Well Done Clandestine Brew | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Well Done Clandestine Brew 

File under “F,” for Flavor. If it weren’t for Utah law, we might never enjoy home-brew made from chamomile flowers and blood oranges.

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Of all this paper’s special issues, our Dining Guide is one we look forward to most. The reason for this is simple. What else do people the world over look forward to more than good food?

Words used to describe food’s various qualities are carried over into so many figures of speech. We talk of conversations, people or experiences as “spicy,” “bland,” “sweet” or “sour.” We know various cultures through the most prominent aspects of their cuisines. As the staff of life itself, a good meal reaches into every other element of everyday living. Even before family or your first kiss, the search for good food stands first in line above anything else in need of satisfaction. One of the longest-running jokes about the British tEmpire is that it never would have been built unless the British, spanning out into China and India, weren’t really looking for a good restaurant.

Aside from taste, food concerns social ritual. We meet at the restaurant table for friends, business deals, marriage proposals and even a few arguments'not many, hopefully, but a few.

Where’s your next meal coming from? We hope you’ll keep this issue full of tasty articles and a comprehensive listing of any type of restaurant you might have a hankering for as your one and only guide. Life is too short to limit yourself to only a few staples. Believe it or not, a whole rainbow of tastes rests dormant on your tongue. All you need do is unleash them. Good eating to you!

A belt at your local watering hole satisfies, but there’s nothing quite like the added satisfaction of drinking illegal hooch. That’s “moonshine,” as it’s known in the hills of Appalachia. Or, as it’s called in Utah, “beer.

Brewing beer for personal use in your home, den or office was legalized in 1979 when Jimmy Carter signed a law overturning a Prohibition-era ban. That holds true everywhere except in Utah and a few other states such as Mississippi that share with Utah other distinctions, like low levels of spending on education.

A 1997 proposal by one home-brewing Utah lawmaker to legalize the practice couldn’t get out of committee. Mark Alston, owner of The Beer Nut home-brew supply store, said home-brewers are up against the fundamental problem that most Utah lawmakers “have no concept” when it comes to alcohol.

“They equate home-brewing with backwoods distilling,” he said. In 1997, and again this year when South Salt Lake toyed with a city law to criminalize home-brewers, “they talk about organized crime or rioting.

Home-brewers have given up attempts to change the law, but that hasn’t prevented a growing band of scofflaws from flouting the G-men to mix up batches of some of the nation’s most creative, complex and just plain tasty suds. Maybe it’s the draw of doing something illegal. Maybe it’s the desire for brew stronger than 3.2 percent alcohol. But the world of Utah underground beer making has grown in sophistication.

A few years ago, Zymurgy, the granddaddy of beer geek magazines, listed Salt Lake City’s ZZHOPS home-brewers club as tops in the nation for quality, award-winning beers. The club would just as soon keep that fact under wraps. Home-brewers elsewhere show off their masterpieces at public competitions hosted by commercial microbreweries, but Utah’s home-brewers dare not take their creations into the open for fear of a toss in the pokey. They hold “club only” competitions in members’ basements.

The club is cloaked in secrecy. Like Internet sites the FBI alleged were fronts for al-Qaeda, ZZHOPS’ Website is largely password protected, concealing members’ identities and meeting dates. A phone call brought a response from the club’s president, who said members would talk “on a first name basis only. … Since home-brewing is still illegal in this state, we would like to keep our organization a clandestine entity.”

Others aren’t as cautious. Home-brewer Matt Burdick didn’t drink beer before he began home-brewing, but has developed a taste for it through years of mashing grain at home in beer kegs with the tops removed. His most recent concoction goes by the name of “Terry’s Summer Saison,” named for his wife, who dreamed up the recipe for the “refreshing” end-of-summer beer with lemon zest and chamomile flowers.

“That’s the cool thing about home-brewing for a lot of people. You’re not confined to whoever’s pale ale is on the shelf,” he said. “There’s been an upswing of different Belgian brew styles, old-world styles, people going off the deep end, using oak barrels. Not to discredit the breweries we have, but [home-brewers] can make a beer on par with those guys at home.”

Former home-brewers are partly responsible for the increasingly sophisticated concoctions pouring out of the state’s microbreweries. A case in point is Geoff Fischer, brewer at Bohemian Brewery since June, who “geeked out” with home beer gear years before landing his dream job.

His small apartment is still littered with cobbled-together beer-making equipment, including a refrigerator filled with living cultures of beer yeasts he and his geneticist roommate isolated from commercial brews.

For his first batch of beer 14 years ago, Fischer used bottles collected from his bartending job. Mold grew on the bottlenecks and the beer got infected. “My roommate still drank it,” Fischer said. By his second batch, he was kegging his brew, and he’s had something on tap ever since. Fischer continues to home-brew once a month, even though he now brews for a living. He just completed a farmhouse-style ale made with chamomile, orange peel and the juice of blood oranges.

“I’m amazed every time my grain starts as crushed grain and ends up as sweet liquid,” he said. “I love people to drink my beer and my friends always want something different.”

Fischer believes Utah’s restrictive liquor laws forced the state’s brewers to “become some of the best craft brewers in the nation.” Unable to easily obtain craft beers from other states or imported beer, local beer lovers had to resort to making their own, he said. With other professional brewers, he recently started the Utah Brewers Guild to promote craft brewing that includes offering professional advice to the home-brewer.

A ZZHOPS member who goes by the fake name Stew Pitt could have used some of that advice when making 40 gallons of a purposely soured beer. After letting the beer ferment for a year sitting in glass containers filled with fruit, he bottled with too much sugar and “a lot of them turned into glass hand grenades.

He said it isn’t fear of revenuers that keeps him from giving his real name; it’s his friends.

“I don’t want everyone to know that I home-brew,” he said. “They look at it as free beer, when it’s probably more expensive than running down to the store and getting a six-pack.”

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