A little rant about beer to whet your March Madness whistle

Craft brewers make such good beer. How cool would it be if they chose better recipes?

While we’re waiting for the start of March Madness, I would like to say a few words about. . . beer. Don't ask why, but I suspect many college sports fans have an interest in that subject.

Actually, what I’d like to do is an old man’s rant about. . . beer.

To wit (and I don’t mean that brew that's generally too sweet and fruity for my traditional taste buds): What’s the deal with craft beers that are exceptionally well made, but too hoppy or too sweet?

First, you should know that I have been a home brewer for about 25 years. That said, I have never been a fancy home brewer or a beer snob.

When I started, I bought my hops and barley from a modest little store on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago. I think the name was Let’s Brew It.

The owner, a guy named O’Donnell, was a delight. He usually had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, like a tipster in a B movie.

He kept brewing simple. So simple, in fact, that he had a recipe that was half-sugar, half-malt for people who were home-brewing to keep the cost of their beer low. That’s actually how home-brewing got its start in Britain.

I never went that route. My goal was to make good beer in an efficient way. I took my recipes from The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, by the incomparable Charlie Papazian.

These days, I tend to tweak whatever recipe I am using. I got in this habit because O’Donnell didn’t always have the exact ingredients I wanted. Because I wanted to use my leftover hops and malt to see what would happen. And because it’s more fun that way. As Papazian always says, ``Relax. Don’t worry. And have a homebrew.’’

I think I have succeeded. I have never brewed a batch that wasn't good. I can boil up a batch in a few hours, store my fermentor in a cool place in the basement for a couple of weeks—and bottle it. A couple weeks after that, it’s drinkable. If you are patient enough to wait a few months, it’s even better. Many of my beers are outstanding after years of aging.

Unlike commercial beer, which generally is pasteurized and injected with carbonation, my beer is naturally carbonated. I add a hint of brewer’s sugar before bottling. Works like a charm.

I am approaching my 100th batch. They are fewer and farther between nowadays. We don’t drink as much beer, so a batch lasts longer.

I can do anything from an American light lager to milk stout. My best brews, though, are a coconut porter and a Czech pilsner.

The porter recipe is based on a conversation with the braumeister at Maui Brewing, which makes a fine coconut porter. Just one more reason I am thankful that I have covered a couple of Maui Invitationals.

The Czech pilsner recipe is right out of the Papazian book. It supposedly is descended from the original, old-country recipe for Budweiser. The key ingredient is two pounds of honey. And not fancy honey, either.

I have tried agave and the wonderful honey sold at Wisconsin farmstands. What works best in my beer, though, is basic supermarket honey. It makes the beer smooth and gives it a great finish—with no off-flavors.

Which brings me to my rant: Why are the micro-breweries that seemingly are popping up on every corner of every town so obsessed with making weird beer?

Their beer is always so well-made. But I am invariably disappointed when I look at their beer lists. If they make 12 beers, seven of them will be IPAs. that fill your mouth with numbing hops. Four will taste like Grampa’s strange lemonade. The 12th will have the word `sour’ in it, a concept too frightening to sample.

When I do find a porter or stout, I am relieved. Because even when they doctor those up, they remain awfully good.

For a while, I used to engage the staff with this simple question: Have you ever thought of making a really good pilsner?

Invariably, the answer would be: ``You can’t get very creative with pilsners.’’

I would say: ``Hmm. . .'' But I would be thinking: My Czech pilsner, aka Honey Beer, is so classic, there’s no need. And my Berry Pilsner—made with blueberries, strawberries and raspberries— is an excellent summer cooler, right down to the purple foam.

Both still taste like beer that people who like beer will like—if you know what I mean.

I once wrote an op-ed column for the Chicago Sun-Times in which I challenged craft brewers and mega-brewers to make a good pilsner. A local distributor sent me a sampler that included some excellent Euro pilsners and. . . Schlitz.

Schlitz, if you haven’t tried it in its current state, is an excellent beer as well as an excellent value. Same deal with PBR and Blatz. If that’s too extreme for you, nothing wrong with Stella and Peroni. I also am a fan of Miller High Life.

That said, the lavender pilsner at my local botanic-themed micro-brewery is interesting. So well made. It’s just a little too. . . something.

There is hope, though. The Door County Brewing Co., where a lad basically once told me pilsners are too boring, now makes a most excellent Clawhammer Pilsner.

If this doesn’t make you thirsty for NCAA hoops. . .

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