With All Hallow’s Eve on the horizon, Kent Ball looms above a 10-gallon tub of boiling brown liquid. His eyes focus intently on the bubbling concoction, one hand hovering on a nob controlling the heat, the other clutching a plastic oar, diligently stirring.
His visage is suggestive of a warlock and his caldron, but the beverage he boils is far less malevolent and much more delicious than any magical potion.
Ball is a home brewer. His lair is his garage in Solon, where he often is found brewing batches of beers.
“It’s a craft,” he says. “It is cooking and chemistry all in one. I am a scientist by trade. I enjoy cooking, and I enjoy the end product.”
Ball is certainly not alone.
Home brewing — which became legal when President Jimmy Carter signed a law in 1978 — has reached a boiling point in popularity.
Due to the increased availability of ingredients and a relatively low overhead cost for materials and equipment, more and more Iowans are brewing their own beer, says Joseph Williams, owner of BIY Homebrew Supply in Marion.
“New folks have kept me busy on my equipment kits, which is really really cool,” Williams says. He estimates he has sold 20 in the last month. “I think that is a direct result of the Iowa beer scene growing. People see that, know about home brewing, and want to see how hard it is.”
A basic kit runs around $70, and the specialty malts and grains for most 10-gallon batches will cost around $50 to $60.
With ingredients in hand, the process is pretty straightforward.
Earlier this fall, Ball weighed and measured malts before crushing and steeping them in 3 gallons of 150-degree water.
“We crush them to open up the individual kernels,” he says. “We don’t want to obliterate them.”
Once the grainy goodness has had sufficient time to mingle with the water, more water is added and the brew is brought to a boil for an hour. During that time, malt syrup, hops, and in this particular brew, honey, are added.
A dash of yeast is the final ingredient before the liquid is placed in his 68-degree cellar to ferment.
“It’ll be done when it’s done, you can try to rush it, but it is a biological process, it will tell you when it’s done,” Ball says. “And the way you know (the beer) is there is this foam on top. When the foam is gone, you are probably done.”
Ball said keys to good homebrewed beer are quality ingredients, sanitation and not being afraid to experiment.
“I have had people come in that do pepper beers. They actually put jalapenos in there and make a hot beer,” Williams says. “But you also have people who are putting together their own pumpkin ales. And there are a lot of local folks in the beer club that do all kinds of sour beers.”
The club is the Cedar Rapids-based Beer Nuts. Established in 2006, the group meets regularly to discuss technique, recipes and, of course, taste their creations.
“It is a pretty casual group,” says club member Matt Sulentic of Cedar Rapids.
The group has about 30 regular members.
“We have good beer, good guys and we are not top secret…” he says. “We are not trying to hide our recipes. We want to share our recipes with the public and not have people thinking that home brewers are out to brew a bunch of beer to have a party. This is something we are passionate about and take seriously. This is on par with wine making and fine dining.”
That artistic side is something Williams focuses on when stocking his shelves.
“The home brewers in the area are keeping me on my toes…” Williams says. “You can have your own home brew beers in any style you want. Maybe you want a chocolate rye wheat beer, there is nobody saying you can’t.”
The 43rd President of the United States of America created a slight brouhaha when it was announced earlier this summer that two beers — a honey porter and ale — are being brewed in the White House kitchens.
And while some may question the practice, one home brewer — who agreed to try his hand at concocting Obama’s honey porter on our behalf — said he thinks the more beer fans the better.
“Clearly the guy is a fan of good beer,” Kent Ball of Solon says. “Is it a political move to appeal to the every man? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. But I was impressed that it seems like he is going to shun the scotches, wines, and champagnes and he prefers a beer.”
If you do too, grab a home-brew kit, this recipe, and brew your own beer, Obama style.
Obama’s Honey Porter
— 2 (3.3 pound) cans light unhopped malt extract
— 3/4 pound Munich malt (cracked)
— 1 pound crystal 20 malt (cracked)
— 6 ounces black malt (cracked)
— 3 ounces chocolate malt (cracked)
— 1 pound White House Honey (regular honey may have to suffice)
— 10 Homebrew Bitterness Units (HBUs) bittering hops
— 1/2 ounce Hallertaur Aroma hops
— 1 package Nottingham dry yeast
— 3/4 cup corn sugar for bottling
In a 6 quart pot, add grains to 2.25 quart of 168 degree water. Mix well to bring temp down to 155 degrees. Steep on stovetop at 155 degrees for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, bring 2 gallons of water to 165 degrees in a 12 quart pot. Place strainer over, then pour and spoon all the grains and liquid in. Rinse with 2 gallons of 165 degree water. Let liquid drain through. Discard grains and bring liquid to a boil. Set aside.
Add two cans of malt extract and honey into the pot. Stir well.
Boil for an hour. Add half of the bittering hops at the 15-minute mark, the other half at 30-minute mark, then the aroma hops at the 60-minute mark.
Set aside and let stand for 15 minutes.
Place 2 gallons of chilled water into the primary fermenter and add the hot wort into it. Top with more water to total 5 gallons if necessary. Place into an ice bath to cool down to 70 to 80 degrees.
Activate dry yeast in 1 cup of sterilized water at 75 to 90 degrees for 15 minutes. Pitch yeast into the fermenter. Fill airlock halfway with water. Ferment at room temp (64 to 68 degrees) for three to four days.
Siphon over to a secondary glass fermenter for another four to seven days.
To bottle, make a priming syrup on the stove with 1 cup sterile water and 3/4 cup priming sugar, bring to a boil for five minutes. Pour the mixture into an empty bottling bucket. Siphon the beer from the fermenter over it. Distribute priming sugar evenly. Siphon into bottles and cap. Let sit for one to two weeks at 75 degrees.
In the interest of fairness and bipartisanship, once we decided to ask local home brewer Kent Ball to brew one of President Barack Obama’s beer recipes, we also reached out to Mitt Romney’s Eastern Iowa campaign offices.
The former Governor of Massachusetts is a Mormon and therefore does not consume alcohol, so a favorite beer recipe was out of the question. However, good beer is always better with good food, and the Romney camp delivered.
Shawn McCoy, the Iowa communications director for Romney for President, pointed us to Ann Romney’s — Mitt’s wife — meatloaf cakes.
Instead of one conventionally sized loaf, this recipe makes six smaller ones. They are coated in a ketchup-based glaze about midway through the baking process so that it caramelizes as the loaves finish cooking.
McCoy said the recipe has no historical significance to the Romney clan, but that it is one of Romney’s go-to meals.
Ann Romney’s Meatloaf Cakes
Time: 45 minutes/Yields: 6 small cakes (3 to 6 servings)
— 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
— 4 slices bread, crumbled into small pieces, or 3/4 cup dried breadcrumbs
— 1 large egg
— 1/4 cup chopped onion
— 1/4 cup lemon juice
— 2 teaspoons seasoned salt
— 1/4 cup ketchup
— 1/4 cup brown sugar
— 1 teaspoon dry mustard
— 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
— 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
For the meatloaf cakes: Heat oven to 350 degrees. In large mixing bowl, combine ground beef, crumbled bread or breadcrumbs, egg, onion, lemon juice and seasoned salt. Mix lightly but thoroughly and shape into six small loaves. Space evenly on baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes; meanwhile, prepare sauce.
For sauce: In small bowl, mix together the ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, cloves and allspice. When the meatloaf cakes have baked for 15 minutes, brush each loaf with sauce and return to the oven. Continue to bake until the meatloaf cakes are 165 degrees in the center when tested with an instant-read thermometer, about 20 more minutes.
If desired, serve with scalloped potatoes and steamed vegetables. Pass additional sauce separately.