The Homebrewer Who Doesn’t Drink
At first it might seem like a joke, or a headline you’d find in a satire-based magazine. However, spend enough time in certain homebrewing circles and the name Michael Crane comes up. He’s the gold-medal-winning homebrewer who seldom drank beer, or any alcoholic beverages for that matter, before he began making beer at home.
Perhaps it’s cognitive dissonance. Most homebrewers get started in the hobby because they plan to drink what they make. Not Crane, the Kansas resident who some consider a brewing savant, able to create memorable beers even though he doesn’t know what they should taste like. For instance, last October he won best of show at the Hoppy Halloween competition in Fargo, ND, for his Thanksgiving Saison, dosed with raspberries and Brettanomyces.
In fact, there is order in the world. “When you first taste something that you are not used too, it can be off-putting,” Crane explained. “But given some time it sort of grows on you. Then you start to recognize that flavor. And after a while it somehow sticks in your brain. You taste a fine commercial example that has the same character, and somehow a little buzzer goes off in your head that is like welcoming an old friend. You make a beer and later taste it and the same little buzzer goes off in your head. And your brain goes … wow.”
While he was talking, Crane pulled a seven-and-a-half-gallon carboy from a storage cabinet. Six months before, he had added three strains of Brettanomyces yeast to an immature saison. “So many styles I don’t know if they are any good. This I know is not ready. (I know what) it should taste like when it is,” he said, his voice full of conviction. He paused, as he often does when he senses he is sounding a bit too full of himself. He smiled modestly. “But I can’t tell if an English Brown Ale is good.”
Beet beers are another matter. He brewed his first after a less-than-serious suggestion from one of his sons, Joey. He simply rinsed off the beats, sliced them, boiled them and added them to a batch of cream ale. They make a strikingly bright pink beer. One judge wrote that it should be served on the Starship Enterprise, and another that if he could have, he would have given the beer 10 points for appearance (three is the most allowed). Of course, he also described the beer as undrinkable. “Many people said it tasted like dirt. Well, it was dirt,” Crane said. “I did not know you are supposed to peel beets.” Now he does, and makes Beet Beer Classic, Beet Light, a Berliner Weisse with beets he calls Magenta, and a Beet Mead. One Saturday in February his beet concoctions won four medals in homebrew competitions in three states. “And I hate beets,” he said.
Crane’s father drank locally made spirits when his son was growing up in Tennessee in the 1950s and ’60s, and the family shared Mogen David wine on religious holidays. When Crane started at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1975, it seemed to him all his classmates drank. He didn’t. Beyond a few social nips, alcoholic drinks simply were not part of his life, certainly not beer.
Nonetheless, it made perfect sense to Crane to buy a Mr. Beer Home Microbrewery Kit when his wife, June, spotted one on sale at Target. Both his sons liked beer, and he could make it with them. “OK, this will be different,” Joey thought when he returned home from graduate school on winter break at the end of 2010. Unlike his father, he is beer-experienced, planning in advance the ones he would drink when he turned 21, posting his tasting notes on line, and showing a willingness to spend amounts of money for beer that startled his father. He was happy to brew three basic beers with his father over the break.
“When I went back to school, I didn’t think much about it. He wasn’t much of a drinker; why would he be interested in making beer?” he said. By the time he came home at spring break, his father was brewing all-grain batches and his brewery was growing. “He was interested in building stuff, in the process,” Joey said. That curiosity expanded, most notably to include wild yeast. “I am not a scientist in any way, so I just think that yeast is like magic,” Michael Crane said. “I love the surprise and the ‘aha moment’ when tasting wort fermented with wild yeast.”
Stan Hieronymus, a contributor to All About Beer Magazine for 20 years, is the author of several books on beer and brewing. The most recent, For the Love of Hops (Brewers Publications), deals with all aspects of one of beer’s essential ingredients.