@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images MARK MUNDORFF
It’s eight o’clock on a Saturday morning and already Jed Reinhard and Lucas Stoltz, two members of the River Valley Ale Raisers, are hard at work. They’ve set up a makeshift brewery on the patio at Jed’s house in Fort Smith, complete with a boiler made from a reclaimed commercial beer keg, a Coleman ice chest with a copper spigot attached, and a paddle, about the size of a shotgun, that’s used for keeping the grains, like malted barley, from ending up in clumps.
The two swear it’s not a complicated process. A lot of barley, boiling water, some yeast, and hops. But they do have a lot of gauges around, and Jed keeps referring to his recipe, where he’s jotted copious notes about quantities and timing. As for Lucas, he’s weighing his hops, a flower that both preserves and flavors the beer, on a scale no bigger than an iPhone.
The fact is, there’s a lot of science behind what they’re doing. Jed, who has a degree in chemistry, and once turned newspaper into ethanol for a college project, loves the challenge of fine-tuning a recipe, making sure the fermentation process is working, and keeping track of his monumental successes and near misses. He even has software that tracks every batch he brews, showing him what’s working and what isn’t.
And then there’s the economic factor. “I can make a very complex beer for about seventy-five cents a bottle,” Jed says. “I started learning the craft in 1990, when I got The Joy of Home Brewing, a book from the 1970s, when the homebrew movement was just starting to reignite.”
The seventies were important because that’s when home brewing was federally legalized for the first time since Prohibition. Today, forty-eight states allow it, including Oklahoma, which came on board in 2010. The American Homebrewing Association estimates one million people will brew beer at home in this year alone.
Historically, they’re in good company. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison brewed their own beer, according to the AHA. As for Jed, he brews about twelve batches a year, each producing around five gallons. Once the brewing’s done, the beer goes into his garage, where he’s fitted an old refrigerator with heating and cooling elements, so he can adjust the temperature as needed. The beer stays there for about a month and then goes to a chest freezer he’s altered in much the same way as the refrigerator. Inside are the metal soda canisters, the kind you see hooked up to the drink machines at self-serve restaurants. He pours the beer into them, and then forces CO2 into the canisters to carbonate the brew.
When he’s finished, he has something he’s made that can’t be found in any store, from light ale to dark stout. He pours a sample into a frosted glass and hands it over. It is great beer, the foam swells to the top of the glass, but Jed isn’t quite satisfied. “I can taste something a little flowery,” he says. “I need to work it out.”
Lucas takes a sip and agrees. “When you make beer, you’re always experimenting, trying to get that perfect batch. The hardest part for me is when it’s all bottled or kegged and you’re waiting for it to be ready. I’ve had two bad batches in the ten years I’ve been brewing, and let me tell you, those were sad, sad days.”
The two share what they’ve learned with the other members of the River Valley Ale Raisers, a group that meets at GrowFresh Organics in Fort Smith. Novices come in and meet people like Jed and Lucas, who show them the ropes, lend them equipment, and get them ready to compete in competitions that take place around the country.
Right now, the club is gearing up for their own event, the third annual All American Brew-Off, a nationally sanctioned competition by the AHA, on July 28, at the Aspen Hotel in Fort Smith. They’re expecting more than 100 entries this year. They’re also inviting those over twenty-one to attend and sample the beer, from 9:00 in the morning until 12:30 in the afternoon. The River Valley Ale Raisers will even allow a few of the visitors to team up with the certified judges to see what the experts are looking for in a winning brew.
If you have a good time there, you might want to join the club. Lucas and Jed have a 100 percent success rate training home brewers. “If you can make macaroni and cheese,” Lucas says, “then you can brew.” Jed chimes in. “And at the end of the process you have beer,” he says, just as the timer for his current batch sounds. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
For more information, visit rivervalleyaleraisers.com