Homebrewing an eastern Idaho passion

Steve Koonce, a longtime homebrewer, beer blogger and author of Idaho Beer, signs books recently at MarCellar’s Vintage Wines and Brews. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

In the mid ’90s, beer connoisseurs in Idaho Falls were living in a microbrew desert.

With Oregon, a mecca for craft beer just to the west, beer drinkers knew what they were missing. So, people started homebrewing.

Idaho Falls residents Gregg and Lisa Smith, Bob Beckwith and Andy Shaw were some of the pioneers of the local homebrewing movement.

“We didn’t have many beers in town,” Greg Smith said. “So if you wanted to try a porter or bock, you had to brew it yourself.”

But Smith was curious. He wondered how many other homebrewers were out there. After he came up with an estimate of 10, he hired a beer judge from New York and held an event at Lost Arts (today it’s known as the Frosty Gator). About 60 homebrewers showed up with a combined total of 100 beers or so.

Many of those homebrewers went on to form the High Desert Brewers Association in 1994. In 1995, Smith and Beckwith launched the Mountain Brewers Beer Fest. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Beer scientist Shaw

In the past 20 years, Smith said the quality of eastern Idaho homebrews have gone from drinkable to downright amazing.

One of the more reputable homebrewers is Shaw, whose resume includes stints as a guest brewer at 11 different West Coast breweries, as well as a stint as head brewer at Snow Eagle Brewing & Grill in Idaho Falls — not to mention three gold medals from Beer Fest.

In addition, Shaw has been a certified beer judge for 15 years. He’s also a regular judge at Beer Fest.

Shaw has won more than 100 ribbons at the Eastern Idaho State Fair homebrewing competition.

At 18, Shaw joined the Army and was stationed in Germany, where he was exposed to some of the world’s most reputable beers. Soon, he was hooked. But when he returned to the U.S., he couldn’t find the beer he craved. So, he decided to brew it himself.

Shaw estimated he has brewed about 500 batches of beer and keeps a log on each one of them.

From Shaw’s perspective, they are two types of homebrewers.

“Those that just want to get drunk and those who are interested in the science behind it,” he said.

Shaw considers himself a member of the science-behind-the brew community.

“I’m a constant tweaker,” he said. “Constantly nit-picking my own recipes and beers more than anyone else’s. It really is all science, the reactions to this or that, the temperature. It’s really intriguing. Even if a hop gets three months older than when you used it last, you are going to get different characteristics out of it.”

Teaching homebrewing

Butch and Laura Harbaugh came to Rigby about five years ago.

Butch is a homebrewer with some 20 years of experience. In the early days, the brewing couple had to travel to Salt Lake City or Boise to buy brewing supplies. Eventually, the Harbaughs decided to open Rocky Mountain Homebrew Supply in Rigby.

In addition to selling supplies, the Harbaughs teach free classes to aspiring homebrewers. The goal is to make brewing an easy, enjoyable process.

“I want their first beer to be a good beer,” Butch Harbaugh said.

While business has increased steadily increase in the four years the shop has been open, Harbaugh said it caters to a niche market.

“Ninety-nine percent of people drink Bud Light as their beer of choice,” he said. “For them to think beer could be black is incomprehensible. To me, I don’t know why it wouldn’t be.”

Beckwith credits the region for much of the enthusiasm for homebrewing.

Idaho Falls is home to two, large malt plants that provide grain for brewers. The region also has hard water, which is conducive to making a great American Pale Ale. But perhaps the biggest reason is the locally grown hops.

In Steven Koonce’s recent book, “Idaho Beer: From Grain to Glass in the Gem State, ”the longtime homebrewer notes that hops only flourish near the 49th parallel, which spans the U.S.-Canadian border. It also extends through Germany and England, both famous for the quality of their beer.

The ability to tap local ingredients is big for homebrewers.

“Up in the panhandle there are tons of hop farms,” Beckwith said. “Our geological location lends itself to good homebrewing.”

Homebrewing’s second wave

While Beckwith and other members of the High Desert Brewers Association represent the first wave of homebrewers, a second wave is establishing itself — the Wildhops Homebrew Club.

The club, Beckwith said, is younger and more energetic about homebrewing.

“Homebrewing in the area is exploding,” Wildhops member Destry Hunting said.

It’s brewing for variety that drives Wildhops member Leon Jensen.

“European beer, by the time it gets shipped here, the flavor of the beer has changed to the point where it doesn’t tasted the way it’s supposed to,” he said. “For you to ever know what a particular style of beer tastes like, you’d have to brew it yourself or go to Europe.”

In a sort of passing of the torch, High Desert handed over organization of the state fair competition to Wildhops. High Desert ran the competition since it’s inception in the late ’90s.

“It’s getting a lot harder to win a ribbon,” Hunting said. “When we took it over, there were maybe 80 entries. This year they are expecting to go over 200, so there is a lot more competition. You really have to be on your ‘A’ game at this point. That makes it a lot of fun.”

Despite such competitions, much of the motivation behind the region’s homebrewing movement can be found in the camaraderie, rather than the gold medals and blue ribbons it generates.

“Homebrewing is just fun,” Beckwith said. “You get to hang out with your buddies, you brew and you talk. It’s a lot of waiting, so you sit around and drink beer, talk to your buds and listen to music. If you like beer, it’s a great hobby.”