GO ON A pub crawl with a bunch of visiting home-brewers and you are in for a spirited night. I found this out last week as I tried to keep pace with a small group of the 700 conventioneers in town for the National Homebrewers Conference.
Setting out from the downtown Holiday Inn, a group of about 30 visiting home-brewers hiked to Sean Bolan's in Federal Hill, Capitol City Brewing Company in Harborplace, the Wharf Rat on Pratt Street and Max's at Camden Yards.
I faded at 10:30 p.m. after three stops. Many of the home-brewers not only kept sampling for another hour or two, but they also got up the next morning and had beer for breakfast.
These are people who take their suds seriously. They study a pub's beer menu with the thoroughness of a Michelin restaurant reviewer reading the offerings of a three-star establishment. Given a choice, instead of one beer, they will order five, a sampler of the varieties of styles the brewer makes.
They have ready opinions. I heard the word "diacytel" more in the evening -- as in "I am tasting diacytel [an off flavor] here" -- than I had heard all year.
The porter at Capitol City had a little too much roast for a true porter, Richard McLaughlin of San Diego told me, adding it was more like a stout.
The Lancaster Milk Stout served on tap at Sean Bolan's did not have enough creamy mouth feel to send Phil Farrell of Cumming, Ga., into ecstasy. But Farrell said he recognized that commercial brewers couldn't push the flavor limits or, as he put it, "brew to the high end of style," as a home-brewer can.
More often than not, the Holy Grail of beer, the standard the home-brewers compared commercial beers to, was their own creation, their garage beer, the one they hoped would win a prize in the home-brewers' annual competition. Such an accomplishment would be posted on a national home-brew Web site (www.beertown.org).
Two computer guys from Delaware sitting in the Wharf Rat, John Greer, who works in computer hardware, and Steve Skarupa, who works in software, told me that they are so proud of their home-brew, Pit Stop Pale Ale, that they brought a barrel of it to Baltimore. They were keeping it in their hotel room and offering tastes to the cognoscenti.
Earlier, during a sipping session at Sean Bolan's, Farrell and Alan Hord, a home-brewer from Seattle, explained some of the intricacies of home-brew competition.
While the beer that wins the best of show award is the year's home-brew, the year's home-brewer, they said, is the one who wins the Ninkasi award. This award, named after the goddess of beer, goes to the brewer who wins the most medals in the competition. Winning it, I was told, demonstrates competence in a variety of beer styles, not just one.
The tour of the downtown pubs and a subsequent evening trolley trip to the Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon and Max's and DuClaw Brewing in Fells Point, were coordinated by an umbrella organization of local home-brewers called the Free State Homebrewers Guild. The group of out-of-towners that I crawled with was led by Baltimore native Dominic Cantalupo.
Cantalupo told me he became acquainted with the Baltimore beer scene back in 1967, when he was 7 and his grandmother used to give him 45 cents and send him down to a tavern on the corner of Fait Avenue and Potomac Street in East Baltimore to fetch her a bucket of beer.
Cantalupo shepherded the out-of-towners through the four-stop pub crawl, then also rose early the next morning to take a seat at a Barbarian beer breakfast -- a Belgian beer mimosa, herbed bread with Stoudt's Hefeweizen, Scotch eggs with an Allgauer Doppelbock, half a chicken with Clipper City's Heavy Seas Uber Pils, a cold melon soup with Oxford Raspberry Wheat -- served to about 40 home-brewers at Sean Bolan's.
Overall, the comments about the Baltimore beer scene that Cantalupo heard from the visitors were positive, he said. But he noted that the out-of-towners were not pushovers. "These guys know all the ingredients of beers, and what can go wrong," he said.
Most of the crawlers I traveled with were men who came to Baltimore for a few days of beer vacation. Hord, who works at Microsoft in Seattle and is progressing up the hierarchy of the home-brewing judiciary, estimated that he had attended about 52 similar beer events over the last nine years. Or as he put it, "I'm divorced; I go to all of them."
One married couple that I struck up a conversation with was Brad and Deb Christoff of Dwight, Ill. The told me they had left their three children, ages 10, 7 and 4, with good friends, and had come to Baltimore in the hope of winning a medal.
Brad had three beers in the competition and Deb had one. She told me she made her beer one day when her husband was at work at the Alcoa plant. Deb put 6 pounds of honey and 3 pounds of malt in the brew, a mixture that her husband, a more experienced brewer, probably would not have approved of. But, she said, "I think I did pretty good. It is here at the nationals," competing as a mead known as a braggot.
Echoing sentiments expressed by other home-brewers, they said winning a prize at the conference would give them a sense of accomplishment.
It also might change the lineup of beers made by America's commercial brewers. Sam Calagione, founder of the innovative Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., and keynote speaker at the gathering, got his start as a home-brewer.
Jim Koch, the head of Samuel Adams Brewery who was in the area last week to unveil Utopias 2005, a $100-a-bottle after-dinner beverage, a beer that "goes where no beer has gone before," credited home-brewers for "striking the spark" that has fired up interest in American craft beers. Home-brewers tend to push the limits of what we think beer is supposed to be, Koch said. That kind of creativity, he said, can produce some terrific brews.