Derek Wolfgram has two passions – books and beer. Redwood City’s head librarian – currently serving as the city’s interim human-resources director – has been cooking up homebrewed suds for nearly two decades.
It comes as little surprise that he has learned much about beer from books – most notably, “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing,” by Charlie Papazian. But it would be a mistake to cast Wolfgram as just a beer-making bookworm. A lot of the homebrewing world revolves around clubs of amateur brewers, and he enjoys the social aspect as much as his research into how to craft the perfect Belgian blonde ale.
Wolfgram, named “Mr. Sesquicentennial” in Redwood City’s recent 150th-anniversary celebration, belongs to the Silicon Valley Sudzers, one of the area’s larger homebrew organizations. He also writes a monthly newspaper column about beer for the Los Altos Town Crier. Beyond making the rounds with his beer-making friends, he says he enjoys brewing as a creative endeavor.
“Some people might be good at painting or drawing or other arts,” the 47-year-old Wolfgram says. “I guess brewing is the art that I express myself through. I enjoy the process. …The recipe-development aspect is kind of a fun combination of art and science. You get to be creative in how you put ingredients together, but there also needs to be some understanding of how things interact with each other, and what temperature you need to do things at in order to get the right chemical reactions to end up with the final product that you want.”
People who knew Wolfgram in college might be surprised by his hobby. As a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, he was perhaps history’s only undergraduate who didn’t like beer.
“My friends all drank cheap American lagers, which didn’t taste good to me,” he explains. “Somewhere along the way, somebody introduced me to Pete’s Wicked Ale, which was a brown ale but was like nothing I’d ever quite tasted before. That sort of got me interested in beer.”
By then, Wolfgram had graduated and was living in Cleveland, where he discovered a bar that served German and English beers. From then on, he enjoyed drinking and learning about beer, but never thought about making it until Christmas of 2000. That was when his wife, Robin, got him a simple home-brew kit.
Wolfgram started making beer on his own, with ever-improving results. He learned the joys of brewing with others when in 2006 he moved across the country to become director of the library for Butte County, at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley. He and his wife didn’t have children and didn’t attend church, which Wolfgram describes as the main avenues for meeting people in the area. Instead, they discovered the Chico Home Brew Club.
“I just found all of these really welcoming, interesting people that knew a lot about beer and were interested in sharing what they knew,” Wolfgram recalls. “That sort of became part of the hub of our social life in Butte County. So when we moved to the Bay Area in 2009, one of the first things I did was look for where the homebrew clubs were.”
Living in San Jose, he quickly joined the Sudzers and has been active with the organization ever since. Historically, he says, homebrewing has been fairly male-dominated, but he describes the Sudzers as “a pretty diverse group … there are a lot of women who are really interested in homebrewing now.”
Often, Wolfgram says, brewing in Silicon Valley attracts engineers, who enjoy the hobby’s chemistry and potential for acquiring (or even building) new gadgets.
“They get into putting together the perfect system,” Wolfgram observes. One homemade device he’s seen is a temperature probe that sends a Wi-Fi signal to a cell phone, “so while you’re at work, you can keep track of how your fermentation is going on in your beer.”
Jack Stephens of Redwood City is among the engineers who enjoy homebrewing. A software designer and tester, Stephens got into beermaking in his twenties when he moved into a large group house in Los Altos Hills during the early 1990s. Stephens and a friend were seeking a communal life, and it turned out to be luxurious – with beer attached.
“It had four acres, an indoor pool, an outdoor pool and an apple orchard,” Stephens says. “The back property line was David Packard’s apricot orchards. It was a palace. One of the guys was a homebrewer, having been turned onto it by a friend of his. He got me into the hobby, and we ended up building a crazed apparatus out of 19-inch computer-equipment racks and gravity-fed, Rube-Goldberg-looking contraptions and whatnot. At that same time, because we had a four-acre place and we were renting and we were 20, we threw some bell-ringer Halloween parties. We and 400 of our closest friends, that kind of thing.”
Eventually the housemates went their own ways, but the Halloween parties continued, becoming known as the “Brew-ha-ha.” This year will mark the 25th such event, although it will be smaller (with around 100 to 150 revelers) than the originals. They’re invitation-only, but Stephens welcomes new people who have a sincere interest in beer. (To try to snag an invite, email Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Right now, Stephens says, he has six different brews fermenting in his garage. As for the hobby in general, he says, it contains four essential components.
“It’s fun, it’s as challenging as you want to make it, and it’s a social activity if you want it to be,” he says. “It’s often a lot of fun just to hang around with your brew buddies and see what you can do with a new recipe. And it’s also just the appropriate amount of quirky and arcane. Every normal activity has a specialized word, and there are weird and wonderful bits of gear. You could do it with a bucket with some holes in it, but it’s more fun to call it a mash tun.”
Getting started, Wolfgram and Stephens agree, takes little investment and only slightly more skill. Simple home-brew kits start at around $100, and a passing grade in high-school chemistry isn’t required. At the same time, prospective hobbyists should be warned that, like an old set of golf clubs, a homebrew starter kit may soon leave one yearning to invest more … and more … and more.
“It’s like any hobby,” says Jim Fortes, a retired information-technology manager from Pacific Gas and Electric and a longtime member of the Hetch Hetchy Hop Heads, a Redwood City homebrew club. “If you just kind of start out and say, ‘Okay, I’ll just play with it once in a while,’ it’s not so bad. But if you’re a guy like me, who likes to do his own stuff, you start getting involved and you start spending thousands of dollars.”
Fortes estimates he brews between 150 and 200 gallons of beer each year. His favorite: A pale ale that he describes as “a Sierra Nevada clone.”
The notion of homebrew clubs might conjure visions of rowdy, beer-guzzling folks whose behavior might reflect the name of another local outfit, Menlo Park-based Bitches and Studs Brew Club. In fact, Fortes says, homebrewers are a relatively sedate crowd more interested in sampling than swilling.
“It’s really a family kind of a deal,” Fortes says, “in that you can get together and have a good time and talk about, ‘Hey, how did you make this?’ For the most part, with homebrewing, I haven’t met anybody that I wouldn’t want to have a beer with.”
Wolfgram, who moved to Redwood City in 2016 after accepting the librarian job, has even taken beermaking off the bookshelves. His presentations on homebrewing at various libraries have attracted serious hobbyists and the simply curious. Despite his longtime interest in beer, however, he has no ambition to open his own microbrewery.
“There’s an old joke,” he says. “How do end up with a million dollars with a brewery? Start with 10 million.”
Even if he sees little commercial potential, Wolfgram still considers homebrewing a terrific hobby.
“I find it relaxing,” he says. “And there’s the social component of sharing it with not only other homebrewers, but just with friends and family. And then, of course, any hobby where the end result is that you have some great beer at home – that’s a pretty good outcome.”