Play the brews 

Flathead home brewer aims for the perfect IPA

R. Michael Hannon isn’t just a home brewer. His home is a brewery.

In his bathtub, you’ll find a 6.5-gallon fermenting jar soaking in iodine. His kitchen has a temperature-controlled chest for fermenting. He keeps yeast cultures in his refrigerator and malt mixes in his freezer.

In his living room, more fermenting jars rest in front of the fireplace, and various sized beakers for culturing yeast sit on the mantle. Against one wall is a four-tap kegerator he’s fashioned from a freezer chest. Next to the kegerator there’s a table with a single chair. Here, the 58-year-old with thick, curly, graying hair and a remarkable resemblance to Al Franken writes his tasting notes on a yellow legal pad.

Lang Creek Brewing Co., located a few minutes drive from Hannon’s remote home 50 miles west of Kalispell, has contracted him to create a new India Pale Ale (IPA) for the company. Hannon’s got a history with Lang. He once worked there as a brewer, but parted ways with the previous owner about two years ago. Now, he marches to the beat of his own draft, so to speak.

“He’s just very methodical in the way he goes about things and he’s taught himself a ton about beer,” says Camillia Lanham, Lang’s marketing director.

Hannon says he discovered brewing in the mid-1980s, after receiving a kit for Christmas.

“My very first batch came out better than anything I could buy in a grocery store at that time,” Hannon says. “That really got my attention right away.”

Scheduled to present four of his new beers on Jan. 4 to Gary and Clydine Bultman, who bought Lang Creek in May, Hannon works quickly, or at least efficiently, to get ready for the moment of truth.

Hannon’s approach to creating a new IPA relies heavily on his personal taste, but also some market savvy. First, he surveyed the current beer market and decided he’d brew an English-style IPA.

“A: I like them better,” Hannon says, “and B: everybody and his grandmother makes American-style IPAs, so why not go where the competition’s a little bit thinner and give people something different?”

Once Hannon knew what he wanted to brew, he began tasting and taking notes on commercial English IPAs. A few weeks ago, he began brewing batches of IPA, altering the malt mixes, hops and yeasts, trying to find the best recipe.

Hannon brews in what used to be a shed of sorts for storing firewood, so it has no proper walls—only a few small-diameter pine logs the wood once rested against. He starts at 10 a.m. by selecting his malt mix—strains of barley dried in various fashions—and cooking it in water he’s conditioned with a Petri dish of phosphoric acid, gypsum, calcium chloride and sodium chloride.

Within a few minutes, a plume of steam that smells like Grape Nuts erupts from the side of the huge stainless steel pot of boiling malt.

The malt cooks for about an hour and a half. After that, Hannon drains the liquid from the cooked malt and filters more water through the leftover malt to extract sugars, spreading the water gently and evenly over the husks.

At a commercial brewery, there’d be a special sprayer to distribute the hot water over the malt. Hannon’s got his own rig. He places a pot of hot water on a wooden stool several feet above the bucket of malt, then puts a clear aquarium hose into the pot and drops it down toward the malt bucket, where it connects to a lawn sprinkler. Hannon starts the water siphoning down from the pot and the rotating sprinkler head rains gently over the malt.

After the water filters through the husks and combines with the liquid already drained from the malt, it becomes a brown liquid called “beer wort.”

Hannon sets the wort to boil and adds a handful of dark green pellets of hops. They expand instantly in the hot water, and give a flowery aroma to the mixture.

While the wort boils, Hannon serves lunch, a yellow curry dish with chicken, peanuts and raisins alongside one of the IPAs he’s already brewed. He doesn’t serve the curry by chance. The English invented IPA as a beer for exporting to India in the late 1700s. Microbes ruined traditional English beers during the long, hot voyage. By increasing the hops and alcohol content, which naturally curbs microbe production, the English created an exportable brew.

After lunch, Hannon cools the wort with a heat exchanger he’s made from copper tubing, a garden hose and a five-gallon bucket. He drains the cooled wort into a 6.5-gallon fermentation jar and funnels a doughy blob of yeast into the vessel. Finally, he sticks an aerator for a home aquarium into the brew to oxygenate it, so the yeast can start making alcohol.

With the batch done, Hannon loads five kegs into the back of his pickup and sets off down the snowy road to the brewery, stopping once to make sure the labels don’t blow off the tops of the kegs. He arrives wearing the same flannel jacket and jeans he wore all day while he worked brewing.

Hannon stands at the head of the table, pours the first two beers into pitchers, and watches expectantly as they’re passed around the room. He purposefully brewed the first two with fewer hops—which is not typical for an IPA—so the tasters could better compare two different malt styles. This part of the tasting is more of an exercise.

The second two beers are hoppy, like typical IPAs. The tasters discuss their merits with passion, ascribing them “hints of raspberry” and “biscuit flavors.”

Eventually, the Bultmans pull bottles of commercially successful IPAs out of their fridge and compare them to Hannon’s. They seem pleased with the results and agree that Hannon is on the right track. The owners don’t choose any of Hannon’s beers to produce right away, but as they pour their second and third rounds, he’s smiling. 
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