On a sticky summer evening in Squirrel Hill, my Chronicle colleague and I strolled south on Shady Avenue thirsting for a story. At 10 minutes to 6 p.m., it was still early enough to see the sidewalks askew by century-old oaks, the shade sheltering those retreating from the summer sun. Though some swings at Blue Slide Park were still occupied on Beechwood Boulevard, many recreational denizens had ventured indoors, as on eves like these the humidity stamps every move with sweat — picture fingers aimlessly sliding across a cell phone screen while trying to click a circle or damp hands pressing against a reporter’s pad as the pen slides.
If ever there was a night for cold beer this was it.
Our assignment was to capture an epic craft crawl. Aiding us with insights and access to basements full of beakers — or spaces reminiscent of “Breaking Bad” — were three Jewish brewers, a neighbor who joined our adventure and one amiable dog. Over a four-hour span we walked 1.3 miles and ingested two types of grain resembling grape nuts, handfuls of salted circular pretzels and 15 varieties of homemade beverages. We brewed a batch of Caribou Slobber, listened to Bootsy Collins and effortlessly observed chemistry and camaraderie combine.
After arriving at the home of our first brewer, Geoff Camp, we descended to a lab-like basement and entered a single-car garage. Surrounded by transparent plastic hoses, two 10-gallon orange containers, a steel pot and a few billion cells of yeast, Camp explained with scientific precision the relationship between water quality and good beer (acidity, alkalinity and hardness all alter taste), introduced us to the praiseworthy moment of flocculation (when yeast clumps in the beer-making process and drops to the bottom of the fermenter) and lionized fermentation.
“I have a lot of respect for fermentation. It turns grapes into wine, grain into bread and milk into cheese. There’s something fascinating about the transformation of those ingredients that’s really cool,” he said.
Camp, who dabbled in homebrewing in 1995 but delayed a more serious immersion until 2012, said, “I like beer. I like the mixture of chemistry and cooking, artistry and science.”
For us, such passion was evident with each sip. Following a single-batch unblended Lambic, which he brewed in September 2012 and bottled in June 2015, we enjoyed a Berliner weisse, also started in September 2012 but bottled in January 2013.
“Geoff has the patience of a Trappist monk,” said Dan Gelman, our second host.
Before venturing to Gelman’s abode, a trek of little less than a mile, we drank more. After a doppelbock, rauchbier, Belgian dubbel and Trappist single, we consumed an altbier, Vienna lager, British dark mild, Irish stout, American pale ale and American barleywine.
Each brew possesses a particular style, thus necessitating a certain rigor in makeup. Honoring those traditions, many of which date back generations, is motivating, explained Camp.
“It’s neat to think this is the same thing they were doing,” he said. Whereas some crafters like creating drinks complete with exotic ingredients and trendy names, “I’m more interested in making beer for a classic style.”
Since 2012, the Squirrel Hill resident has brewed more than 43 batches, of which he’s only dumped one.
“It was a coffee stout. It was bitter and tannic,” said Camp, whose meticulousness was evidenced by a sincere apology when during our 11th beer, a drop from his keg tap dripped on a drinker’s fingers.
“He’s the Picasso to our paint by numbers,” said Gelman, who along with brewing buddy Justin Braver, also of Squirrel Hill, exhibited a more relaxed approach.
“We’re proof that anyone can brew,” echoed Braver.
Friends of Camp’s, the two Jewish Pittsburghers shared similar stories of being exposed to the craft in the ’90s, “retiring” from it while focusing on family and career, and then resuming the trade roughly six years ago.
“I was pretty into beer in high school,” said Braver.
“He was 21 in high school,” Gelman dead-panned.
After exiting Camp’s air-conditioned abode and reentering a climate we had enjoyably escaped for two hours, our group migrated north on Beechwood Boulevard. Having ambled from one side of Squirrel Hill to the other, a journey lasting 12 parched minutes, we required another drink.
Gelman, a most gracious host, gifted us “a few-week-old chocolate milk stout” he and Braver had made. Before following it with a black IPA and bourbon barrel porter, we were joined by Gelman’s neighbor, Mark Davidson, who was dressed in a green “Star and Shamrock” t-shirt — the garb, which hailed from the Washington, D.C., Irish pub and Jewish deli owned by Davidson’s friend, thematically paired with a beverage Gelman described as inspired by Jameson — and Shilo, Gelman’s genial dog who took interest in one Chronicle staffer.
As the night drew on and Gelman and Braver recounted their brewing habits, we were invited to participate by pouring hops into a steel pot. As a propane flame blasted beneath the silvery can, we were privy to a recounting of the ills afforded when attempting to create your craft and drink it too; yet, such conversation was quickly terminated by Gelman, who said, “We have no debate,” in reference to whether homebrewers should drink while working. He was followed by Braver, who asked, “The argument is what?”
As Gelman hoisted a heated container almost six feet and then opened a latch to let the liquid flow into the hanging plastic jug, Camp marveled at the process.
“Beer is a living creature,” he said.
Until fermentation occurs, there is really no alcohol, explained Gelman. What exists now is wort, something “slightly sweet and slightly bitter.”
Prior to Braver measuring its gravity — the amount of dissolved sugars — we confirmed Gelman’s assessment by drinking the wort. It was gross. But offsetting whatever taste there was in this pre-beer was a palpable feeling of fellowship between the brewers. Over the course of four hours, Camp, Gelman and Braver exhibited varying approaches to the discipline, yet in the end a single stream of mutual affinity emerged.
There is a “camaraderie component” to this, said Camp.
Braver agreed. “I brew because it’s a fun thing to share with friends and family, and bring to Thanksgiving,” he said.
Yes, an element of sociability certainly exists, but there is also something else.
Added Gelman: “I do it because I enjoy drinking beer.” PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt contributed to this story.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.