Beer Salvation: How a Hobby Changed a Life

Editor’s Note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Banville, to create a Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide them with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By JESSICA STUGELMAYER

People often find solace in alcohol. For Martha Gergasko, a good beer was the key to her salvation.

Just three years ago everything seemed to be coming together for her. Gergasko had graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in biology.  She had a job in Billings as a resident technical assistant and planned to make contacts with Zoo Montana. Her dream to work as a zookeeper was becoming a reality. Then the mash soured.

Gergasko has a phobia of driving and a condition of her job was driving large vans from office to office. In the middle of a behind-the-wheel-instruction course, she had a panic attack and could not continue.  She notified her employer she could not take the position.

“So I moved home, dream crushed,” Gergasko said.

 

Home is where the brew is

Gergasko's kitchen is full of home brewing equipment

Gergasko’s kitchen features a kegerator and other home brewing equipment.

Her father, Mike Gergasko, had begun home brewing beer at their family home in Santa Fe, N.M. while Martha was attending college.

When Martha returned home from Billings, Mike asked her to help with the latest batch to cheer her up. As they worked on a brew, she said her inner mad scientist kicked in and she was hooked.

Martha and Mike brewed beer together until she moved back to Missoula that fall, taking her newfound passion with her.

Back in Missoula she found kindred spirits at the Zoo City Zymurgists, Missoula’s home brew club.

The group began in the early ‘90s with the owners of the Kettle House and Big Sky Brewing Company among its original members the club’s current president, Asa Hohman, said.

The self-described “loose and eclectic group of home brewing enthusiasts” meets every other month for brewing and drinking. Currently, the club has 100 dues-paying members, though only about 30 attend every meeting, Hohman said.

The Zymurgists are one of the eight home brew clubs in Montana registered as members of the American Homebrewers Association. According to the AHA, there were an estimated 1,000,000 home brewers and over 1,000 home brew clubs in the U.S. in 2011.

Although the Zymurgists help with big ticket events like the Garden City Brew Fest, their hearts are in the annual Community Brew competition, a joint effort with Big Sky Brewing to create a beer that is produced and sold in Big Sky’s tap room and at the following year’s Garden City Brew Fest.

Big Sky chooses a beer style and each brewer tries their hand at concocting a unique beer within the category. The entries are judged by Big Sky and the winner scores not only bragging rights, but the chance to work alongside brewers to produce the beer commercially.

The proceeds, minus the cost of ingredients, are split between the Zymurgists and a non-profit chosen by the club and Big Sky. Recipients in the past have included AniMeals, the Watson Children’s Shelter, and Missoula Food Bank.

In August Big Sky announced this year’s beer style is Other Smoked Beer. Hohman estimates judging will be in early January 2013 and beer connoisseurs can expect a chance to taste the winning beer in April 2013.

Martha Gergasko points out the blossoms on her hops plant, which she plans to use for brewing beer.  Photo by Jessica Stugelmayer.
Martha Gergasko poin...
Gergasko explains how hops are used in the brewing process while she shows off her hops vine. Photo by Jessica Stugelmayer.
Gergasko explains ho...
Gergasko shows the process of capping, which seals the beer into bottles after it has fermented. Photo by Jessica Stugelmayer.
Gergasko shows the p...
Home brewing equipment from car boys to a kegerator fill Gergasko's kitchen. Photo by Jessica Stugelmayer.
Home brewing equipme...

Gergasko has competed in the Community Brew competition twice but has yet to win the coveted prize. She brews mainly India Pale Ales for the perfectly sensible reason that it’s what she likes to drink. She has brewed over 150 gallons of beer, roughly 30 batches, since 2009.

But occasionally she experiments with a porters or stout, roasting malts that bring out different flavors in those styles of beer. Gergasko, like many home brewers, uses an intermediate form of home brewing called extract brewing. By using malt extract, zymurgists shorten the brewing time because they don’t do the extracting themselves, allowing them to create their own unique beers in nearly half the time.

“There is so much variation in it. There are precise things that need to happen just like lab work, but there is a creativity to it that I really enjoy,” she said.

A typical five-gallon batch costs $25 to $50 to brew. India Pale Ales that require more hops are more expensive, but a Pabst Blue Ribbon-style beer is relatively cheap to make, according to Gergasko. Brewing time can range from three to seven hours depending on the type of brewing followed by fermentation and, if the brewer chooses to, bottling. Overall, it takes about one month from brewing to when you can drink the beer, Gergasko notes.

She said getting supplies to brew beer in Missoula is easy, with two locations that carry brewing supplies year-round. She has also seen other shops starting to stock equipment for brewing seasonally.

Still the main destination for home brewers in Missoula is Chapman’s. The store is a testament to the growth of home brewing. When the business moved to South Higgins Avenue last year it quadrupled in size, expanding to carry supplies to make not just beer, but also wine, cheese, soda, and liquor. Co-owner Judy Chapman credits the town for home brewing’s popularity in Missoula, with upsurges in business when college students come back each fall.

“Beer drinking is a young man’s choice and being able to make it affordably is something they like,” Judy said.

Home brewing is the type of hobby you can ease into, she said. She estimates 20 percent of her customers are advanced brewers, five percent are beginners, and the remaining 75 percent fall somewhere in between, like Gergasko.

As the home brew trend continues to rise more and more shops have begun to stock barley, hops, and other brewing essentials. Worden’s Market in downtown Missoula offers a one-time brew kit with all the supplies needed for $44.99.

Gergasko hopes to take her love of brewing further, maybe opening a store of her own someday.

For now she is setting smaller goals. She is growing her own hops, has plans to start a yeast laboratory, and continues to experiment with her brews.

“I want to make a bacon porter. I think it’d be awesome,” she said.