SHERIDAN — Some years ago, a hobby beer brewer said “Anyone can make wine, but it takes skill to brew beer!”
“Some college mates and I first brewed beer when we were in college,” Sheridan resident Bill Rathburn said. “We brewed it in a crock and covered it with a tablecloth. It wasn’t very good and we didn’t do it for very long.”
Years later, Rathburn’s interest in home brew beer was renewed. He brewed from a kit in 1995 and has continued each year to today without interruption eventually abandoning brew kits over the years. Rathburn does utilize some shortcuts in his brewing process.
“Many people start with mashing their own grains,” Rathburn said. “I start with liquid malt that I get from a brew supply store in Billings.”
Rathburn has a unique twist to his home hobby that many home brewers probably don’t have: He grows his own hops in his home garden.
Hops add bitterness to beer and act as a natural preservative to the basic ingredients of malted cereal grains most commonly wheat and barley. Rathburn started his hops from rhizomes he purchased from the Billings brew supply store. He supports the plants along twine that are set at 10 feet in height.
“In commercial hop-growing, the hops would be 20 feet high and one vine per trellis,” said Rathburn.
In the industry, hop vines are known as bines.
Sheridan is not known as being hop-growing country. For years, Germany has held the distinguished recognition as being the premier international producer of hops. In the United States, the Northwest Pacific region climate with more rainfall than Sheridan is most conducive to domestic hop production.
“I need to water the hops constantly,” Rathburn said. “It’s not really cost-effective for me to grow hops. But I like to garden and I like beer so I thought growing hops would be fun.”
Rathburn personally knows of a handful of other brew hobbyists in the area but none that he is aware of that grow their own hops. He does know some who mash their own grains.
It is the green flower — called cones — of the female hops plant that is the key ingredient in beer. Before the first frost, Rathburn pulls down the bines and spreads them on racks to dry. It takes a few days before Rathburn can begin the process of pulling the buds off the bines.
“One year it took me 16 hours to harvest the cones from the bines,” Rathburn said.
Rathburn’s objective is to preserve a yellow powder called lupulin from each hop cone. It is the lupulin a brewer seeks for the flavor in the brewing process. Rathburn then begins the brewing process or will freeze the cones for a future date.
Rathburn, like other brewers, oversees a multi-step process to brew his beer. The first step is a four-hour process involving boiling the wort, adding hops and grains and transferring to a primary fermenter. This is followed by a secondary fermentation process before transferring to either bottles or kegs.
“I transfer my beer to kegs,” Rathburn said.
The kegs are then hooked up to carbon dioxide tanks to add the carbonation found in beer and refrigerated.
“It takes five to six hours to brew one five-gallon batch of beer,” Rathburn said.
“Every year I try to brew ‘something,’” Rathburn said. He is a retired pharmacist from the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Rathburn’s taste runs toward the Indian Pale Ales known as IPAs. Each year he tries to improve his own IPA recipe from prior years.
“I gauge if I’ve improved it by the taste,” Rathburn said.
Rathburn has a nephew and friends who brew their own beer and the men like to swap and compare their brew.
“My nephew is several steps ahead of me in brewing beer,” Rathburn said. “I’m not very scientific about it, meaning I don’t study beer-brewing. My nephew studies beer brewing and mashes his own malt.”
But Rathburn’s hop production has declined in recent years. His nephew, who also grows hops, has noted the same in his garden.
Neither man is sure why this is occurring.
“I may resort to buying hops when growing them isn’t fun anymore,” Rathburn said.
Rathburn does not predict stopping his beer brewing hobby, however. He enjoys the end result.
“I never met a beer I didn’t like,” Rathburn said.
By Lois Bell, Sheridan Senior Center