She calls it Planet of the Apricots — amber ale spiked with fruity flavor. “It’s technically a fruit beer, basically American amber ale with fresh apricots added to the boil,” Karie Lawson explains. “The only criticism I have is the clarity, but I think it’s pretty good for my first amber.” Pretty good? Tasting notes from a clueless but thirsty journalist: It’s crisp but complex, grounded but festive, the apricot hinting at backyard barbecues and picnics in the grass. Lawson, meanwhile, is still mulling over the process. “Some homebrewers say you’ll retain more flavor if you add the fruit after the boil, during fermentation, because you’re not heating up the fruit to the point where you’re pulling the pectin out. But by putting them in the boil, you’re ensuring that any yuckies on the apricots are gonna be killed off while they’re in the boil.” Lawson can wonk out about beer theory in one breath, and in the next invoke the laid-back mantra of the homebrew scene: “In my opinion, there’s no right way to make a good beer. Everyone’s got their process and style.”
Which isn’t to say that things don’t go wrong. The homebrewing world is rich with tales of exploding beer, sour kegs and promising brews that turn out to be undrinkable mopwater. Lawson, who’s been homebrewing for three years, went through her own rite of passage with a batch she was fermenting in the closet. “It was an imperial IPA (India Pale Ale), so it had a lot of hops, so there’s all this green stuff floating around in there. What happened was the yeast and sugars and the beers overreacted and blew the top of the fermenter clean off in the closet, and it looked like the creature from the Black Lagoon was crawling out of the closet. I came home to this green ooze coming out of the closet. It was pretty gross. It just smelled like hops, so that’s not a bad smell to come home to.” The real tragedy: “It was a waste of five gallons of beer!”
Lawson represents an emerging demographic in the homebrewing scene: women. “When they meet me for the first time, people expect me to have a beard and Birkenstocks,” she says, laughing. “For now, craft beer is a definitely still a male-dominated industry, but it’s also very welcoming. I’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable anywhere.” Yeah, let’s dispense with that canard: that homebrewing is the exclusive preserve of scruffy, barrel-bellied Portlandia extras. Exhibit A: Barley’s Angels, a female homebrewer club with chapters across the country, including a new local chapter that meets monthly to talk, taste and share intel.
Lawson’s advice for would-be homebrewers thinking about taking the plunge? “My two pieces of wisdom: It’s easier than you think, and start small. If you start small and it ends up being a terrible beer, then you’re not wasting unnecessary time, money and supplies.” As for the learning curve, Lawson benefitted from the mentorship of her avid-homebrewer grandfather, but learned just as much through trial and error, chatting up fellow homebrewers and consulting YouTube videos. “Oh, and keep it clean. If you don’t sanitize and keep everything clean and spic and span, you can have a brilliant recipe and process, and get some funky bacteria growing in your beer that will ruin everything. Basically, if your airlock smells like a skunk’s in there, you’re not cleaning your equipment as well as you should.” And who wants to drink Skunky Airlock Ale?