Beer on a canvas: Homebrew transforms libations into art

Kelsey Gobroski
Feb. 15, 2011

Trev Mostella peers into the brew pot at its contents. He’s stuffed a scrubbing brush alongside snack bags of dried green flowers and powdery malted grain. It’s half an hour before his students get their first shot at brewing beer.

“Trev thinks beer making is more an art than a science … so he sort of crafts the class that way,” said Steph Walden, a photojournalism senior.

Trev Mostella demonstrated two methods of cleaning carboy: with a brush or using caustic on Tuesday’s class. JR Ancheta/Sun Star

Mostella started “Introduction to Zymurgy: Understanding Brewing and Fermentation” in 2004. Students from a variety of majors filter into the Hutchison Institute of Technology every semester to learn about beer brewing. At least a third of the class comes from outside UAF. According to Mostella, students often attend to fill a credit or relax while brewing for a few hours.

“It’s like, my chill class,” Walden said.

Mostella designed the course to be low-key. There’s no homework. Budding homebrewers try their hand at patience, experimentation and appreciation. Mostella tells students “don’t drink for the effect, drink for the quality.”

The introductory class is only six weeks long, but the intermediate course follows on its heels. Mostella focuses on beer brewing, but zymurgy includes anything with yeast, he said. The class concocted a simple brew their second week; “like starting a baking class with a boxed brownie mix,” said Blake Eggemeyer, a computer science senior.

Mostella pulls out a brew pot.

Step one: boil water.

“Somebody want to fill it?” he asks. “Get it on the stove and turn it on.”

A few homebrew enthusiasts dot the UAF campus, such as Scott Stihler, who works for the Alaska Volcano Observatory at the Geophysical Institute. He also hosts the informative Alaska Beer and Brewing page on his website, mosquitobytes.com.

Hal Tippens founded the now-defunct Raven’s Ridge brewery when he was a graduate student in the ’90s. Tippens also worked at the Geophysical Institute. Originally, he gave his inadequate batches away to free up bottles, Stihler said. Stihler was one of those unlucky recipients, which contributed to a brief distaste for homebrew. When wedding guests got a taste of Tippens’ better brews, the positive response solidified his aspirations to start a brewery. Nowadays, Stihler can list off about 10 people at the university who homebrew.

On-campus students are not allowed to brew.  Because homebrewing requires large unmarked containers, these “open source containers” are lumped in with kegs on UAF’s prohibited list. Jamie Napolski, a Residence Life employee of 15 years, said people haven’t complained about the rules suffocating their homebrewing passions. Off-campus students have more reign over a brewing hobby, as long as they don’t sell their creations.

This brings us to step two: sanitation.

“What’s with the grody jar?” asked Julie Wegner, culinary arts administrative assistant, when she saw the carboy, a glass container used in fermentation.

To show how well their caustic works, Mostella explained. Homebrew blended with Fairbanks culture long before zymurgy came to UAF. Stihler started brewing in 1991. That same year, Roger Penrod founded the local club, Zymurgists Borealis. The club doesn’t have a rigid structure. Gatherings draw up to 25 people, with a regular core of 10 to 12 people, Mostella said.

Every July, Zymurgists Borealis hosts an annual homebrew competition. The $500 first prize draws entries from out-of-state. Because of the high cost of shipping, the brews from outside Alaska are likely to be high quality, Stihler said. In contrast, some local hobbyists might enter their brews to receive critiques on their technique, he said.

“This is DME. Dry malt extract,” Mostella said, pulling out a bag of powder.

Step three: add starch.

Grains are called malt when they sprout before drying, according to the Brew Your Own magazine’s website. The class also added hops, flowers that provide a distinctive aroma and bitter flavor. A half hour later, they added more hops.

Mostella has been into brewing since high school, when he learned he could buy brewing supplies well before he could buy beer, he said. From 2001 to 2004, Mostella owned a homebrew supply shop off of Peger. Mostella shut down his storefront when he began teaching. Today, Gavora’s and Gold Hill Liquor sell homebrew supplies.

At home, Mostella brews the types of libations that would be expensive in shops, since it’s about the same cost to him. He used to brew Belgian beers, which use beet sugar to feed the yeast. Nowadays, he’s shifted to mead and cyser.

Mead is water and honey mixed with yeast. This “honey wine” takes five years for its flavor profile to fully mature, compared to American beers that take two to four weeks, Mostella said.

Mostella also brews cyser, or mead with apple juice. Cyser is the most popular subject for students, but they need to bring their own supplies if they want to brew it in class, he said.

After cooling down the liquid (now called wort) the class pours it into a carboy.

Step four: Add yeast.

Put an airlock on it, add more hops, then wait a week. Transfer and wait another week.

Fisheries senior Kristie Hilton is retaking the course after seven years. She took the class when it began, before Mostella introduced the intermediate section. Hilton hasn’t brewed in those seven years, but felt the class “gives you a better appreciation for the beers you select.”

Finally, step five: bottle the pale ale and enjoy.

Mostella wants the students to learn to experiment after finishing his zymurgy class, he said. “I hope they develop a good taste for beer and never buy another PBR or Budweiser ever again.”

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