SoCo Homebrew – LHBS Done Right

If you live in Austin, you are aware of the great divide. The bridges over Lady Bird Lake, just south of downtown, is the demarcation point between the true “Keep Austin Weird” South Congress (SoCo) community and the rest. SoCo Homebrew fills a big gap that has existed for years… while the home brewing community is Austin is huge, those of us south of town have had to fight growing traffic problems to get to our only other LHBS north of town, which Chris did for several years working there in various roles, managing their retail floor and marketing.

Even if you don’t live near Austin, below you will find an excellent example a great Local Home Brew Shop (LHBS), and particularly, the kind of expertise you should expect. It’s divergent from my usual material, but worth posting about. I have no affiliation with SoCo Homebrew – just thrilled to have another choice and their great service at hand!

In January of 2014, that all changed. SoCo Homebrew opened, just south of Ben White on Congress and is bringing home brewing to a growing new community. They also embrace the independent and quirky culture that defines South Austin, while bringing a creative enthusiasm to all things fermented. They do not have an internet store, content to focus on engaging South Austin with a great location, friendliness and attitude.

There is a self-serve grain room, mills, a yeast and hops cooler. Everything you need to brew beer, cider or wine, make pickles, sauerkraut, cheese and yogurt is all organized and handy. If something isn’t in stock, ask… they most likely can order it for you. And most times, something is brewing or fermenting… and you might score a sample!

“Just a reminder to live an epic life…. that is all.” – Chris Ellison

You cannot talk about SoCo Homebrew without talking about Chris. He has been a character in the Austin home brewing scene for several years. Chris is uniquely himself, artistic, passionate and engaging. Don’t expect him to show in a suit, rather flip-flops, cargo shorts and a t-shirt is the uniform. We sat down to talk about SoCo and his love of brewing over a pint of “Hell Yes” helles lager at The ABGB. A good interview deserves good beer!

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I started brewing a couple of years before I started at AHS. I was brewing twice a week, mostly doing partial mash. I quickly learned the ins and outs and the quality of my beers improved. I have been a serious cook and foodie for a while and was able to draw from those experiences as I started making my own recipes. Brewing was an extension of my love of food.

Very few of my recipes are brewed to a specific style. I take a foodie approach that is natural for me. I have the ability to visualize and taste a recipe as I develop it. That ability is a critical component to creating solid beers; understanding the malts, extracts, hops and yeasts and their influences on the finished product. I brew at least twice a week at the shop, usually one personal batch and one for the shop.

I partial mash most of the time. It is important to understand that brewing with extracts is a valid process. Partial mashing (as opposed to steeping) allows me to control flavor, color and body, and is convenient as I am brewing and working at the same time. Fresh extract is also important, and I typically only use pale extract, letting the specialty malts shine as they should. We brew 5 gallon batches in an electric kettle which is controlled with a temperature controller. It’s a great opportunity to show new brewers easy ways to make beer. We also ferment and keg in the shop so there is a good chance a customer can see the process first hand.

We have customers that want to brew in apartments and those that brew outside on big expensive sculptures. In both cases, SoCo wants to see these brewers succeed and continue to shop with us. The ability to provide all customers with great recipes keeps them coming back. And we have lots of fun.

We really engage the local community. Tried and true recipes are great ways for brewers to experience successful results and we ask them to carefully follow the instructions. That way, we are sure their first brewing experiences make great beers! All of our recipes are in either Partial Mash and All Grain format. Having a wide variety of recipes also allows our customers to experiment with unknown styles and we are happy to consult on recipe changes or build a new recipe on the spot. Success will encourage brewers to keep on with the hobby.

You helped my neighbor Mike out with a new system and his first all grain recipe, your Town Lake IPA. It turned out fantastic by the way!

That is a great IPA. Folks like Mike help us grow the community and educate others. The more folks understand brewing, the deeper their understanding of beer and food. We want to share our passions for all things fermented, from beer to cheese, wine and ciders, even sauerkraut and hot sauces. And these are healthy ways to connect people to where their foods come from. They seek better ingredients and more locally sourced products. That is a role we value as we become an intrinsic part of the South Austin culture and beyond.

We post all of our recipes to BrewToad so anyone can access them. There are about 90 recipes there in both all grain and partial mash.  Customers can browse and choose a recipe and call ahead. We will prepare the recipe for pickup, or they can stop in and discuss some changes to make the recipe their own.

What is your best advice for the beginner brewer?

Follow the instructions and don’t over extend. Get the fundamentals down and enjoy the process. Brewing is fun, but can be over complicated and changing out ingredients or process without experience can lead to frustration. It sucks to dump an undrinkable batch of beer! Figure out what you enjoy and let us help you plan your way to more advanced brewing. We are here to help, but practical – no point in selling hundreds of dollars of stainless steel gear that will sit unused when a brewer gets frustrated.

For the record, we hold Partial Mash and All Grain as equal techniques to brew great beer. There should be no bias against using extract in brewing when proper fermentation techniques are exercised, and the time saved makes it very convenient. We love our all grain brewers, but for people with space constraints or indoor brewers, a single kettle makes things easier. I would put any of my partial mash batches against an all grain batch any day. You just cannot tell a difference.

Your thoughts on recipe creation?

Use anything at your disposal to create a recipe to match your vision. I always start with base malt extract, like pale pilsner extract. It’s the equivalent of your base malt in an all grain recipe. Then carefully add your specialty malts – focusing on desired malt flavors but using restraint. Experience is important, as are style guides if you want to stick to them. My favorite malts are rich in flavor and color, like Special B, Victory and smoked malts. I have been using the new mesquite smoked malt from Black Lands Malting recently. Lends a very nice subtle sweet smokiness to the right beers. Of course, hops come into play and I love East Kent Goldings. But for a pale ale or IPA, Citra, Mosaic, Summer and Summit have been my go-to hops. The right yeast selection brings in the right fermentation character and I use a lot of California Ale (WLP001), Cream Ale (WLP080), Kolsch (WLP029) and Mexican Lager (WLP940). That lager strain is so incredibly clean.

Of course, we have a wall full of spices and herbs traditional to brewing. I love to use culinary spices as well. I love to use ghost peppers or jalapeños and fruit. Anise or licorice root and other more unusual spices can add wonderful character. Brewers should dig deeper into their culinary experiences and use all of their senses to create beers that pair in amazing ways with their favorite foods.

Our time ran out, as did the excellent pint. Chris had to run off to help build an outdoor shower. Powered by a pressurized corny keg. I suspect beer will be sprayed at some point, perhaps for a Flashdance re-enactment after a party, or a silly beer baptism. Having someone like Chris as a home-brew resource is incredibly valuable and a boon to SoCo Homebrew.

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Local Homebrew Supply Shops are local businesses, usually run by folks that are experienced and passionate about beer, and important to our local economies. A great LHBS will listen to you, provide good advice and welcome your questions and skepticism. Look for fresh ingredients, coolers to protect hops and yeast and a good turn over on malts. Expect good service,  good advice, and be reasonable when a problem pops up. A good LHBS will work with you to resolve any problems. Many will provide classes that focus on a variety of entry and advanced techniques and even new experiences (like making wine or cheese).

If you are in South Austin swing by and say hello. They are located at 4930 South Congress Avenue, Suite 307. Open Wednesday through Sunday. You can reach them at (512) 785-7868.

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