At Home at Claremont Craft Ales

Claremont Home Brewers

The top home brewers from the 2014 Claremont Craft Ales Home Brew competition (courtesy CCA Facebook page)

“I have this theory that the very first batch of beer that you make as a home brewer dictates what happens the rest of your life, beer-wise.”

Such is the thinking of Simon Brown, one of the founders and owners of Claremont Craft Ales. Brown and wife Emily, along with partners Brian and Natalie Seffer, put their own passion for home brewing to good use when they established the city’s first and only craft brewery in 2012.

Just over two years later with a successful business that continues to grow rapidly, Simon Brown and Brian Seffer carry their passion for home brewing into their Claremont Craft Ales operations.

A young Simon Brown and Brian Seffer in their home brewing days

A young Simon Brown and Brian Seffer in their home brewing days (courtesy CCA Facebook page)

“We both started as home brewers and we want to give back to the home brewing community,” says Simon. “We didn’t want to forget our roots and we want to make everyone realize that we’re still just home brewers. We just happen to have a 100-gallon system now instead of a 10-gallon system.”

From the time it opened, CCA has been a meeting place for home brewers to try new craft beers, get advice about home brewing and share their own concoctions

“The brewery community is awesome and we want to be part of it,” says Natalie.

“Since opening day, a large number of our customers are home brewers,” says Simon. “During that first year, every day somebody would come up to us and say they were a home brewer and then ask us to show them around or ask for advice. We loved that and were excited to share our knowledge with them. If you come in and ask for a tour, you’re going to get one.”

The craft brew community tends to inspire sharing not just among breweries, but also with home brewers and also brewery customers.

“There have been many times where a home brewer says they love a particular beer and they want to know what’s in it, and we give them the recipe,” says Brian.

The home brewing industry is experiencing a growth parallel to that of the craft beer world, with home brew stores popping up and more people diving into the hobby. To offer their support, Claremont Craft Ales has held an annual home brew competition during both years of its existence, with winning brewer earning the opportunity to have his or her beer brewed and served at CCA. The winning entry from 2013 was renamed “Sweet Nothings” and became part of the tasting room’s regular beer rotation.

This year’s competition saw such increased interest that the brewery judging teams were separated into two groups to sample all of the entries. Those that were deemed worthy were advanced to the second round, where all judges collaborated on picking the top winners, which were announced at a ceremony at the brewery on July 5.

The Best in Show was awarded to Steve Bernard, who will have his winning Pumpkin Ale added to the brewery’s offerings this fall with a name still to be determined. Brian said Bernard’s entry caught the judges by surprise.

“We make beers we like, but we generally don’t like pumpkin beers,” he says. “But it won. We all got around to drinking it and it was fantastic. It was an IPA before it was a pumpkin. It was very well done. Our winner is excited to come and make beer here, and we’re excited.”

CCA 1Simon says “the pumpkin comes across as really subtle pumpkin pie spice. It’s not over-the-top, just subtle background notes. It’s like a spice IPA.”

The first runner up was Will Labrie for his Cherry Saison, followed by the team of Dylan Smith and Chris Kwok for their Imperial Chocolate Coffee Milk Stout. Donny Consla won both the third runner-up and honorable mention awards for his Flanders Red and Brandy Barrel-Aged Christmas Ale, respectively.

Consla, who recently finished Veterinary School in Pomona, returned to his home in Pennsylvania not long after the winners were announced. He’s been home brewing for about four years and took a moment to explain his two entries that were recognized by the CCA judges.

“I’ve really been into sours for a couple of years now and as you know, the West Coast has some of the best sours out there,” he says in talking about the Flanders Red Ale. “I had thought about brewing a sour often but they just have a stigma about them.  A lot can go wrong with all those different organisms, and if it does you have wasted a lot of time and resources (because they take so long to make!).  I had done a lot of microbiology work in undergrad and veterinary school so I thought I should be able to handle the new (to me) microorganisms. (My wife and I) decided to go for it and are really happy with the results. “

A different approach was necessary for his Brandy Barrel Aged Christmas Ale. Donny previously made his “Consla’s Christmas Ale” and was more than satisfied with the results.

“Back home, there is nothing better than a sweet, spicy (not the hot kind), warming Christmas ale to sooth the soul on a cold winter day,” says Donny. “I had been wanting to get into barrel aging, and since I had the base beer recipe down I thought I would try it on this brew. I also know that this beer ages well, so in about nine months (when Christmas is rolling around) it would be perfect. I used oak chips soaked in brandy for my ‘barrel aging.’ Brandy has that sweet and spicy character that I thought would lend itself nicely to the beer.”

Having returned to Pennsylvania, Consla is gearing up to brew a sour blonde ale that will be split four ways, with each aged with a different combination of raspberries, peaches, vanilla, cinnamon or other herbs and spices. He also has a big (11 percent ABV) Imperial Chocolate Vanilla Stout in his sights for the future. But he says he doesn’t want to turn his home brewing hobby into something that could possibly become a chore.

Nevertheless, Simon says all good craft brewers came from home brewing roots.

“When it’s drinkable and surprisingly good, then you’re instantly obsessed and it turns into a real hobby that you do on a regular basis. Maybe you turn into something greater.”

An abbreviated version of this article also appears in the September edition of 9-0-9 Magazine.