Homebrewer Jake Grover caught the craft beer bug when he moved to Washington D.C. in 2006, even though the city didn’t host many beer bars at the time. “There was basically Bier Baron, or the Brickskeller then, and The Reef, which no longer exists—it’s Roofers Union. There was no Meridian Pint, no ChurchKey, there were none of the great beer bars that we have today. So, it was kind of difficult to get good beer.”
Partly inspired by necessity, Jake started homebrewing. In the edited-for-clarity conversation that follows, Jake—who recently won “Best in Show” in the D.C. State Fair Homebrew Competition—describes his first brew session, talks about his barrel-aging setup, and offers up a recipe for his winning beer.
DC Beer: Let’s talk about your first brew session. Can you describe it?
Jake: I wanted to brew a beer for my partner Lisa for her birthday. I heard about Shenandoah Brewing Company in Virginia that would brew batches on your behalf, and I thought that would be a really great birthday present. I looked into it, and it was something like $250 for a five gallon batch. I balked at the price and figured I could make a beer on my own for much cheaper. I started looking into equipment and found that you can buy everything you need for far less than $250 on Craigslist.
I responded to an ad and bought some equipment from a guy. And I’ll always remember this because it doomed my first few batches. The guy was getting out of homebrewing because he had recently gotten very interested in making candles. When I picked up the gear, his house reeked of candles and flowers. But I got the equipment and didn’t think anything of it.
It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I brewed my first beer, which was an Altbier. I didn’t even know what an Altbier was at the time, and so didn’t know what it was supposed to taste like, but I knew it wasn’t supposed to taste like that. The problem was that the floral aromatics from the candle making had leached into the plastic fermentation bucket. I had a floral Altbier, and then I had a floral brown ale. So, my first three batches or so just reeked of flowers and were so disgusting. That wasn’t a particularly auspicious start to my home brewing career, but from there it got a lot better.
DC Beer: Recently, Jake, along with his partner Lisa, placed in multiple categories in the D.C. State Fair Homebrew Competition, including Best in Show for a beer called Silver Stream, a dry-hopped Berliner Weisse inspired by Right Proper, first in the fruit and spice category with a Strawberry Old Bruin, and first in the yeast category with a Honey Brett Saison. Besides brewing these beer styles, Jake is also interested in barrel-aging beers. I asked Jake how he acquired his barrel-aging setup, and what’s currently filling the barrels.
Jake: In the summer of 2014, we were in Michigan and able to buy a bourbon barrel from Journeyman Distillery. It’s a 15 gallon barrel. I also recently inherited a 30 gallon barrel from a good friend that moved to Boston. The 30 gallon is a Catoctin Creek Rye Whiskey barrel that came from DC Brau, who originally aged their Penn Quarter Porter in it.
What’s in the 15 gallon now is a clone, a loose interpretation of a beer called Cable Car by Lost Abbey. It’s a blend of saison, Bière de Garde, and lager. The 30 gallon barrel is empty. One idea is that we’re just going to drain a leftover wedding keg of amber ale into the barrel and see what happens. But I’m concerned because the amber is 28 IBUs, and that’s prohibitive for Lactobacillus to sour, and I definitely want some tartness. So, I would like to blend it.
DC Beer: What about the process of barrel-aging beer? Is there a standard practice, or does it allow for some flexibility?
Jake: I wouldn’t say there’s really a standard process. I think that almost every batch that I’ve done in a barrel has been different. You can ferment in the barrels, or you can ferment in stainless or in a fermenter and then put it in the barrels. Or you can add Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus and bugs up front, or you can ferment the beer clean and add them on the back end.
The last beer that I did, which was quite complicated, was the Cable Car clone, which is based on a recipe in American Sour Beers. It was three different base beers that I brewed separately. I brewed the lager and Bière de Garde in advance. And then I brewed a saison, fermented it in the barrel, and once it calmed down, I added the other two already-fermented beers to the barrel. That’s a convoluted way to answer the question, but it illustrates that there are many different ways to do it.
DC Beer: What are some of the challenges with barrel-aging beer?
Jake: There are certainly a lot of challenges. One big thing that sometimes people don’t understand when they start to barrel age beers is that the surface to volume ratio matters a lot—much more than you would expect in fact.
That is, the smaller your barrel, the higher that ratio, and the higher the surface to volume ratio the faster your beer will pick up oak, and whatever spirit is in there. For example, I brewed a porter very quickly to fill a barrel that I got unexpectedly for the first time because you don’t want it to sit empty and dry out. So, I brewed all that beer as quick as I could and filled the barrel, as we were about to go on vacation. I tasted the beer the night before we left, and it was overwhelming oak and bourbon. It had only been sitting in there for 10 days. I wasn’t going to empty the barrel that night—it would have taken hours. So, I had no choice. I had to let it sit longer.
When I got back and pulled it out of the barrel after about three weeks it was overwhelmingly bourbon forward. I actually had to brew a fourth batch and blend it back in to knock down some of the intense bourbon and wood flavor. That’s a real challenge, particularly with small barrels, not over-oaking or overexposing it to the barrel, which is very easy to do, particularly if you’re not planning this out well in advance.
Keeping it full is also a major challenge, although now I’m running into the problem of what to do with all this tasty beer once it’s ready. The Flemish red that I had in there last was in there for nine months. That was too long, not super detrimental to the beer but it probably picked up a little acetic acid and was pretty forward in terms of oak. The one that’s in there now is getting into that territory too. But we still haven’t drank all the Flemish red, and now I’m going to have 15 more gallons. It’s constant work, but it’s also constantly turning out great beer. It’s a good problem to have. I’ve been very popular with my sour-beer-drinking friends recently.
DC Beer: Before finishing some barrel-aged beer at Jake’s place, I asked him why he homebrews.
Jake: I think the answer is the community, and the D.C. Homebrewers community in particular, and just all the awesome people I’ve met through homebrewing. So, if I lived on a deserted island or some rural place where there was no D.C. Homebrewers or a great beer community that I was a part of, would I still be brewing beer? I probably wouldn’t be as into it as I am now, and I wouldn’t have progressed as much or learned as much. I’ve gained so much from so many conversations over the years with Mike Tonsmiere, Scott Jannish, and Sean Gugger, among so many other very talented homebrewers.
I think that making a delicious product and having something to show for your labor at the end of the day appeals to me as well in an outlet kind of way because my work is not like that at all. I work in foreign policy, and often times it’s not very tangible. So, it’s kind of nice to share with people, talk about the process and have something you’re proud of. So that’s what’s hooked me and kept me coming back.
DC Beer: Thanks to Jake for a fun brew session and taking the time to talk. Find the recipe to his “Best in Show” beer below.
Recipe for a 5 gallon batch of Silver Stream
adjust to 75% mash efficiency
- 5 Ibs Pilsner
- 1.5 Ibs White Wheat
- 1.5 Ibs Oats
- ½ Ib Acidulated
- Chill to 115 then pitch Omega Yeast Labs Lactobacillus Blend (OYL-605)
- Acidify for 24-36 hours above >100 then add Saccharomyces Trois (WLP 644), or yeast of choice
- Ferment for 10-14 days
- Dry hop with 1 oz Mandarina Bavaria and 1 ounce Amarillo, or fruit hops of choice
- Carbonate to 2.8-3.0 vols of CO2
You can sample a range of beer brewed by hombrewers in the area at the annual DC Hombrew BBQ, which will take place at 3 Stars on Sunday, October 30 at 1 p.m-4 p.m. Tickets are $20 and include a plate of BBQ from Smoke and Barrel and a beer from 3 Stars. Tickets can be purchased at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/dc-homebrewers-5th-annual-bbq-fundraiser-tickets-28399368275.