Nepenthe leads the next frontier of homebrewing in Baltimore

Brewers, the professionals as well as the amateurs that hoist 5-gallon pots atop apartment-oven burners, come in two varieties, according to Ryan Boddy, one of the co-founders of city-based beer club Baltibrew.

There are those that brew beer like cooks, finagling with a standard recipe, improvising with each new batch, adding or subtracting ingredients with the seasoned hand of an experienced sous-chef.

And there are those that brew beer like scientists, working strictly from a set of instructions and precisely annotating even the minutest deviations in a notebook.

Boddy insists he cooks his beers, but one look at his setup and I'm certain he's a mad scientist. His graying hair is slick with sweat from standing over containers of boiling water. With a waist-high wooden paddle — it might be used to paddle a canoe if the blade didn't have holes in — he mixes a mash of grains and water he has poured into a large cooler on the ground. The countertop behind him is littered with clear plastic packets of nutmeg, brown sugar, and cinnamon, which he'll grind using a mortar and pestle. A 20-gallon stainless steel vat sits ready on a gas burner next to the cooler. Boddy, 37, has been homebrewing for a decade, and the beer he's crafting from scratch today is a rather advanced homebrew. It's his Hail Vespers gruit, an ale that's bittered and flavored by herbs, not hops as beers typically are.

While Boddy usually produces his beers from home, he needs a slightly larger workspace this first Friday of October. He's rushing to complete the second half of six homebrews, beers he requires for different events during the fifth Baltimore Beer Week, the annual Elysium for Charm City's beer lovers that kicks off Friday and features more than 350 events, including beer tastings at area breweries and bars around town; a cornhole tournament; Chilibrew, a chili cook off-cum-homebrew competition presented by Baltibrew; and a homebrew gruit ale contest at Liam Flynn's in Station North, for which Boddy is making his Hail Vespers.

For his laboratory Boddy picks the same place Baltibrew holds its monthly meetings: Nepenthe Homebrew, the only beer-making and brew-on-premises shop in Baltimore. Located within the Meadow Mill complex adjacent to the Woodberry Light Rail line, it opened in February , and it's the brainchild of homebrewing couple Jill Antos and Brian Arnold, each of whom started homebrewing on their own several years ago. Nepenthe is defined as something that eases pain or sorrow (it was a drug mentioned in "The Odyssey" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven").

"For me, homebrewing is kind of like cooking," says Antos, 31. "Some people homebrew because it's cheaper than drinking commercial beer. I want to create a certain thing that's in my head."

Arnold, 30, feels the same way. "One of the things that attracted me about the hobby is that it can be as complicated or as simple as you want," he says. "You find people doing all sorts of things."

It's for those people that the pair created Nepenthe, 2,300 square feet of homebrewing heaven. Nearly 50 different malted grains — used to give a beer its color — occupy a long shelf in the back of the store. The selection of hops, the stuff that gives beer its bitterness, flavor and aroma, is ample and varied: piney hops, citrusy hops, floral hops; hops from England; the quintessential American hops, Cascade and Centennial; hops from New Zealand with a bit of lime and vanilla. Many kinds of liquid and dry yeasts, necessary for fermentation, are available.

For utter novices, supplies and pre-assembled homebrew kits sit waiting on shelves. Buy a box, pop it open, and follow the instructions.

An utter novice, in this case, is me, as I'm not the usual Nepenthe customer. My beer knowledge is limited, and my palate is puny. I go for the canned Natty Boh when I sidle up to Mount Royal Tavern's bar.

But I'm at Nepenthe to try out its brew-on-premises offering, which commenced Sept. 6 after prolonged wrangling for the necessary permits. From Friday through Sunday, and for a price, homebrewers can use the space on the far left side of Nepenthe for brewing, fermenting, bottling, and kegging their own beers. Beginners, like me, pay $160 to be guided by Arnold through a 5-gallon homebrew, which nets about 48 bottles of beer.

I occupy space at the far left of Nepenthe's homebrewing setup, choosing to stay well clear of Boddy, who's taken up two of the four available gas burners and vats. Partly, I'm worried I might knock something over.

The other part? A nagging sense of masculine inadequacy, because for my first homebrew I've impetuously chosen from a book of recipes to concoct a "Nutcastle" brown ale, a clear knockoff of the Newcastle variety. Boddy's Hail Vespers is 13 percent alcohol by volume; at 5.1 percent, my finished brew will be fit for a Keystone Light-swilling college freshman. My homebrew takes up the better part of three and a half hours, and before we begin, Arnold walks me around the store, helping me pick the grains, hops, and yeast I need. After inserting milled grains into a mesh bag, we begin by steeping them for 30 minutes inside slightly more than 5 gallons of 150-degree water, which serves to leech out a brownish color from the grains.

When the half hour is done, we boil the water, then cut the heat and add malt extract. Whereas Boddy mashed his grains, triggering an enzymatic process that converts starch into sugar-and it's the sugar that yeast consumes during the fermentation process-I'm using liquid extract, a golden, syrupy goop that's already been mashed, and is therefore full of the sugar my beer needs. After churning it around in the vat with a long-handled stainless steel spoon, we boil the grains and the extract (what we're now calling "wort"), and then transition into the hour-long hopping process.

And then we wait. This is homebrewing-giving your wort the proper time to undergo a series of chemical reactions so that, once you've cooled it, added it to a bucket, poured in your yeast, and sealed that bucket, you'll have beer after two weeks.

"People have asked me all the time: What is the essence of brewing? It's cleaning things and moving heavy stuff," Boddy says.

Over the next two hours from the start of the hopping process through the end of the cooling process, Arnold and I will have lifted a large, coiled contraption through which cold water is sent to drop the temperature of my Nutcastle wort and sanitized a half-dozen different instruments, including a sizable strainer to collect the trub, a protein precipitate formed after the extract and the grains are mixed and boiled, from my wort that's collected into a white bucket where it'll sit for two weeks as it ferments. At this point, I pour a packet of yeast on top of the wort, and Arnold seals off the bucket, adding an air-lock to the cover to allow carbon dioxide gas to escape as the yeast munches on the sugars inside, lest the bucket's top blow off from all the internal pressure.

As Arnold and I finish cleaning off my work area, Antos walks over, a mischievous grin on her face now that I've completed my inaugural foray into the world of homebrewing.

"Very few people do it once," she says. So it seems. In the roughly four hours I spend at Nepenthe, about 20 different people walk through the store, each one of them grabbing grains, hops, and yeast without any assistance. It's clear they've all been to Nepenthe before, and are merely restocking for their next batch of brew.