Humble Homebrewer

Tucson homebrewer brings home the silver in national beer-making competition

Michael Cook has far surpassed the college phase of "as long as the drink is wet it's good" and has for years been dissecting the flavors that make a beer a nice brew.

With closets full of fermenting beer at his home, Cook, a homebrewer since 2008, is coming off a recent big win at the largest homebrew competition in the world.

Cook earned the prestigious silver medal at the 38th annual American Homebrewers Association National Homebrew Competition for his Brett beer in the Specialty Beer category. He went up against 810 others.

"I'm proud and excited to have won the medal, I was definitely nervous and for me this was more of an experiment," Cook says. "I mean people can tell you something's good but you don't really know until somebody official judges it and gives you notes."

Cook says everyone's taste is different but judges at competitions like the NHC go through a beer judge certification program to have a solid foundation and basis to critically judge the brews.

The specialty category is big too, mostly because it's kind of a catchall, and really anything can go, Cook says. He mainly entered to get detailed scientific and sensory feedback from the judges.

Having traveled a lot with the military and tasted many different beers and flavors, Cook says he began homebrewing as a military man living down the street from a homebrew store in Norfolk, Virginia.

"I thought it sounded really neat and just wondered if I could do it," Cook says. "I had just moved to town, didn't really have a lot of friends there or anything and so I thought I'd start a hobby. I lived in a tiny apartment and so I just started with a teeny stockpot on the stovetop trying to do it, and it actually turned out pretty good."

Cook was hooked and just needed more space, which he got when he moved to Dallas where he met his wife, and then again when he moved to Tucson almost three years ago.

A man of many hobbies—having dabbled in everything from sculpture, paint and art to fixing motorcycles, old cars and being a systems engineer—Cook says homebrewing mixes a little bit art with a lot of science.

Cook says homebrewing allows him to be creative while learning more about chemistry, engineering and biology. He also noted that's he didn't become a homebrewer to drink beer all day everyday.

"I need to do something, if I'm idle and just watching TV, it drives me nuts," Cook says. "The thing about homebrewing is a lot of people just think you're a drunk, but, well, nobody spends 20 hours making a batch of beer to get drunk. If you're really an alcoholic you'll go down and get the $6 bottle of vodka ..."

Anyone who knows anything about homebrewing knows it's neither cheap nor quick and easy. From recipe creation to the finished product, brewing home beer takes time, patience and a bit of money.

While you can make a full-size five-gallon batch with just a cooler, a couple of stockpots and a turkey burner, and the equipment and exact process can be simple or complex, Cook says.

Every homebrewer typically needs a recipe to start their brew process, whether borrowed, adjusted, created or perfected.

Cook says that over the years he's created or modified some 50 recipes, and has as many in waiting. He adds that finding the right balance between bitter and sweet, and how much hops or types of yeast to include is important to understanding the science behind the taste of a brew.

He broke down the basics of homebrewing for the Weekly, a process that can take weeks, months or even a year.

Cook says he has gone to all-grain brewing, which involves cracking the grains, steeping them in the cooler, which ultimately makes them look and smell like oatmeal. Next, it's mixed and strained, making wort, which then goes into a boil kettle or whatever procedure preferred by the homebrewer.

After adding the hops, spices and other ingredients, it's cooled down to the proper temperature and yeast is added, which interacts and expresses the beer's flavor. Cook says at this point there's still a lot of work to be done because the yeast needs time to rest. Then, after taking other steps to make it look presentable (like adding carbonation so it's fizzy), after perhaps months of work, you can pour the beer.  

"That's the magical moment where you taste it and are either like 'oh my god this is horrible,' or 'wow this is the best thing ever,'" Cook says. "That's the fun of it but sometimes it can be really torturing and disheartening because you spend so much time on it, but it's also just a part of discovery."

Cook says he doesn't let the occasional bad batch get him down. Every homebrewer will make bad beer.

"If you want to make beer, you have to be willing to dump some beer out," he says. "You can really have some bad batches, especially early on. It's defeating, but you always learn, and it makes that one that really comes out well that much more fun."

Cook adds that he wouldn't be brewing without the support he gets at home, from friends and family, and other local homebrewers.

As a member of the Tucson Homebrew Club, Cook has not only met a great group of friends, more than just a bunch of super beer nerds, he also was able to open his horizons.

"One of the best parts is there's all different levels there, from someone just starting to seasoned professionals," Cook says. "The interaction is the best part because it forces you to push harder, but at the same time we all speak the same language."

Cook's goal is to make every beer he creates drinkable.

"Most of mine are, probably 95 percent," he says. "But if I could hone my knowledge enough to hit a homerun every time I brew, that's where I'd like to be."

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