The women clean up

July 31, 1998

By Kurt Epps

"If you can boil water, you can brew beer," say all the homebrewing books. Well, yes, but there's a lot they don't tell you about.

As any homebrewer knows, there's nothing like drinking and sharing your own fresh brew. But making it is a messy process. "If you ain't wet, you ain't working," goes the brewer's slogan.

The setup and cleanup parts of brewing are hardly pleasurable, very time consuming and often daunting deterrents to one's frothy enthusiasm. Add to that the purchase of ingredients, the requisite sanitizing of equipment and bottles, the necessity of little gadgets that don't necessarily come with your homebrew kit--itself not a cheap investment-- and you gain great respect for those dedicated to the cause.

Cost is also an important consideration. Many homebrewers brew in five gallon batches, making the yield approximately forty-eight 12 oz. bottles. Ingredients (hops, grain, malt extract, corn sugar, Irish moss, perishable supplies) for such a batch could easily cost between thirty and forty bucks - provided you can get them. Depending on how exotic you want your beer to be, the cost is sometimes more - a great deal more. And don't forget bottles which have to be acquired and then carefully sanitized. While a buck a bottle is not a big price to pay for good, fresh beer, clearly just being able to boil water really doesn't tell the whole tale.

Enter beer establishments known as BOP's (Brew-on-premises).Owners of BOP's recognize that, despite some media claims to the contrary, the desire for fresh, flavorful, quality beer has not abated. Its growth has slowed somewhat, but it's still growing. Very popular west of the Rockies for some years, these businesses allow homebrewers of any experience level to come in and brew their favorite recipes, using supplies and equipment on hand. More importantly, you leave your mess there for others to clean up. You then return two weeks later to collect your beer, put it in your trunk and drive off, hopefully, into a sudsy sunset.

In the Garden State, however, there is only one such establishment. Centrally located in Freehold, NJ it is called The Brewer's Apprentice. And it is perhaps the only completely female owned and operated brewing facility in the country. The proprietors are Jo Ellen, Penny and Barbara--the former two daughters of the latter.

To regale you with the morass of red tape, legislative inertia, delays and regulation snafus that these gals--all Perth Amboy natives-- had to surmount would fill more space than we writers are allotted. It took them nearly a year to get opened, and during that year they had to pay rent on the building without generating any profits.

That has changed.

The shop, located behind other buildings in a shopping plaza, is immaculately clean and can accommodate up to six separate brewers at once. What's nice about the place is that anyone can be a successful homebrewer their very first time out. Under the watchful eyes of the three women, the novice can choose a beer style, select, measure and add ingredients, and pitch yeast prepared meticulously by the ladies. From there it's a matter of watching your brew get expertly transferred to a keg for storage and fermenting under ideally regulated conditions.

You can select your own name and label for your special brew, and when you return two weeks later to retrieve it, you'll pack up seventy-two 22 oz. bomber bottles of your own homebrewed treasure to enjoy or share with friends. The cost usually comes out to under two bucks a bottle, and they guarantee the quality of your beer. However, if you use your own recipes, the flavor is your department.

What's even nicer about the place are the people who run it and work in it. Friendly, down-to-earth and repositories of brew knowledge and experience, they will guide you every step of the way. Mom Barbara is likely to throw on a pot of coffee and bring out some crumb cake or sticky buns for noshing. It's like brewing in your favorite grandmother's oversized kitchen.

And "Grandma" doesn't miss a trick when it comes to either brewing or hospitality. Her daughters Penny and JoEllen must have inherited her attitude, because they make you feel right at home, and, curiously, you begin to feel like a family member almost immediately. Even unrelated regular patrons like "Uncle" Joe Lobby are considered part of the extended family. Joe took the PubScout's young children under his wing immediately and had them measuring, grinding, filling and pitching as genially and caringly as their own uncles would have.

These ladies are following a time-honored tradition of women in brewing that goes as far back as the Beer Goddess Ninkasi of Ancient Egypt. And though Ninkasi never decreed that women must clean up after men, my guess is that the Beer Goddess smiles down on her disciples and hopes they "clean up" in another sense.

I couldn't agree more.

The Brewer's Apprentice
179 South St.
Freehold, NJ 07728

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Kurt Epps