On occasional weekend nights, home beer brewer Ander Sundell likes to gather a few friends, pour a few beers, and watch people totter through sobriety tests on the highway running below his Bench-area home. When you make your own booze, it's easy to poke fun at others who have to go out and get it. But besides the constant whir of traffic, Sundell's yard is a charming rural oasis--a true testament to his hobby. Soaring organic hop vines swing from lines in his front yard while, nearby, an empty plot has been dug up to grow barley. In the back, his two "lesbian" hens peck at an organic tomato garden he plans on turning into salsa in the fall. A former Boise Co-op employee, Sundell just recently organized the second-annual Treasure Valley Organic Homebrew Challenge. For a guy this passionate about beer, the payoff for organizing an annual competition is a night spent talking with other Boise-area beer nerds.
How did you get started brewing beer?
My brother-in-law bought a home brewing kit and never used it. It sat in his basement forever. One day he basically told me to take it home, and I took it home, tried to brew a couple batches of beer and it didn't work out that well ... It sat in our basement for a long time and I had a roommate who asked what it was and I said, "Oh, it's a home brew kit." And he was like, "So, we haven't been brewing beer this whole time?" That was probably two years ago, and since then I've just been going crazy with it.
After you picked it up again, what did you have to learn?
It just takes a little bit of reading. You have to be OK with making bad beer because it happens from time to time. Before I had made some that I wasn't that happy with and you get discouraged. Really, I just did some reading and got back into it and stuck with it. Then you start making good beer.
What's the process like?
There's a few different ways you can do it. When you start, as a beginner, you can use extracts, where a lot of the brewing is actually done for you. You just boil that and then you basically spice it with the hops ... You're buying powder that you can mix with water that takes care of the first step for you. It really involves extra equipment and time to not use it; it makes a brew day last six to seven hours vs. three with the extract ... But then it gets out of control quickly ... eventually you just start using the grain. It becomes cheaper and you have a lot more control over your final beer, too. You can get some esoteric barley from Bavaria or something.
What esoteric grains are your favorite now?
It's hard because I like to brew organic most of the time and the gambit of grains aren't necessarily available in organic. There are some traditional floor-malted British barleys where there's only one place they make them and they don't come organic. The last batch I brewed was with this malt from Scotland that's kind of fancy stuff. It's not available organic but it still goes. I tend to trust things from Europe, even if they're commercially grown--that's one thing I learned working at the co-op.
What was your role in getting the organic home brewers event started?
Basically, I just thought it would be a good idea and the co-op didn't say "no," so we just kind of went with it ... This year, I've tried to make it a little more autonomous. The co-op is definitely still involved, but I've just tried to make it something that is its own entity.
Has the beer community embraced the event?
It's hard because some of these home brewers are the guys that are far out of town that are making their own beer--and a lot of them are making some pretty damn good beer--but some of those guys, it's hard to convince that organic is the way to go. They hear the word organic and say, "I don't wear Birkenstocks and I don't want nothing to do with this." This year, I think a lot of those people are like, "This is something to really get into, or at least sniff around a little bit."
Why is it particularly important for you to use organic?
I've got a geo-science degree. I just recently defended my master's thesis in geology ... You really see it first hand; you go to talks every week dealing with it. If you drive out by Idaho Falls and see these massive fields of barley, you know what's going on: they're just covering them in chemicals ... a lot of people are really disassociated with the basic building blocks of food. When you're a brewer, you have a handful of grain, it's such a primary stage of food. When you see it at that early of a stage, you realize: This is the part that has the chemicals on it. It makes you more aware of trying to steer clear of that stuff.
What, to you, signifies a great beer?
I think there's a lot that really goes into that. One of the biggest things is, basically, you have to work the balance between the hops and the malt. That sounds really generic, because they're the two ingredients everyone knows, but what it comes down to is one's sweet and one's bitter. Certain beer types are sweeter, certain beer types are more bitter, but there is, within that, kind of a sweet spot that you can hit ... When you taste a home brew, a nice homebrew, that's what the best people are able to do is hit that balance. It's an overused term, "a very well balanced beer," but it is kind of the crux of the whole thing.
Are there any styles that you favor over others?
I took this beer judging class and within that, you really learn to appreciate everything for what it is. There are some crazy beers out there that maybe I wasn't interested in before. There are some weird, really sour beers, acidic acid beers, coming out of Belgium and some weird rice beers out of Japan. They all seem a little weird when they're on the shelf, but when you actually get down and recognize them for what they are, you learn to really appreciate everything for what it's supposed to be ... It goes so deep, it's insane. The history involved with each little style ... Off the top of my head, I'd say there's 29 general broad categories of beer, within that, there's eight or nine per category. Each one's got its own crazy story of how it came to be ... Where there's one little holdout in Germany that broke all the brewing rules and now they still make this one particular beer. It just becomes a life hobby.
Do you feel like that's the case for you?
Yeah, it's something that would be pretty hard to walk away from.