- DO IT YOURSELF: Kirk Wasson, president of the Central Arkansas Fermenters Association, sets up shop at Foam Fest in Little Rock.
Name any staple of old-fashioned American summer time-killing – baseball, barbecues, swimming holes – and one thing complements each perfectly: a nice, cold beer.
But in an economic climate where the price of everything from movie tickets to gallons of gasoline seem to be forever on the rise, that $10 six-pack of craft brew on the cooler shelf starts to look less and less appealing. There is a simple solution for the Central Arkansas beer lover: make your own.
Mike Byrum has been doing just that for the last 15 years. What started as a college scheme to score cheaper brews turned into a full-blown career. Byrum now owns Fermentables, the only homebrew store in Central Arkansas. He says once your startup costs for equipment are out of the way, you can brew beer at home for half the price of what you'll pay at the store.
“We have kits that have everything you need down to the bottle caps,” Byrum says. “So if you walk out of here with that, you'll have everything you need to make your first batch of beer for about $120. And that will make five gallons of beer, which is about two cases and a six-pack.”
Fermentables, located on Crutcher St. in North Little Rock, is one of the only homebrew supply stores in the state.
Fayettevilians can go to The Home Brewery and a new shop just opened up in Fort Smith.
So what makes a really good batch of homebrewed beer? Byrum says it comes down to patience.
“It's really just about following a recipe, really,” he says. “If you can make a pretty good pot of soup then you can probably make a pretty good batch of beer. We've been making beer since we came out of the caves and we've been slowly improving on the process. As far as procedure goes, not a whole lot has changed. The technology has improved. But honestly, it's just enjoyable, especially when you make beer from grain. It almost has a little bit of a magical quality to it, because you're taking water and grain and combining them together to get a really sweet liquid that you put yeast into and turn it into beer. Plus, it's fun to drink.”
And that's what seems to draw most beer lovers to the hobby. Brad McLaurin has been brewing at home since 2003. He's a member of the Central Arkansas Fermenters, a local homebrew club of about 50 members who get together monthly to share secrets and suds.
“I always tell everybody I get to drink my hobby,” McLaurin says. “I'm a beer lover. I had a friend that was doing it and one day I just decided, ‘Hey, I can do that.' Now I probably brew about 150 gallons a year, if not more.”
Learning how to get started from a friend also seems to be a common thread in the home-brewing community. In fact, May is Teach a Friend to Brew Month. To celebrate, Fermentables will host an open house on May 13 and CAF members will be in attendance.
Little Rock, McLaurin says, is a great place to start brewing at home.
“One thing that's great about Little Rock is that our water is like a blank canvas for an artist,” he says. “You can add brewing salts to mimic the water in London or other parts of the world. I mean, beer is 95 percent water, so we're lucky in that respect.”
One of the most important things to remember, though, according to Byrum, is to just relax.
“The classic book is called ‘The Joy of Homebrewing' written by Charley Papazian. His motto is ‘Relax and have a homebrew.' And really what you need to do when you're brewing is kick back, relax and maybe drink a couple beers. Don't get fanatical about it and don't worry about it too much because chances are everything will come out pretty good.”