t last,” he said. “But home brewing has been with us for centuries.”

Lewis said the fact that home brewing only became legal in this country in 1978 may account in part for its sudden rise in popularity here. Home brewing is still outlawed in about 10 states.

Today, there are more than 400 brew pubs and microbreweries in the United States that offer a wide variety of ales and lagers. As a result of their success and the popularity of import beers, the country’s megabrewers have begun expanding their own product line to incorporate super premiums such as Miller Reserve Amber Ale, Stroh’s Augsburger Bock, Coors Winterfest, and Anheuser Busch’s Michelob Classic Dark.

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Steinberg said he hopes to eventually open his own brew pub in Thousand Oaks, where he can offer his own special handcrafted beers.

Shields Brewing Co. and restaurant in Ventura--which bottles and sells several of its own beers locally--is the only such facility now operating in the county.

Owner Bob Shields, who has seen his beer business double over the last four years, said he recently signed an agreement with Pacific Beverage that will further increase his distribution throughout Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Several grocery store chains, hotels and restaurants already carry Shields’ specially brewed ales and stouts.

Shields said that while microbreweries and brew pubs have long been popular in other parts of the state, especially the San Francisco Bay Area, it is only beginning to catch on in Southern California.

“The concept is still new in Southern California,” he said. “I think it’s because of the climate and lifestyle. People here like light beer.”

But that is changing, Shields said, as more people become aware of the seemingly endless variety of microbrewed beers available. Already a number of major supermarket chains have begun to carry a large stock of handcrafted beers from around the world.

“I think once Southern California discovers this, there’s going to be a taste explosion,” Shields said. “I don’t think you can have a Samuel Smith beer or one of ours and go back to Budweiser.”

Although Steinberg does not have a license to sell home-brew, the Brown Bag Deli offers more than 200 beers produced by both microbreweries and megabrewers from around the world. A selection that offers something to fill everyone’s tastes.

There’s Alimony Ale--"The Bitterest Brew in America”; Survivor’s Stout and Earthquake Pale from the San Andreas Brewing Co.; Ed’s Original Cave Creek Chili Beer, complete with a jalapeno in every bottle; and Blackened Voodoo Lager from New Orleans, described as “the first all-malt beer in Dixie’s history. . . imparted with a touch of magical Louisiana spirit, deep color and a bewitching character.”

“There’s a lot of controversy about that one,” Steinberg said, noting that the beer was outlawed in Texas for a time because of the reference in its name to the occult.

He said members of the Brown Bag Bootleggers have come up with a few choice recipes of their own and have plans to eventually enter the American Homebrewers Assn. competition.

“We make a red-flame raisin and licorice porter that is the most delicious beer you ever tasted in your life,” Steinberg said. “We also make what the Bootleggers call Bone-Shaker Stout that is strong in alcohol. It’s a dark, aromatic beer that would just amaze you.”

But during a recent class, another Steinberg brew, dubbed Wise Ass Red, got a thumbs down from his fellow Bootleggers. Most complained of its bitter aftertaste.

Steinberg agreed, saying the beer should have been aged another week to allow more time for carbonation, resulting in a smoother taste.

“If I wasn’t teaching the class, I probably wouldn’t have served that beer,” he said. “But I choose to take my lumps to let the beginners see that everything you do will affect your beer.”

But it all comes down to personal taste, Steinberg said.

“There are some people who taste the flatness and bitterness in a beer like this, and they think they went to heaven,” he said. “That’s one of the beauties of home-brew is that once you find the recipe you like, you can brew it and play around with it with simple adjustments.”

Alfons Von Den Stemmen, a 50-year-old heavy equipment operator from Malibu and recently anointed Bootlegger Club member, said he enrolled in Steinberg’s class to see if it could help him in his yearlong quest to match the recipe of Erdinger Weissbier made in his German hometown of Erdinger.

So determined is Von Den Stemmen to duplicate the recipe that he spent this past summer in Erdinger at one of the oldest breweries in the world, established in 1040, taking courses on beer making.

Did he learn anything?

“Yes,” Von Den Stemmen said with a hearty laugh. “I learned not to drink while you brew.”


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