Walk into My Old Kentucky Homebrew in Butchertown and the first thing you notice is the warm aroma of grain, as the scents of malted barleys mingle in the air.
The shop, which supplies home brewers with materials and equipment to make their own beer, smells like a feed store crossed with a bakery. Owner Paul Young stands at the ready, itching to explain the differences between the grains lined up in clear bins on the counter.
“Different sugars lead to different tastes, and roasted malts yield different levels of bitterness,” he said, running a handful of grain through his fingers. “Some of these are smoky, some taste like roasted caramel.”
Young describes the flavor profiles in different beers with a precision and fervor more often associated with wine than beer. As grapes are to wine, so the malted barley, yeast and hops are to craft beer, providing the signature flavors that differentiate, for example, an ale from a stout.
As Louisville's beer scene continues to mature, more local beer fans are replicating their favorite flavors at home. Hobby brewers like Young and his customers know that one small change in proportions or brewing time will create a whole different beer. If you've ever wondered what Chinook hops will do for your home-brewed India Pale Ale, Young might have the answer.
“There's no real limitation,” he said. “There are thousands of varieties of recipes.”
His storage case holds more than two dozen strains of hops with names like Apollo and Willamette. While Young sources a small amount of hops locally from a farmer in Floyds Knobs, Ind., most come from the Pacific Northwest and Europe. Differences in climate, soil and elevation lend each strain a distinct taste.
“I buy my hops directly from the farmers, so I know these plants came from the same vine,” Young said, holding a package of hops, which faintly resemble green acorns. “That guarantees a much more true flavor.”
Whether you're using those hops to perfect an original recipe or to “clone” a popular craft beer like the Dogfish 90-Minute IPA, the satisfaction is the same.
“When you make something from scratch and you work hard to get there, you're going to be proud,” Young explained.
Before he opened the store, the 27-year-old Louisville native poured his creative energy into the movies. As a film student at the University of New Orleans, he started brewing in his campus apartment. He planned on finishing his studies and getting a job in the film industry when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Crescent City in 2005.
“Katrina stopped everything. My school and apartment were destroyed,” Young said.
Undaunted, Young moved back to Louisville and pursued the work for which he trained. He found a job as a production assistant for Donna Lawrence Productions, working on historical and civic documentaries. And he kept making his own beer at home. But as he became more adventurous, he started running into obstacles.
“Getting ingredients was always a challenge,” he explained.
For the most part, brewers like Young had to order their barley, hops and yeast online. Convenient, sure, but impossible for discerning connoisseurs to smell and taste the grains before buying. If only Louisville had a store where he could buy his supplies in person, he thought.
Beer had taken over his life, so much so that he turned down a job offer from a Hollywood studio — “It wasn't the kind of work I could really commit to,” he said — and started asking around about a brewing supply store in Louisville. Had there ever been one?
“I figured if no one's tried it, no one's failed at it,” he said.
With help from the Kentucky Small Business Development Center, Young put together a business plan, consulting the Bluegrass Brewing Company and other local brewers about local buying habits and consumer trends.
Trips to brewing stores in other states helped him form a vision for his shop on Story Avenue. It would emphasize high-quality fresh ingredients and have an educational mission. Most important, it would offer a sense of community.
Educating comes naturally to Young. He teaches a free introductory beer-making class every Wednesday in the store so neophytes can learn the basics of brewing with a kit, which he sells at the shop for as little as $65.
“After hours, I spend a lot of time answering e-mails from customers,” he said. “They're testing a recipe and want to know, ‘Does this smell right? Does it taste right?'”
Since he opened the store in April, Young has sold more than 200 kits to new brewers. Young attributes the rise in home brewing in part to the recession, but also to a renaissance in old-fashioned domestic arts.
“People are looking for new things to do at home,” he said. “Brewing beer is like tending a garden — it's work, it can be stressful. Like growing your own tomatoes, it can be immensely rewarding to drink your own beer.”
Young knows more skilled home brewers are also interested in developing their technique, so he plans someday to offer advanced classes at the nearby Louisville Beer Store on East Market Street.
The difference between brewing with a kit and brewing from your own recipe is the difference between making a cake with a store-bought mix and mixing one up from scratch. The kits provide the materials in prescribed amounts, and if you follow the steps, you'll get results. But if you eat, sleep and drink craft beer, sooner or later you'll want to experiment.
Scott Shreffler spends his days working in the brewing industry, promoting St. Louis-based Schlafly Beer in the Louisville area. In his spare time, he enjoys creating new beers at home with his friends. A self-described “hop-head,” Shreffler enjoys tinkering with his brewing process to create the particular flavors he enjoys.
“Hops can give you a lot of flavors, from spicy to fruity to earthy,” he said, “so there's a lot of character you can add to the beer by changing the hops you use.”
According to Young, the only things you need to brew are malted barley, yeast, hops and water, plus a clean place to work and some patience. With such an emphasis on process and waiting, is home-brewing about drinking beer, or is it about chemistry?
“Brew day is a very exciting day, but brew day can also be a slow, tedious process, followed by weeks of waiting for the finished product,” Shreffler admitted. “It's forced patience. You have to wait for the yeast to do what it's going to do, and depending on the strength of the beer, it could take a while.”
If “brew day” is all about the process, “drink day” is all about the drama of tasting your work. Will it be a delight or, as was the case with one batch Shreffler made, a dud?
“One of the last beers we did was a Bell's Hopslam 10 percent double IPA clone. We spent about $150 on all the ingredients, the grains and the honey and all the hops,” Shreffler said. “None of the bottles carbonated. We opened the beer and it was nothing. It was disappointing. There's been more than one of those occasions, unfortunately.”
It did not deter him by any means, but he concedes that this isn't for everyone.
“If you don't have a passion for beer, there's no point in doing it,” Shreffler said, explaining that he skipped the kit stage and went straight to experimentation. “I decided pretty early on that I just wanted to play. I wanted to make up recipes and for the most part, the beers have turned out pretty good.”
Any way you approach home brewing, Young feels that the process has its own rewards.
“How you get there is a journey in itself,” he said. “But sharing your beer with friends is a lot of the fun.”