Jeff Carlson isn't much of a drinker, but he enjoys making a good beer now and then. That makes his definition of "good" different from an average Joe.
Carlson, who has worked as an electronic services engineer at Grand Valley for more than 25 years, said he grew tired of "bland American yellow beer." That was part of the reason he started brewing his own in the basement of his Grand Rapids home some 13 years ago. Carlson does not sport a beer gut for his efforts, but rather a full trophy case.
"I dabbled around with it back in the '80s, but there wasn't much in the way of equipment or ingredients for a full-time hobby," Carlson said. "Now, you can make it as involved and as expensive as you want. This is what separates the men from the boys."
So, in 1992 -- after ingredients and equipment became more accessible -- in-home brewing became the Muskegon native's full-time hobby. He began exploring the history and intricacies of beer brewing.
The process begins with crushing malted barley. Carlson then steeps it in water to extract sugars from the grain. The grain is rinsed and then he boils the sugar water and adds hops at different times for bitterness, flavor and aroma. Finally, yeast is added, which turns the sugars into alcohol. There are hundreds of hops varieties and yeast strains and Carlson has experimented with many of them.
"It can be hard work to get just the right taste, and then reproducing that taste isn't easy on a five-gallon scale. There are too many variables with home brewing," he said.
In-home beer brewing and wine making became legal in 1978. The limit is 100 gallons per adult in the household, per year. "I can easily do that," Carlson said.
Equipment for brewing can cost as little as $60 and ingredients as low as $20, but Carlson has put much more into his $1,000 operation. He describes himself as an all-grain brewer, similar to a microbrewer -- just on a smaller, five-gallon-at-a-time scale. Carlson said it costs about $20 per batch and he brews about 30 batches a year.
Carlson, 54, sees the brewing process as time consuming but almost like creating a work of art.
"It can take a good eight hours to make a good beer," he said. "It then needs to ferment for a week or two, and then you need to bottle it."
He also enjoys fermenting apple cider and Carlson's attention to detail has paid off. He has entered his beer and cider in several contests and has won many national awards, including more than 300 certificates, medals and ribbons. He also won a beer tasting contest in 2001, sponsored by the Grand Rapids Brewing Company. As part of his reward, he was given the opportunity to brew with the company.
For the last six years, Carlson has served as president of the PrimeTime Brewers -- the Grand Rapids club of the 15,000-member American HomeBrewers Association (AHA). He has twice been named AHA Cider Maker of the Year, beating out about 60 other cider entries in 2000 and 2001.
In 2003, Carlson's brown ale recipe won first place at the Michigan State Fair. He and the PrimeTime Brewers then created a 120-gallon batch at Founders, a brewing company in Grand Rapids. The beer sold out so fast, Founders took the recipe and scaled it up to brew another 620-gallon batch. In August, Carlson's cherry cider was named Best of Show out of 400 entries at the Michigan State Fair.
There are 28 styles of beer, mead and cider recognized by the AHA. Carlson received national recognition in 2002 when he was selected from more than 300 entries as Best of Show in the Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing. During his career, he has won three gold medals and one bronze at the AHA Nationals and won Best of Show in the cider category.
Friends and coworkers are more than happy to partake of Carlson's talents. He said he enjoys giving away all types of brews, especially for special occasions or as gifts. Carlson even created a steam-style beer for President Emeritus Arend D. Lubbers, which donned its own label complete with Lubbers' picture and the name "Lubbers Lagercy."
Carlson said he doesn't enter as many contests anymore; he just brews for the pleasure of giving it away and for the challenge of creating a unique taste. He likes to experiment with different styles. His favorites are German lagers, like pilsners and Oktoberfest, and British ales, like extra special bitters or British pale ale.
Brewing has lasted longer than some of Carlson's other hobbies like woodworking and building model railroads. He also enjoys mechanics, a skill he picked up as an aircraft engine mechanic during the six years he spent in the Navy after high school.
So, when Carlson isn't servicing computers or installing electronic devices in classrooms, he's often at home brewing up his favorite tipple and passing along his brewing secrets.
"Some brewers guard their secrets, but I share it all. It's too hard to duplicate my ciders anyway, because on a five-gallon scale, there are too many variables. It's tough for me to duplicate my own," he said.
Carlson has a son and a daughter -- one is already following in Dad's footsteps. "My son now brews," he said. "But, he's not better at it than me ... yet."
Page last modified July 20, 2011