Written by Steven Bertoni for Forbes.com
Christopher Bowen is making a 4,000-mile beer run. This July the 43-year-old financial planner will ride a BMW motorcycle from his house in Bethlehem, Pa. up to the Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic. Once there, he’ll set up camp and brew 100 gallons of beer using a 158-year-old recipe.
No, this wasn’t a plan dreamed up after a few too many cold ones. In 2007 Bowen watched a sealed 1852 bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale sell for $500,000 on Ebay. The final bid turned out to be bogus (Bowen thinks the bottle was worth $300,000), but the auction inspired him to find out more.
For more than two years Bowen researched the history of this rare beer. Commissioned by Queen Victoria for the aptly named Sir Edward Belcher’s 1852 Arctic expedition, Allsopp’s boasted a 12% alcohol content to resist freezing and was packed with 700 calories to nourish sailors. In 1854, when four of Belcher’s five ships became trapped in the Arctic ice, he was forced to abandon the expedition, along with hundreds of bottles of beer. Now, having reconstructed the recipe, Bowen aims to brew the ale in the same region where Belcher’s expedition came to a disastrous end.
It’s an audacious plan, but home brewers like Bowen are a daring bunch. While most Americans grab a six-pack from the corner store, these do-it-yourselfers spend hours in yeasty basements and garages fermenting brew that won’t be drinkable for months. Why? In an age of digitalization and electronic paychecks, home brewing is a hands-on process that yields something tangible, something that can be shared. “You find you have a lot of friends once you start brewing your own beer,” says Bowen.
More than 500,000 Americans partake in the hobby, estimates the American Homebrewers Association. A basic brew kit with plastic fermenting buckets, an air lock, a bottle capper, yeast and flavoring costs around $75. A five-gallon batch of wort can be whipped up in three hours; the fermenting takes longer.
But once you are hooked, you are tempted to spend a lot more. Morebeer.com sells high-tech brew systems out of California for $30,000. Home brewers have been known to buy $1,000 worth of Spanish saffron or hundreds of pounds of tupelo honey to flavor their concoctions. Drew Beechum, a computer programmer in Pasadena, Calif., says he’s spent $25,000 jetting across the globe, snatching up yeast strains like a butterfly collector from British taps, Belgian Trappist monasteries and Bavarian beer halls.
Bowen, who is co-owner of Mind’s Eye Resource Management, an asset management firm specializing in the food industry, bought a cottage near his home and transformed an old shed into a private brewery and bar. He taught himself welding, plumbing and electronics to craft a three-kettle brew system and even built a device that replicates water from anywhere in the world: high bicarbonate levels for Irish stouts, soft water for German pilsners.
Bowen gets up at 4 a.m. to clean, tinker and brew beer before working a full day. The effort has paid off. He has won more than 50 beer awards, including the ProAm gold medal at the 2007 Great American Beer Festival. “I sleep about four hours a night, but I never walk around tired,” he says.
This year he’s learning a new skill: film production. Bowen is turning his trip to the Arctic north into a 60-minute documentary that he calls Arctic Alchemy, using Allsopp’s Arctic Ale to tell the story of England’s search for a Northwest passage to the Pacific. Bowen hopes the film will attract fans of history, beer and motorcycles.
During the journey Bowen and two friends will ride bikes, while a support team of two filmmakers and a photographer will tow supplies behind a Land Rover. Bowen has contributed half of the $32,000 raised toward the project’s $64,000 budget and is looking to collect more through donations, T-shirt sales and sponsorships. Back in Bethlehem, Bowen will ferment and bottle the Allsopp’s, which he’ll later hand out as a promotional item for the film. (As a home brewer, he can’t legally sell the stuff.)
Bowen has met with producers from the History Channel and A&E about his documentary and is discussing a series that would follow him as he hunts down and brews old recipes in historic locations. “It’s all pie-in-the-sky stuff, but I have some hopes this could be a career change for me.”