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After Hours: Ken Stevens–A home brewer’s ‘hopping’ good time

If you think all beers taste the same, Ken Stevens would like a word with you. Stevens, the owner of Just Brew It, aKen with 2 brews.small retail establishments that supplies everything needed for home brewing and wine making, is a beer aficionado. Two of his recipes have earned him medals for their taste, quality, and craftsmanship, and those medals—along with years of experimenting with hops, yeast, and grains, qualifies him to appreciate the differences in beers.

Stevens’ knowledge of beers has developed over about 15 years. “I’ve been a home brewer for quite some time,” he says, assigning “blame” for his hobby (and store) to his wife, who initially bought him a home-brewing kit. “The shop where I used to buy supplies went out of business,” he says, “and I didn’t like ordering my supplies over the Internet. It was too impersonal. I didn’t want to travel to Gainesville or Orlando, so I decided to open up a home-brewing store myself.” That was in 2005, and business is flourishing.

“Our customer base has really grown. We have customers coming in from all over—from as far away as the Netherlands. That customer found us on the Internet and exchanged e-mails with us for a while. When he went on vacation to Orlando, he drove up here to pick up some supplies and ship them back home,” says Stevens.

justbrewit.smallInternational customers are the exception, not the norm, he says; the store caters to the wine and beer-making community of northeast Florida and South Georgia, and his Web site serves to point potential customers to the brick-and-mortar establishment, not as a point of sale. “There are a lot of home brewers in Jacksonville,” says Stevens. “When we opened the store, it was hard to find a really good craft beer here. Now craft beers are sold in groceries, because people are into variety. It’s the want for variety, I think, that has spurred an increased interest in home brewing.”

Stevens explains that craft beers are beers that emphasize quality, taste, and craftsmanship. Breweries are limited in what they can make, he says. Even microbreweries cannot make the variety and styles of beers that home brewers can.

“The cost of some of these craft beers is prohibitive for breweries,” says Stevens. “For instance, one of my recent beers was an imperial chocolate milk stout. The ingredients for a five-gallon batch came to about $80. That’s too expensive for even a small brewery to make. But, it’s a very nice beer that uses about three cups of cocoa powder as well as lactose, a non-fermentable sugar. The alcohol content of that beer is about 11%.”

Chocolate is not the most unusual ingredient Stevens has tasted—or used—in beer. “One of the most unusual I’ve tasted is swamp cabbage beer,” he says. “It definitely sounds weird. When the American Home Brewers Association had its annual convention in Orlando a few years ago, one of the Florida brewing clubs sponsored a hospitality suite. They served beer made from a palm called the swamp cabbage. It was surprisingly good, despite its name.”

Another unusual beer—one that has earned Stevens a silver medal—is a cranberry IPA (Indian Pale Ale). That beer incorporates a gallon of cranberry juice into it for aroma and flavor. Yet another unusual flavor is a cucumber beer. “People who have tasted it says it is very refreshing, with just a hint of cucumber taste,” he says.

About 200 home brewers are members of the CASK (www.thecask.org/), a local home-brewing club. “CASK stands forjudging.small Cowford Ale Sharing Klub,” explains Stevens. “Cowford was the first name given to the city of Jacksonville.” The club offers members a monthly opportunity to find out how good their home-made concoctions are. The contests focus on a particular style of beer, such as lagers, ales, stouts, cream ales, pilsners, Belgians, and fruit beers. Altogether there are about 28 different styles with subcategories, according to Stevens.

Beers in a particular category are judged on head retention, clarity, taste, aroma, and alcohol content, all according to the standards of the Beer Judge Certification Program, an organization that sets criteria for beer evaluation. Local competitions can lead to national recognitions. The American Homebrewers Association (www.homebrewersassociation.org) also has national competitions to find the best of home brews, so individuals who want to enter their beers can do so on several different levels.

“Brewers like variety,” says Stevens. “Today you have many different varieties of hops, grains, and lots of strains of yeast. Brewers like to take chances, too—to experiment. It’s amazing the results you can get.”

Results like that imperial chocolate milk stout Stevens enjoys. “Yeah, that’s a good one,” he admits. “So good you can sometimes find me pouring it over ice cream for a beer float.”

Ken Stevens is owner of Just Brew It (www.justbrewitjax.com), currently located at 1855 Cassat Ave. In July he will be moving his establishment to 2670 Rosselle. He can be reached at Ken@justbrewitjax.com or 904-381-1983.

 

SIDEBAR

To get started in home brewing

Getting started in home brewing will cost a novitiate from $250 to $300, says Stevens. “Compared to other hobbies, such as golf or woodworking, that’s not a lot of investment. And that cost includes your first batch of beer—five gallons.” After you purchase the equipment (which comes in a kit), the cost drops to about $40 to $50 for two cases of beer.

Before investing in equipment, however, Stevens recommends doing some reading. “The Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian is a classic;” he says, “it’s good reading.” Papazian is the founder of the American Homebrewers Association.

Once you become familiar with the process, attend some club meetings, and then just do it. “Don’t give up if it doesn’t work out the first time,” says Stevens, who says that people rarely fail the first time out.

He gives one more piece of advice: Buy from a local retailer. “You’ll get the expertise and advice from the staff. We encourage our customers to call us with questions. Most problems can be corrected. Like, we had a fellow once who made a batch of beer. He put the yeast in when it was too hot. The heat killed the yeast. He thought he had made a fatal error and dumped the batch down the drain. I wish he had called us before he did that. All he had to do was let it cool down and throw in some more yeast. It would have been fine.”


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