This Camp Ain’t For Kids

The first time I brewed beer was an absolute debacle. I was a fresh-faced new home owner in a neighborhood full of empty nesters and retirees.  Jim Dandy was my neighbor on the west side of our house and he liked to tip them a little. OK, more than a little. Good news is he liked to share. Many afternoon drinking sessions started with Jim flagging me down while I labored behind an obnoxiously loud hand me down lawn mower, then passing me a Pacifico over the fence. Since I wanted to be a good neighbor I had to go along with this (that was my justification for drinking at 11 a.m. on a Saturday or almost any other time I cut the grass), and during my mid- twenties I had what is known as “staying power” where alcohol was concerned. Jim was no slouch either. Jim had “passed through the storm” which was referred to in the U.P. as making it through the approximately 15-year period from 30-45 years old where your hangovers became almost unbearable into the promised land where you became essentially “hangover proof”. Passing through the storm was first explained to me in a bathroom at a wedding. I was 36 and my hangovers were getting to be ridiculous. I went to Nard, an old Yooper shaman, the father of the groom, and asked him for guidance, while he urinated in the sink (all the stalls were full). “Don, just power through the next 15 years drinking as much as you can and you will pass through the storm and never get a hangover again”. A large man who could drink 10 martinis in an afternoon and show up for dinner without staggering telling you this while he stands in a tux using a sink as a urinal this is the U.P. equivalent to being given prophecy so I had my path carved out for me.
Jim had passed through the storm and was a professional that never got hung over (although there was a theory that he, and Nard for that matter, just stayed drunk). I had not reached that phase in my life yet so although I could hang with him during the day, I paid dearly for it the next day. One such morning where I had a “pinger” (U.P. slang for a headache) and was not really looking to interact with anyone, let alone the person responsible for putting me in this state, Jim yelled, “You ever brew your own beer?” I said “Nope, and right now I am not sure I could even smell a beer without gagging.” Jim said, “Great come on over this afternoon and we will brew a brown ale together”. “But Jim I have to…o.k. what time?” “How about 2?”. Gotta be neighborly…
I show up at 1:55 (I am perpetually early) and there are pots and pieces of glassware and bags and tubing all over the kitchen. Jim hands me a McEwan’s Scotch Ale and says, “Let’s get started”. All I know is, 12 empty McEwan’s bottles later we had yeast in a carboy and it was already bubbling.
The adventure really began after we bottled it and I brought a case of mixed sized bottles home to “bottle condition” in my basement. There were 22 oz. and 12 oz. bottles mixed in and I stored them in a cool dark place in the corner of my basement and waited. From time to time I would be in my living room and would hear an odd sound, almost like a snap or a pop, but I could never quite trace the sound to its origin. When the day came where Jim said I could try the beer we brewed I brought out a 12 oz. I popped the top and nothing, zero carbonation, flat as a board. Sipped it, it was awful. Opened a bomber next and it shot out of the bottle like a geyser. I ran to the kitchen and got a bowl and let the beer collect there. As I drank the beer from a bowl I thought it was not bad. Finished my bowl then opened one more 12 oz. and it was perfect. For the next week, I opened the beers over a large bowl in my garage. Then it happened, a loud boom coming from the garage. I ran out and saw that one of the 22 oz. bottles and literally exploded, sending beer and fine shards of brown glass all over the hood of my vehicle. A person must recognize when they are defeated so I threw the rest of the beer out and said “never again, leave it to the professionals to brew it, I will just drink it.” So, when Easy E called me and said “let’s go to beer camp!” I said yes before I knew what it was. I mean really, the words beer and camp are both represent awesomeness so how could it be a bad time. Then E explained, beer camp is an all-day class where you learn how to brew beer with a professional brewer.  You actually get to brew the beer! A moment of truth as I had said I would never brew again, and felt like the hired killer in a movie who had taken a vow to never kill again but is faced with having to take up his weapons again to save a loved one (OK maybe that is a little dramatic), so I said “Can we drink while we brew?” “Yup” replied Easy. “OK you got me, when and where?” “Great, Saturday morning Allen Park with A-Rod and T.V. Larry”. It was on.
The when was 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday in March, the where was a secret location in Allen Park, MI (not really a secret, they have a website) where a professional brewer who will be called Dr. F and his wife, Mrs. F teach people about beer.  The husband wife team of Beervangelists also offer other courses listed below (and on their website):
Mrs. F is a cicerone and had to leave to proctor an exam. Our brewing guide for
the day, Dr. F stayed to walk us through an educating and somewhat intoxicating day. Dr. F. was wearing a lab coat over a T-shirt with jeans and bare feet (hence Dr. Frodo). He had a killer mustache and an anti-establishment vibe but had been brewing professionally and at home for a long time.
There was an electrical prop like a Tesla coil giving a mad scientist lab feel, all kinds of cool and quirky art work.
Then i noticed a fridge with 4 tap handles coming out of it filled with beers brewed at previous classes by people like me. Maybe there was hope after all.
We started the step by step process with Dr. F giving us a copy of the recipe then providing expert descriptions and instructions and history while he guided our actions. While we waited for certain steps in the process to conclude, Dr. F would take us through side lessons on things like malt (we got to review a bunch of styles, learning the differences through sight smell and taste) and hops at a level of amazing detail.
At 10:15 A-Rod, who was also with us, went over to the fridge and poured a black IPA. Looks like the bar was open, don’t mind if I do. Cue the circus music was my first thought, but the good news was that the beers on tap were all low ABV (unfortunately, the beers we brought for the bottle share was not so tame).
Drinking was just a companion to this event. The real focus was education about beer history, ingredients, and brewing our own beer. We brewed a session IPA with an ABV of 4.5%. We used cascade and northern lights hops and crystal malt. The yeast was special and secret strain from many years of mad scientist brewing so we knew it would make some seriously good beer.
From milling the malt to pitching the yeast, Dr. F was full of amazing information from his practical professional and home brewing career. This information was not only educational, but it was entertaining. I walked away with a much better understanding of not only the brewing process but also beer itself. I also think that I learned a little about tasting beer. In addition to the education, there was beer, and breakfast and lunch were provided by the Beervangelist team.
I strongly recommend this as a solid day of education and entertainment for the beer fan. I know that it made me a much more educated consumer. I do recommend that you book as a group and do a bottle share at the end. The four of us got to share some amazing beers together and learned a bunch about our favorite fermented beverage: beer glorious beer.
For more information about Beer Camp, or to register for this amazing experience yourself, please go to
Don Manfredi
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