by Eric Ginsburg
Beer can, and usually does, begin as a solitary endeavor, especially for homebrewers.
They’ll often rise early on a Saturday morning, when it isn’t as tempting to crack open a beer and when it’s easier to carve out several uninterrupted hours. But for members of Greensboro’s Battleground Brewers Guild, the undertaking quickly becomes social.
Several dozen people find community in the club, drawing in their partners and friends — especially when the beer is ready.
“I can’t drink 10 gallons on my own,” said Walt Bilous, a tall guy in his mid-forties sporting a Wicked Weed Brewing trucker hat, “but I can give it away.”
And frequently the process turns social before it’s completed, like when Bilous posted on the guild’s Facebook page to invite people to join him while he brewed on a recent Saturday.
Beyond providing a formal organization to bolster homebrewing or host trainings, trips and competitions — all of which it does — the Battleground Brewers Guild’s bigger accomplishment is the meaningful bonds its members have formed, and the excellent beer they brew.
By 10 a.m., Derick Shular had already loaded 26 pounds of grain into the portable cooler set atop his display table. He’d calculated that he’d need 31 quarts of water at 170 degrees, which he’d let sit in the grain for about an hour to pull sugar out of the malted barley. New brewers can just buy extract and skip this somewhat tedious process, he said, but that’s a little more expensive and more importantly, doing it himself allows Shular greater control over the beer.
A small group of people stood around him, sipping coffee and snacking on a tray of cookies outside of Big Dan’s Brew Shed in northwest Greensboro on Jan. 16. Some of them, including Bilous, are homebrew club members, but a handful of the people who stopped by throughout the morning to watch Shular work were drawn in by the club’s public demo.
The Battleground Brewers Guild organizes a few big-ticket events in addition to its monthly member meetings, including an annual excursion to the craft beer mecca that is Asheville and a brewers-only Skirmish in the Triad homebrewing competition. Shular’s demo last weekend, where he brewed something called Arnge Ale outside the homebrew supply store, was the club’s first event of its kind.
The club does more than provide resources and a social network for beginning and amateur brewers; it produces champions and nurtures professionals. Mark Gibb and Sam Victory — owners of Gibb’s Hundred Brewing in Greensboro and the forthcoming Wise Man Brewing in Winston-Salem respectively — both emerged from the guild, as did former Natty Greene’s and current Small Batch head brewer Derek Meyn. And before he opened the brew shed a few years ago or hosted the club’s event on Jan. 16, Dan Morgan participated as a member, too.
A circuit of similar clubs in North and South Carolina names a Carolina Brewer of the Year, and Battleground Brewers Guild members won for three years in a row thanks to Meyn, Morgan and another member from 2008 to 2010. And for the last three years, customers who started homebrewing with Morgan’s help took home one of the competition’s two awards, including both winners in 2015.
Another member, Dennis Keaton, has won international homebrew competitions, Morgan said.
The business takes up so much of Morgan’s time that he isn’t able to actively participate in the club much anymore, and he misses it. He’s still close to the craft, providing recipes to brewers and helping them “clone” beers they like, such as an out-of-production draft from New Belgium called Mighty Arrow. After trying to replicate the recipe and tweaking it to his liking, Morgan and a friend renamed it Drooping Arrow. But since then, the 5.8-percent ABV beer became known as Arnge Ale for its color and flavor.
For the Jan. 16 brewing demonstration, Morgan donated the ingredients so his former club could execute the recipe.
Shular, a former president of the Battleground Brewers Guild, usually makes 10 gallons at a time, figuring that if he’s going to labor through a four- or five-hour process, he might as well double up on the recipe. They encourage new brewers to keep it simple, and start with five gallons at a time, adding volume and complexity with experience.
The two things inexperienced homebrewers are most likely to mess up is sanitation or temperatures, Shular said. It’s like baking, where measurements need to be exact and heat and timing are crucial, but regardless the end product is usually drinkable beer, even if it doesn’t taste all that great.
Making a basic hard cider is simpler than a beer, which in turn is easier to manipulate and perfect than wine, Morgan said.
“God makes wine, brewers make beer,” he quipped as Shular chatted with prospective members outside.
Some people join the club with little practice making their own beer. Charlie Harris, a new brewers assistant at Natty Greene’s, showed up with his girlfriend Julia to check out the club. She’d bought him some brewing gear for the holidays, and former Natty’s brewer Mike Rollinson — who will be the head brewer at Joymongers brewery in Greensboro when it opens — recommended that Harris link up with the guild for experience.
Harris, a High Point native who moved back to Greensboro from Colorado a few months ago, chatted with club president Chris Bristol as they watched Shular work. One mustachioed member who hung around for a couple hours on Jan. 16 explained his reason for joining and remaining in the club to Harris, saying that it opened his horizons. He reached out to Bilous when he wanted to make a saison beer, who in turn joined the guild as a novice and learned to brew from Shular.
Plus, members receive a nice leather koozie with the Battleground Brewers Guild name and emblem on it when they join.
But the real motivation to join may be all the beer they’re able to try that will never reach the marketplace.