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Brewing beer, friendship: Buddies bond in late fall ritual

OLD FRONTENAC, Minn. - It's a Saturday in late October but the weather makes it seem like early September. The sun is shining and the crisp morning temperature is giving way to a balmy midday warmup.

OLD FRONTENAC, Minn. - It's a Saturday in late October but the weather makes it seem like early September. The sun is shining and the crisp morning temperature is giving way to a balmy midday warmup.

It's a perfect day to brew beer, declares Greg Grinager, the so-called chemist and technical guru in a group of local men who might seem to take homebrewing too seriously if they weren't having so much fun doing it.

The doors to Jamie Lorentzen's garage are wide open, exposing the brewery, which looks more like a makeshift chemistry lab with propane tanks, burners, stainless steel pots and handwritten recipes strewn about.

Over the sound of jazz albums playing in the background, a grinder cracks grain, water boils in kettles and the seductive odor of mash permeates the area.

"We love the smell of grains in the morning," Lorentzen says.


Guests trickle in and out during the thrice-annual brewing days, but there is a core group of brewers and they share more than a passion for thick stouts and tasty ales. Grinager and Lorentzen teach English at Red Wing High School. Mikkel Gardner, who lives next to Lorentzen, leads the school's choirs. Matt Quinn teaches art in the school district. Another brewer, Matt Stephenson, is a former student of Lorentzen's.

"He's over 21," Lorentzen says in a brief moment of seriousness.

Also among the regulars is Arne Skyberg, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and a former college roommate of Grinager. Skyberg missed this particular brewing venture; the others took the opportunity to punish him with good-natured ribbing.

"It's pretty low-stress," Skyberg says later of the fine-tuned operation. "We've gotten our process down to where it's not as laborintensive as it used to be."

Brewing begins in the garage attic. Bags of grain are dumped into a garbage can suspended by chains from the rafters. A low-tech funnel system empties the grain into a small electric grinder -fashioned years ago in an industrial technology classroom after the group gave up on a manual grinder - which cracks the grain to facilitate extraction of sugars.

"Everything is jury-rigged around here," Lorentzen says with a laugh while nudging the last bit of grain into the grinder.

Brewing, which they also do in spring and summer, takes more than 12 hours from setup to cleanup, but the process is quite fluid. Grain is mixed with water to create mash. The mash is stirred, or decocted, to extract sugars. The mash is infused with hot water to create wort.

Hops, which Lorentzen used to grow but uprooted after they took over the garden, are added. The mixture is cooked over a burner and dispensed into containers to ferment, during which time yeast is added.


They have the process almost down to a science - even perfecting the times at which certain supplies need to be washed to prepare for the next step.

Attempts to stray from the prescribed system haven't fared well. Grinager sheepishly recalls that his plan a while back to introduce a pressure cooker into the process failed miserably.

"It was a bad science project," he says while mixing pilsner mash with a large wooden utensil. "I was trying to reduplicate the Industrial Revolution."

After fermentation in 10-gallon stainless steel containers, the beer used to be dispensed into bottles. They abandoned that timeconsuming step years ago and now split the batch into the 5-gallon kegs it will be served from.

"By the time it gets to that point, it's so much work. It's time to drink," says Grinager, still stirring the mash.

Though they have a large operation, the brewers insist it's easy to get started. Homebrewing resources abound on the Internet. That's where Grinager, Lorentzen and the others often find recipes that replicate well-known Scottish, German and Czech beers.

Over the years - they've been doing this for more than a decade - the group has tried different names for its brews, including Hair of the Dog and Belly of the Whale. The first is a reference to a now-deceased neighborhood dog, the latter a nod to Lorentzen's favorite book, Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."

Having a bit of fun with the hobby, the group has printed hats and T-shirts with the Belly of the Whale logo.


At one point, Lorentzen and Grinager mulled the idea of starting a full-fledged microbrewery. The group already brews 100 gallons at a time - that is within legal requirements for homebrewing - but starting a small beer business would take the pleasure out of the process.

"It's a great hobby," Grinager says.

Scott Wente writes for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, a Forum Communications Company newspaper.

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