NASA area club makes homebrewing a fun science
Tim Gamble, commander of the Bay Area Mashtronauts, scooped 5 pounds of rye in a bowl on a windy day. As grain dust floated in the air, his co-brewers carefully weighed the bowl before pouring the grain into a homemade mill operated with a yellow Dewalt drill.
A dozen homebrewers gathered outside on the Saturday before the Super Bowl to say goodbye to a favorite place by mashing grain and making gallons of beer.
The homebrewers met at DeFalco’s Home Wine & Beer Supplies, 16532 Sea Lark Road in the Clear Lake area, on the last day the store was open.
“We took a dive in distribution and home brew business,” Manager Andy Barnard said.
The other branch of the store, 9223 Stella Link Road in Houston, will remain open, Barnard said.
The Mashtronauts have different theories about why the Clear Lake area store closed. One is that the market couldn’t support two stores. Another is that homebrewers can get supplies online.
Yet another is that the popularity of craft beers in recent years led to a decline in homebrewing.
“You can get these beers anywhere,” Barnard said.
That’s not what Mashtronaut John Jons believes.
“We all tend to brew at home,” Jons said. “There’s a satisfaction like with cooking and creating recipes.”
The Mashtronauts have 170 members, although 80 of them are current on their $20 annual club dues, Gamble said. Members are NASA engineers, doctors, laboratory technicians and airline pilots, like Gamble. Some are retirees.
After they mill the grain, the homebrewers mash it by heating it in water to 160 F so the starches convert to sugars. Everything has to be kept clean to prevent bacteria. At a later stage in the brewing process, yeast is added.
“If you use enough yeast, bacteria doesn’t have a chance to take hold,” Gamble said. “It’s biology, chemistry and the fight for life.”
The “brew sculpture” Gamble used holds three massive metal pots. It’s essentially an outdoor propane stove, but it’s reserved solely for making beer.
Gamble kept a clipboard with a scientific recipe he referred to as if he were making a pre-flight check on a plane he pilots. This is serious craftsmanship. Gamble wins homebrewing competitions, and he intends to win again with this particular batch of Helles-style lager.
David Cooper of Galveston, a retired firefighter, first brewed beer in 1971 when he was planting trees in British Columbia, Canada.
Cooper takes a different approach to brewing beer.
“No matter what happens here, hold no one accountable because beer is involved,” he said.
The first brew Eric Briggs made in 2012 was his wedding beer. He’s still learning the craft, he said.
“You don’t ever learn everything you need to know,” Briggs said.
Texas law says homebrewers can’t make more than 200 gallons of beer per year.
“I made 50 gallons last year,” Briggs said.
Many members went from making beer at home to entering homebrew competitions to opening small breweries, Angelina Cavallo said. She’s been a Mashtronaut for six years, ever since she moved to the Clear Lake area, but she mostly makes honey wine, also known as mead.
Many of the members have taken the Beer Judge Certification Program classes, Cavallo said. It involves training a palate to distinguish tastes of different styles of beer and being able to offer helpful criticism.
After the grain is mashed, the whole block smells like a vague mix of boiling oatmeal, baking bread and some kind of nut soup. The next step is sparging, which is when the brewer separates the sugars from the grains. After that, brewers will add hops and cook the brew at differing lengths, depending on the flavor they want. Later, they add yeast.
It’s a bit of wizardry.
“There’s only two kinds of beer: ales and lager,” Cooper said.
A tall man with long white hair, Cooper explained the alchemy of fermentation and offered more than one opinion.
“People overuse hops,” Cooper said. “What they do is the bastardization of beer or the Americanization of beer.”
He offered beer-and-food pairing suggestions.
“Helles goes well with crawfish,” Cooper said. “You still want to taste the bugs.”
Cooper watched Gamble checking his clipboard and adjusting knobs.
“It looks intense and complicated,” Cooper said. “It’s not complicated. You’ve got to forgive a lot because beer is involved. Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.”