Photos by Kelsey Williams
“Everyone, we’re goin’ to the barrel. She needs to be initiated.”
Mildly nervous and extremely curious, I allow myself to be led into the deepest depths of the Los Altos Hills house, tasting glass in hand. At the bottom of the stairs, in a bare concrete room sits a lone barrel. Its true contents, I’m told, are not describable using mere words; I would have to taste.
I take my portion and step out of the way to let the rest of the group have their turn at the barrel. As everybody else fills his or her glass, I carefully put my nose in the glass, trying to gather a clue as to what I’m about to taste.
“Ok, everyone, cheers.” I tip back the glass and the light red brew hits my tongue. The flavor is on the extreme of sour. I watch the rest of the group laugh and make faces as they try once again this batch of beer crafted by one of their own that has over time become sour enough to make me imagine it would make a pretty good salad dressing… Sudzers sour beer vinaigrette.
The Silicon Valley Sudzers, a local homebrew club of roughly 25-30 intrepid homebrewers meets the first Friday of every month to share a common love of do-it-yourself beer geekery. This was my first meeting, and I needed to be initiated.
The group is diverse. Young and old, men and women, experienced brewers and newbies, come together to share their techniques and drink homebrewed beer.
With the initiation over, everyone troops back upstairs to cleanse their palettes with some of the homebrewed beers that turned out better than the sour concoction in the basement. Gary’s high gravity IPA is on tap and a collection of growlers litters the bar filled with myriad different styles from Keith‘s Cascadian Dark Ale to Doug’s classic farmhouse saison.
Each person has his or her own preferences. Robin just made her first brew, a dry cranberry mead, Nathan has brought his latest IPA or “concentrated hope juice”, and Nick offers his general opinion that every beer could use more Simcoe hops, the varietal that gives Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder, its distinctive crisp, bitter hop flavor.
At one point in the evening, someone proposes they make Sudzer t-shirts playing off the old SNL cowbell skit. On the front, “You know what that beer needs…” On the back: “More Simcoe”
Each month the group gathers to discuss their latest batches, but the discussions go beyond just drinking. This month they held a workshop on pint glass etching. In the corner sits a projector and a screen, which is used at many of the meetings for formal presentations on the beer of the month.
Brewer to brewer they will suggest steps in the process for changing a beer’s flavor: longer boiling, dry-hopping, different grains, hop ratios. The give and take brainstorming lasts for about an hour, and you can see the beer recipe cogs turning as they taste and talk.
Hanging with this group is a crash course in beer knowledge down to the nitty-gritty nuts and bolts of what it takes to make a good beer, and for good reason. The group will often come together for homebrew competitions throughout the area, and the team needs to be well represented.
But even if you have no plans to compete and have trouble following the conversation when it gets into the details of boiling times and yeast fermentation, one thing is for sure: if you love beer and go to a meeting with the Sudzers, you will learn something new and drink some good beers. Just be warned… you just might need to be initiated first.