Lab work contributes to winning homebrew


ALMOST EVERY homebrewer believes, at some point in his career, that he has created a beverage that needs to be shared with the beer-drinkers of the world.

Usually, this dream ends in a basement, where friends gently convince the homebrewer that, even though his creation is the stuff of genius, the slow-witted public might not rush out to buy a stout flavored, for example, with peppermint and basil.

Alan Meeker, however, has entered a realm of beerdom where few homebrewers have gone before. His pale ale, a clean, crisp beer, is being made in a real brewery, Clipper City Brewing, outside Baltimore. It will soon be sold to the public as Clipper City Pale Ale, scheduled to arrive on tap in taverns in the Mid-Atlantic region this month and in bottles by early March.

Meeker, 42, who works in a laboratory at John Hopkins Hospital doing post-doctoral work in cancer research, told me he brewed the pale ale in the backyard of the Pikesville home he shares with his wife, Sonya, and their two teen-age sons.

"I used to brew in the kitchen," he said. "But during the boil," he said, referring to a step in the beer-making process, "you lose a lot of water and it condenses on the windows." That meant whenever he made beer, his wife would go around the house wiping the windows with towels. To preserve domestic harmony, Meeker moved his operation to the backyard, where, using a propane-fired cooker, he makes beer in five-gallon batches.

Meeker brewed the pale ale, and four other variants of the recipe, for a recent contest sponsored by Clipper City. The brewery was looking to add a beer to its line of products, a classic American pale ale that, in the words of Clipper City chief Hugh Sisson, would be a "rung or two up from ordinary session beers, but nothing extreme."

Sisson is a former homebrewer, and he liked the idea of inviting enthusiastic local beer makers to submit their versions of classic American pale ale. Word of the contest, filtered out to local homebrewing groups such as the Cross Street Irregulars, the club Meeker belongs to.

The loot for winning the contest was not much, $150 and a fancy shirt. But it did offer the allure of gaining brewing notoriety, of making a beer that people who did not know you would drink, willingly. The entries, 34 of them from about 28 homebrewers, arrived at Clipper City in brown bottles. One night this fall three panels of professed professional beer drinkers, myself among them, culled entries to nine finalists. On a subsequent session, the winner was chosen. Meeker, we learned later, had brewed four of the nine finalists.

Reflecting on his career, Meeker told me he was inspired to start brewing at a poker game in the home of a colleague, a cell biologist. "We were playing at Mike Maceyka's house near Memorial Stadium," Meeker told me. "And he served this wonderful beer, and all night long I kept saying, 'You made this yourself?' "

Since that night three years ago, Meeker has brewed his own beer. When asked to compare his laboratory research with his hobby, Meeker laughed and said, "The good thing about brewing is you actually get results every time." He credited the success of this prize-winning batch of pale ale to the fact that he used all grain, not extracts. "All-grain is complicated," he said. "But it gives you more control over the variables in the brewing process."

Clipper City's Sisson offered a slightly different explanation of why Meeker is a good homebrewer. He said that while Meeker had an excellent recipe -- balancing the English Crystal and English Amber malts with the Kent Golding, Fuggle and Cascade hops -- he also had the precise techniques of a laboratory scientist. Or, as Sisson put it, referring to a brewer's constant battle with yeast cultures, "He grows his own bugs, and does a good job of it."

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