Get a Whiff of the Big Brew 

Beer, Beer, and More Beer's DIY brewfest smells like heaven. But BYOB.

People often comfort themselves with thoughts about what the afterlife will smell like. Some envision a heaven perfumed with the scent of celestial roses. Others prefer that Valhalla reek of fabric softener, such as the April freshness of Bounce. But none of this is true, my friends. Heaven smells like hops, malt, and yeast.

At least one place on earth captures heaven's scent. Human tongues call this sacred place Beer, Beer, and More Beer. This mecca is the world's largest supplier to the home brewer, or so it claims. Beer, Beer, and More Beer sells supplies for making every kind of beer from bock to steam. It also has kits for making bathtub chardonnay. And for people who really have too much time on their hands, the store even caters to the roast-your-own-coffee-bean set.

The best way to encounter heaven's scent is the store's infamous "big brew," a semiannual potluck where the East Bay's home-brewing community gathers to make beer. Jonathan Plice, the store's special projects manager, wove a tale that made hanging out in a Concord parking lot with a bunch of folks seem fraught with hedonistic promise.

The sun was out, the sky was blue; it was a perfect day for a drive to Concord. It was difficult to know what to expect. Would there be nubile guests drinking ale from huge chalices made of gold and diamonds? Would there be whole suckling pigs impaled on spits? Would there be a vomitorium? We hoped for a hybrid between Caligula and a Jay-Z video.

When we arrived, what appeared to be a thin mist of barbecue smoke rose from the parking lot. The tantalizing odor was not that of grilled swine, however. It smelled of hops, malt, and yeast -- heaven, in other words. But a quick stroll around the parking lot revealed no nubile guests, no suckling pig, and no kegs gushing sweet amber liquid into golden chalices.

Instead, imagine a parking lot filled with contraptions designed by Dr. Seuss. Long curly tubes emerged from silver kegs, and great liquid-filled pots bubbled and boiled. About twenty brewers were present. The amateur specialists were either stirring stuff in pots or sprawled out on lawn chairs. Most were middle-aged guys wearing big beards and even bigger bellies.

Beer, Beer, and More Beer's core customers are men like these: bearded, chubby white guys. "The average age is from 30 to 45," noted co-owner Olin Schultz, who started the business with three college friends in 1995 after graduating from Long Beach State. "These guys are people who are interested in microbrew beers and pay more attention to flavor and have kind of a slant toward doing it yourself. More technical-style guys. ... There are also a lot of creative types. It's a mixture of artists and engineers." In short, dorks and nerds. They even have adopted a dorky new name -- personal brewers -- since "home brew" apparently has a bad connotation these days.

And even though we were nice and dropped hints such as "Boy, I sure am parched! I could sure use a beer!," not a single person offered us any. Maybe they hid the beer when they saw us nosing around the parking lot. Was it possible our reputations had preceded us? It wouldn't have been so bad if the whole place hadn't smelled like a brewery.

Women were definitely the exception and not the rule. Vanessa Sutton was one such exception. Wearing a T-shirt festooned with the images of two black kitty cats, her brown hair pulled back into a bouncy ponytail, she looked more like a cute sorority girl than a seasoned brewer. But like most everyone else, she described her first homemade beer experience as a life-altering event. "It was so much better than anything else out there," she remembered, a beatific grin spreading across her face. Like falling in love at first sight, or that first moment of clarity at an AA meeting, many people say their life as brewers started with a first sip of beer that wasn't Bud or Miller or Coors.

Two major influences got Sutton and her husband Phil addicted to home brew: Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons are known for many things, but appreciation of sophisticated beers isn't among them. After living in Utah for a year and drinking expensive crap beer, the Suttons started making their own. And after the first sip, there was no turning back. They've been making their own for four years.

Inside the store, Laurie and John Pedrick of Sparks, Nevada made it sound easier than it looked. "Hey, if you can boil water, you can make beer," Laurie promised. Beer, Beer, and More Beer is the drop-off point for the World Cup, a contest held annually by the Bay Area Mashers, an East Bay beer club, and Laurie was delivering a few samples for consideration. "My beer is going to be in the vegetable category; it's called 'Passionate Pepper.' It has jalapeños, red peppers, habañeros and," she said, pausing mysteriously, "some other things."

After all, the addition of weird ingredients is a hallmark of modern personal brewing. "There's this guy who insists on adding a banana to his beer," Schultz said. "It's really good, though." Schultz provided a tour of his huge storeroom and offered samples of different hops. The kind that gives Guinness its rich, chocolate flavor was especially delicious, while also torturous. So close and yet so far.

Meanwhile, out in the parking lot, there still wasn't any beer -- that is, none ready for quaffing. Depending on the patience of the brewer, beer generally takes one week to become carbonated, and that's if you're really thirsty. It's usually best to wait at least two weeks before cracking open that first bottle. Conditioning is another story. That's where the beer has time to develop its flavor. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to six months.

So if you're not quite sure about where you'll be hanging out in the afterlife, and you want to get a tiny sniff of heaven before it's too late, check out the parking lot of Beer, Beer, and More Beer when it's time for the big brew. Just be sure to bring your own.

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