It all started with a desire for raspberry wine. Cheryl Piazza was making raspberry jam and thought wine of the same flavor would be nice. Her impulse birthed her husband’s new passion. A little over a year ago, her husband, Tom, decided he would make beer.
“It’s my fault,” Cheryl said.
Tom brewed his first batch on the stove, and became fascinated by the intricacy of the process. It requires complex mathematical calculations and a continual striving for an unreachable perfection.
“I don’t think that’s obtainable,” said Tom about perfection. “That’s what a brewer does, always trying to achieve a little more.”
A group of beer aficionados in Rim Country has since formed the Rim Country Homebrewers. Tom is the club’s current president, although he is not the founder.
Not all members brew their own beer; some join for the fun. The club organizes events like fund-raisers and an Oktoberfest, which was open to members only.
Today, Tom has a professional-grade setup with stainless steel tanks that cost between $500 and $700 and can brew roughly 30 gallons of beer. A batch of that size can require up to 70 pounds of grain. One gallon creates 10 beers.
Included in his setup are a hot liquor tank and a mash tun where grain turns to sugar for fermentation.
“When he started getting this setup, I knew we were in for something,” Cheryl said.
Tom and Cheryl, who live in Strawberry, have started Mountain Top Brewery Supply, which sells home beer brewing kits, grain, malt extracts and hops.
The company also enables fellow local homebrewers, many of them in the Rim Country Homebrewers Club, to purchase supplies in Payson rather than traveling to Flagstaff or the Valley. Although the club began just over one year ago, more than 95 people have joined.
With professional brewmaster aspirations, Tom’s tinkering has turned into a serious passion. Rumor has it that a microbrewery may soon open in Strawberry.
The Piazzas enjoy making things and the idea of sustainability.
“People are interested in homemade things. I think people want to get back to the roots,” Tom said.
Cheryl makes jam, Tom makes cream soda and root beer in addition to alcoholic beer, and he’s even growing two kind of hops in his yard.
More than 100 varieties of hops, a bittering agent, exist and the type chosen marks one of beer making’s many variables.
The brewing process begins with boiling water and grain. In the mash tun, starches turn to sugars.
The beer must ferment for roughly two weeks before bottling, and once bottled, it needs to sit for another two or three weeks to carbonate before drinking.
Near the hot liquor tank, where water heats before grain is added, a calculator and pad of paper hangs. Beyond alcohol content, a brew master must also calculate things like the content of alpha acid, which is a resin in the hop plant and determines bitterness.
“I’m into it,” said Tom. “I study every day.”
The homebrewing kits one can purchase come with complete instructions and the process has fewer variables to calculate. “I started there, too. It’s just where do you want to take it from there,” Tom said.
A carpenter by trade, Tom says there’s more math in beer making than in construction, his other passion.
As for that raspberry wine that started this whole journey? It’s fermenting.
“I’m still waiting,” said Cheryl.
For more information: www.rimcountryhomebrewers.com