Written by Camille Bautista, The Post-Standard
A sweet, bready aroma fills the air, wafting through Kevin Czebiniak’s garage doors. With gloved hands, he pours freshly milled grain into a container, mixing it with 120-degree water to start a batch of brown ale.
“When I first made it, I took a sip and instantly knew I had it,” he said of his molasses- and honey-flavored brew.
Czebiniak, 23, is one of several young Central New Yorkers catching up to a fast-growing hobby: He is a home brewer.
Homebrewing may have flourished during Prohibition, but as a hobby, it really took off in the 1970s and has grown since then, along with the rising popularity of craft-brewed beers (not the domestic lagers produced by the beer-making giants).
One sign of homebrewing’s surge in Central New York: Membership in the Salt City Brew Club, whose members are avid brewers, has boomed over the years, leading the group to move to ever-bigger spaces for its monthly meetings. In the latest move, the club outgrew the Polish Home on Park Street in December and now meets in the American Legion hall on Tipperary Hill.
And the members seem to be getting younger.
That includes Czebiniak, who has only been brewing since April.
Salt City Brew Club
The Salt City Brew Club, for homebrewers and beer fans, meets at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month, usually at the American Legion Hall, 1951 W. Fayette St., Syracuse.
On Sept. 11, instead of the traditional meeting, the club makes its annual visit to Middle Ages Brewing Co., 120 Wilkinson St., Syracuse. For more information, go to saltcitybrew.org/wordpress.
When he brews, he fills his basement, kitchen and garage with brewing equipment, fermenting up to seven batches at a time.
“Homebrewing is really hands-on, and you can be creative in the different ways of doing it,” said Czebiniak, a Le Moyne College student. “It’s a pleasure to see that look on people’s face when they like a beer I’ve made.”
A color-coded calendar hangs on his garage wall, scribbled with fermentation dates and gravity readings (a way to measure alcohol). On his desk is a stack of homebrewing and business books.
Since becoming involved with the brew club, Czebiniak has started thinking of opening his own commercial craft brewery, a discussion he’s had with Owen McLaughlin, a veteran club member.
“A lot of these younger people are coming of age on good beer and not going towards those 30-packs of Bud in their college days,” said McLaughlin, who is 35 and served as club president until last month. “They start enjoying craft beer at a young age and … they’re motivated; they have this fire in their belly.”
Brew club members range in age from their 20s to mid-50s, McLaughlin said, with an influx of eager 20-somethings within the past months. As many as 80 people attend the brew club’s meetings, discussing monthly topics on recipes, ingredients and equipment.
Cold bottles clinked and a homebrewed smoked porter poured from the tap during the brew club’s July meeting, with members mingling in everything from Hawaiian shirts to “The Beeriodic Table” Tees. White-haired men shared tables with tattooed, pierced younger members as they discussed the flavors of the month’s tasting.
Christopher Sack, a 17-year club veteran who recently took over as president, said the welcoming, open atmosphere of the homebrewing community attracts people from different walks of life.
“For several years there was always the same crowd that would show up, but in the last six to eight months I’ve seen many new faces,” Sack said. “But we all have the same passion and similar interest. We just enjoy a good beer.”
The homebrew scene has changed in the 20 years since Ed Wren opened his homebrewing shop, E.J. Wren Homebrewer Inc. in Liverpool.
New brewers are often younger, he said, adding that customers in their mid-20s often come into the shop in groups of two or three. That’s not just a local trend: 43 percent of homebrew retailers indicate that the most common age group for beginner equipment purchasers is people under 30, according to the American Homebrewers Association.
Along with younger brewers, there’s been an increase in the number of homebrewers using local products, particularly hops. Hops, the cone of a flowering vine, gives beer its tangy, bitter taste.
Homebrew at the state fair
- Central New York homebrewers contributed many of the 267 entries in this year’s New York State Fair homebrew competition. Here are the local brewers who won first-place ribbons in the various categories:
- Dark Lagers: George Alexander Best, of Syracuse, Schwarzbier.
- Scottish and Irish Ales: John Feak, of Liverpool, Irish Red Ale.
- Porters: Wain Thor, of Syracuse, Baltic Porter.
- Stouts: Thomas Burns, of Fayetteville, Foreign Extra Stout.
- Fruit Beers: Thomas Burns, of Fayetteville, Christmas Spiced Beer.
- Spice, Herb or Vegetable Beers: Charlie Anderson and Brad Taft, of Sherburne, Jalapeno Ale.
- Specialty Beers: John Feak, of Liverpool, Wee Heavy, brewed with oak chips soaked in whiskey.
- Meads: Owen McLaughlin, of Syracuse, Grape Pyment.
- Best of Show in the homebrew contest went to Thomas Ocque, of Ontario, for his Dusseldorf Altbier.
Central New York was once one of the leading hop-growing regions in the country, and many people are growing them in their own gardens.
It’s one of the easiest plants to grow, said Wren, whose own backyard in Syracuse is filled with hop vines.
“It goes with the general food trend now of local eating,” Wren said. “People are concerned with what’s in their food, the same thing with beer. There are local hops available, and home brewers are eager to use them.”
Tim Manchego, of Pompey Mountain Hops Farm in Pompey, said up to 15 homebrewers visit his 10-acre farm to hand-pick hops each harvest season. Hand picking a pound is $5 versus paying $3 to $4 an ounce in the store, plus customers get a fresher quality, he said.
Czebiniak hopes to use all New York state ingredients in his future brews and said he wants to grow his own hops on family farmland.
“This is the best thing to get into,” he said. “I’m having the time of my life brewing.”