This brew's for you and me, neighbor

Another Saturday afternoon and Mike Tripka is out in his garage, bringing what looks like a frothy amber soup to a boil in a small cauldron.

“Hey brew master, what you got going?” a passing neighbor shouts from his SUV.

“Pale ale,” Tripka responds.

Tripka reserves Saturdays for brewing his own beer. His operation looks simple enough – a large pot for boiling and several coolers rigged with tubing. But he makes award-winning beers that rival anything from a commercial brewery.

So, it's understandable if a few neighbors inquire about his latest brew.

Home brewing is a relatively new hobby – legally that is. It wasn't until 1978 that the federal government legalized home brewing.

About 750 brew clubs exist in the nation, said Gary Glass, president of the American Homebrewers Association. Individual states have restrictions on home brewing – in South Carolina, home brews can't have an alcohol content of more than 5 percent – but the hobby has flourished as recipes and how-to manuals have circulated on the Internet.

Now it's to the point where home brewers are trying to gain a bit more respect.

Tripka has won ribbons in competitions up and down the East Coast and he has handed out accolades as a judge.

Tripka started home brewing in the mid-'90s when he lived in New Jersey. His wife as a joke got him for Christmas a Mr. Beer – a simple, do-it-yourself kit, complete with ingredients packets and bottles. The joke soon turned into a serious hobby. He started heating his own brew on the stove top. But the boil over ruined two stoves. So, he had to upgrade.

Now he runs a small operation out of his garage, making gallons of a variety of beers for charity events, friends or just himself. A refrigerator is rigged with taps to dispense his latest concoctions.

The operation itself is fairly simple and it only takes about four hours to produce five gallons of pale ale. It's a matter of being precise with the details. An extra few ounces of hops can make a beer too bitter. When boiling, a swing of 10 degrees can be the difference between a sweet or dry beer.

“It's basically a science experiment,” he said.

Out of the experimentation comes a new appreciation for beer. He produces clones of popular beers – his favorite being Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – or tweaks those to his own liking.

“Everyone thinks beer is that yellow, fizzy stuff,” he said. “But you get into the different styles – ales, hard ciders – it becomes something else entirely.”