Homegrown Homebrew: An Interview with Hollis Smith

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At an age when most of us were still under the impression that all beer arrived at the supermarket, fully brewed, in shiny silver cans, seasoned local homebrewer Hollis Smith was mashing, sparging and tinkering with capping machines. The Pepperell, Massachusetts native grew up with an inherited love for the art of brewing — her parents began actively homebrewing when she was just a child — and was always fascinated with the science and craft of brewing your own beer. As an adult, Smith moved to Brooklyn and got a job with Good Eggs, a sort of FreshDirect for area farmers, which provides her regular access to a bounty of fresh produce and inspires some truly innovative brewing experiments like vegetable-spiked Saisons and straight-from-the-tree NY State hard apple cider. A mad scientist of craft, Smith’s unconventional introduction to brewing and lifelong devotion to locally sourced ingredients makes for a unique take on urban homebrewing, one she was kind enough to share with me during a recent interview.

MH: When did you start homebrewing? What got you interested in making your own beer?

HS: When I was a kid, probably around 9 or so, my parents started brewing their own beer. They weren’t “homebrewers,” technically, I guess, because they brewed beer at a brew-on-premises homebrew store. They brewed 15 gallon extract batches, fermented it at the store, and returned several weeks later to bottle. I remember going there to help and just hanging around while they brewed. My best friend and I brewed root beer there on my birthday, too. We put a picture of ourselves on the label and everything — real official.

After college, my roommate and our neighbor got pretty into homebrewing, and I helped out on the first batch. Honestly, at the time, I was more of a wine person, but it went alright. We bought an IPA extract kit because we were told the intense hops would cover up any off-flavors we would undoubtedly create. The windows in our apartment were all fogged up from the heat of the stove and the steam from the boil and all of my clothes reeked of wort. My roommate was a PhD student at MIT, so he took the most ridiculously detailed notes. I think he was more proud of the notebook than our actual beer.

I didn’t start brewing on my own until about a year and a half ago. It was one of my first winters in Brooklyn and I knew if I didn’t start a serious hobby, I was going to go stir crazy. So, homebrew it was. One of my best friends from high school worked at a homebrew store in Madison, Wisconsin, and he helped me develop my own recipes once I felt comfortable with the process. And I had my parents, of course. I did a few extract batches following recipes, then I moved onto brew in a bag, and, eventually, all grain brewing.

MH: How do you like homebrewing in Brooklyn? What are the challenges and advantages to brewing in such a dense, urban environment?

HS: I love talking to other Brooklyn homebrewers about their setups and their methods because we have to deal with so many weird obstacles that your typical homebrewer doesn’t, like super limited space, a thousand roommates and drastic temperature changes. Fellow Brooklynites have come up with some brilliant means of working within these constraints. One friend of mine ferments his Ales in his entertainment center, and when the temperature dips a little too low, he turns on his XBox to heat them up.

My biggest problem is space. I live with three other people — two of whom are in relationships, so that’s two more right there — so an empty kitchen is a rare thing. My room is just my bed and brewing equipment — bottles everywhere and carboys covered in sweatshirts to block out light.

setup therm

You can complain about space and environmental control all you want, but man, you can’t beat the homebrewing community here. I’m new to the world of Brooklyn homebrew, but I’ve been welcomed with open arms. I’ve done collaborations with friends I’ve met at Bitter and Esters’ bottle swaps, I’ve been invited to pour my beers at Covenhoven for Sisters in Craft and I’ve gotten the opportunity to talk about spiced beers on air for “Fuhmentaboudit!” — all these things are unique to the Brooklyn brew scene. This is more than just a hobby for a lot of people and they’re all so excited to share their knowledge and resources. love that.

MH: Tell me a little about your day job and how it influences your brewing.

HS: When I’m not brewing, I work at a startup called Good Eggs. We’re basically an online farmer’s market, meaning we deliver farm fresh food, ordered online, to anyone in Brooklyn. It’s a pretty cool concept — setting up the online marketplace takes care of the marketing work most small farms and local producers don’t have the time to do. I work on the operations team, so I receive the products for delivery and I also help manage our constantly rotating inventory.

As soon as I started working at Good Eggs, I immediately saw how it would benefit my brewing. I work with all these fresh ingredients every day and I can’t help but imagine the beer I could make with them. I’ve used Good Eggs ingredients to make a rosemary beet Saison with fresh beets, a Coffee Stout using Blue Bottle coffee, a roasted butternut squash Brown Ale, an incredible cider using fresh apples from Fishkill Farm and a Vanilla Porter with Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans from Madecasse. I work with all these fresh ingredients every day and I can’t help but imagine the beer I could make from them.

MH: What have been some of your most memorable batches?

HS: In October, Jeremy and Joy of Proper Cider brought two apple presses to Bitter and Esters and anyone with a bushel of apples could come and make cider. The owner of Fishkill Farm in upstate New York, who also happens to be my boss at Good Eggs, tried some of my beers and offered to give me a bushel of heirloom apples to press. I gotta say, this cider is pretty great. I can’t help but take little tastes here and there (I’m not very patient) and I’m really happy with the result so far. Super clear, crisp, not too sweet, and you can really taste the golden russets.

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I almost never brew a “normal” beer — what’s the point of toiling over an IPA you could just buy at a bodega? The most polarizing beer I’ve made to date is my rosemary beet Saison, and I’m proud of it because people either despise it or love it. It’s a shocking pink color and tastes exactly like a side of beets. I tell people it’s juice cleanse. It’s probably super healthy.

A lot of my ideas go totally wrong and end up unceremoniously dumped down my tub. It sucks doing that, but some beers just aren’t worth their alcohol content. I once attempted a blood orange cinnamon Pale Ale. Sounds simple right? No way. Spices are a dangerous additive that require a great deal of trial and error, and I wound up over doing it… big time. You couldn’t even taste the orange. I brought it to a bottle swap and a fellow homebrewer politely asked me if he could dump out his sample.

MH: What do you love about homebrewing?

Honestly, I love the process of brewing more than my end product. I think my beers are pretty good, but you don’t homebrew because you want to drink a ton of great beer — at least I don’t. I have access to amazing beers at a number of nearby bars, but the reason I love homebrewing is because I get to understand how beer is created and why it tastes the way it does. I think you can appreciate something a lot more when you know how its made. Once I began brewing, gained a new respect for commercial brewers, even the giants like Anheuser-Busch, because I understood just how difficult it was to create the same beer twice, to give the drinker the same experience every single time. That is some serious science.

Before getting into beer I took wine classes. I love wine — I love how the smells and flavors can take me back to specific places and times in my life, and I love the work that goes into its creation. But, the average person can’t make great wine because the average person doesn’t have access to great grapes. It’s all about terroir. Quality of ingredients is important to beer, but these ingredients are accessible to anyone who’s interested in brewing. That’s what I love most about homebrewing — I can envision something and then just make it, and I don’t need any fancy equipment to execute it.

MH: Speaking of, what kinds of beers are you looking forward to brewing in 2015?

HS: I’m moving into a new place in March, so homebrewing is on hold until then. It’s difficult moving normal stuff, let alone carboys filled with precious, precious beer. Once I’m all settled, I’m hoping to take a stab at a recipe I wrote this time last year for a Honey Lavender Wit. It’s not super seasonal, but it’s an interesting beer.

Come Fall, I want to focus on ciders. They’re something you can brew and let sit for awhile, and I think it makes sense to get into something like that. It’s like finding five bucks in the pocket of a coat you haven’t worn in six months — you forget about it and it’s a pleasant surprise.

MH: When you’re not sipping your own, what are some of your favorite beers to drink right now?

HS: I’ve been really into the local stuff. Everything Grimm does is brilliant. They don’t usually repeat a recipe, so when a new one comes out, you gotta get it before it’s gone. Finback has a great tasting room, definitely worth the visit, and I haven’t had a beer of theirs I didn’t like yet. I think people who are into wine have a special affinity for sour, funky beers, and one of my favorites imports is Abbaye De Saint Bon-Chien’s BFM. Oh, and I’ve been a devoted follower of Pretty Things since I lived in Somerville, Mass. I always get really excited when I see their stuff on tap in New York. It’s rare, but it’s great.

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