Friday, May 4, 2012

Big Brew Q&A – George Hummel

George and 200 recipes
Last year, Home Sweet Homebrew, the shop George Hummel owns in Philadelphia, notched a quarter century of business, having been launched in 1986.

U2's fire was starting to become forgettable around that time, taking on a rattle and hum. Jerry Garcia was about ready to take up pedal steel guitar again after a long break from it, and Anheuser-Busch was pushing the still-bland-to-this-day Bud Light with a terrier named Spuds McKenzie. Back then, trying to find a Samuel Adams Boston Lager on tap was like trying to find hops in Coors Light, while talking Sierra Nevada on the East Coast still pretty much referred to geography.

It would be almost 10 years before the Garden State would host any of the craft brewers that are familiar now, but good beer could be found at a sort of under the radar brewery in Vernon Valley. 

A lot of things have changed on the beer landscape on either side of the Delaware since then, just about all of it for the better (except that Bud and Coors Light), and the rise of homebrewing is one of them.

George has seen a lot of those trends beer and homebrewing, and over the years has taught a lot of people in southern New Jersey how to make beer. Then how to make it better.

He recently took some time to talk to contributing writer Evan Fritz, who's also an assistant brewer with Manayunk Brewing in the Philly 'burbs, about the craft of homebrewing, beers that hit the spot, turning a homebrew recipe into gold, and a very famous shop customer.    

EF: Tell me about the homebrewing scene when you got involved with it.
GH: It was a very small portion of people that were homebrewing back then. Mostly out of necessity. There were just a few eccentrics really. They wanted to make  their own beer. Good beer. There was really no good beer in Philly at the time and some of these people would spend hours and hours on the phone with distributors and regional suppliers just to get something different and unique. As for the the large equipment and ingredient wholesalers, they are mostly the same as today.
EF: Your grandfather and great grandfather were both professional brewers. Did you ever dream of brewing professionally and following in their legacies?
GH: Yes and no. I had always thought about it. But frankly, I don't like making the same beer over and over again. That's so boring. I also can't stand all of the government regulations that go with commerical brewing. Homebrewing allows me to brew different beers and experiment and have fun.
EF: Your new book The Complete Homebrew Beer Book came out last year. Talk about some of the challenges of putting what you know into a book.
GH: The biggest challenge was when it hit me that I had 240 pages to fill, with 200 recipes, and at least one page of every recipe was the procedures. Do the math. It left me with about 40 pages to tell people how to make good beer at home. To overcome the space limitations, I got creative using sidebars for many recipes.
EF: You opened Home Sweet Homebrew in 1986. What is one homebrewing trend that has remained constant over all these years?

GH: Actually we didn't open the shop, our old friends Kurt Denke and Pam Moore did. Nancy and I took over in 1990 ... Hoppy beers. Homebrewers love hops. Simple as that. Maybe it is because it helps hide the caramelization of malt extracts.

EF: What brewing advice do you have for experienced homebrewers trying to really perfect their craft?
GH: Time and patience. All too often homebrewers try to rush the process and they do not allow enough time to do it right. Especially with sparging. People tend to rush through it and their gravity suffers ultimately.

EF: You've won many awards for your homebrew. Which one is most special to you?
GH: My most treasured prize was winning the gold medal for George's Fault in 1995 at the Great American Beer Festival. It was based on an old (Charlie) Papazian recipe. Of course, I  tweaked it beyond all recognition until it became my own personal recipe. The guys from Nodding Head (brewpub) came over my house and they loved it. They convinced me that we had to make a large batch of it. After trying my homebrewed version of it, Charlie even said it was better than his.
EF: You can find good beer all around the world. So what's your favorite country to drink in?
GH: America. I spent many years traveling the country, chasing The Dead and drinking the local beers. We've got the best beer scene on the planet now.
EF: Your home stands on the grounds of an old Philadelphia brewery. Was that a coincidence or did you know this was where you wanted to live?
GH: It was a total coincidence. It simply sounded like a cool fact when we were researching places to live in the city, near the shop.
EF: Why do you think homebrewing is getting so popular?
GH: It's a real extension to people's love for good beer. It's sort of like  cooking. People these days are looking for hobbies where they can stay home,  save money and yet still have fun. Many people use their hobby to learn more  about beer by making it themselves. It's really taking it to the next level.
EF: What is your favorite style of beer to brew? To drink?
GH: I a have a real affinity for American IPAs. I love hops and this style really lets them shine. I am also very fond of some Belgian beers and ambers that are not really too big. Malty ambers with a big hop flavor and aroma but mellow bitterness.
EF: Is it true that you sold Sam Calagione (of Dogfish Head) ingredients for his first few batches of homebrew?
GH: Yes. He actually cleaned out his local shops and headed north for a bigger inventory. He came in one day, before. anyone knew who he was, and bought several full sacks of grain, pounds of hops and about 10 packs of liquid yeast.

He was telling me he had made a pretty long trip because he had already cleaned out all of the local homebrew shops around him. I remember thinking that this guy is a serious homebrewer with a very serious hobby. Nope. He ended up opening a brewpub in Rehoboth Beach. To this day, Sam and I remain very close. People ask me all the time how I can get him to make appearances and things like that. I just tell them, I call him up and he says, "Sure. Whatever you need, George."

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