Originally published Aug. 2, 2012.
For the average Midwesterner, imagining a batch of homemade booze probably isn't the most elegant vision.
Try imagining, though, a Christmas ale flavored with juniper berries and loose leaf vanilla chai. Or a grapefruit and honey India pale ale.
That's the sort of imagining that happens at Mad Farmer Ales, the one-year-old brainchild of Ross Bitzel and Mathew Kendig - a private Huntington-based hobby brewery.
Why the name Mad Farmer?
"It's just a concoction of our persistence for excellence when it comes to food and beverage," Bitzel says. "It's a passionate farmer."
The "mad farmer" is a reference to a collection of poems by Wendell Berry, specifically the poem "The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer."
"It's basically him saying ‘I go my own way' and his adverse reaction to ‘the system,'" Kendig says. "I feel our beer is like that. We haven't brewed the same beer twice and we always change the recipe."
The idea for their "little brewing experiment" popped up when Bitzel's roommate was watching the reality TV show "Brew Masters," featuring a favorite brewery, Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales. Before long, he and Kendig were churning out their first batch, although neither had ever tried it before.
"I've always been interested in doing things myself," Kendig says. "It's just more fun to be involved in the process and get your hands in it."
It's been just over a year since Bitzel and Kendig first delved into the world of home-brewing. Since then they have created an estimated 10 different beers.
The two created Mad Farmer Ales with a focus on high quality beer and in-season, local ingredients, creating an awareness of what is available - themes also tied to Berry's poetry.
In the fall, Mad Farmer Ales released a pumpkin beer, featuring a locally grown hand-picked pumpkin that Bitzel and Kendig carved and baked themselves.
"We're not in any way extravagant men, but when it comes to what we put in our bodies, it's nothing but the best," Bitzel says, describing their preferences for organic, locally grown and fair-trade food.
Bitzel and Kendig describe themselves as "really big hop-heads," referring to the amount of hop bitters they tend to put in their beer. "Accent color" ingredients include rooibos tea, molasses, cloves, lemongrass, dates, chilies and cocoa.
One of the most well-received Mad Farmer Ales has been the Timshel, a grapefruit and honey India pale ale. Bitzel says that his favorite was an Oktoberfest-style beer, "Hoptoberfest," made with a German yeast strand that had a slightly caramel aroma.
Kendig fondly remembers the "Bygonz" brew, modeled after a specialty espresso drink, the Fygonz, at 4 Cups Coffee located on E. State Street. He describes the Bygonz as a porter with cocoa and hot peppers added.
A standard batch size for Mad Farmer Ales is five to 10 gallons, which yields anywhere from 50 to 100 bottles. Bottles are packaged in four-packs to make for easy sharing.
To start a batch, Bitzel and Kendig sit down and figure out a recipe, starting with a base and determining hops quantity and additional ingredients. Then comes the boiling and malt, followed by fermenting, which can last two to four weeks, possibly going into a secondary fermentor for clarity.
Once fermenting is finished, the beer is bottled and priming sugar is added to create carbonation. The beer sits in the bottles for seven to 10 days before drinking.
"I think anybody who has $100 and the ability work and build in a recipe can do it," Bitzel says. "If you like to cook, you're going to like to brew."
Mad Farmer Ales beer isn't sold or marketed, but Bitzel and Kendig emphasize sharing the beer with others.
"We're really about sharing it and appreciating it more than anything else," Bitzel says.
Friends and community are involved at the beginning of the process as well. Used beer bottles are donated to be stripped, cleaned and recycled as Mad Farmer Ale bottles.
"It's about bringing community," Bitzel says. "It's not any large thing, but it's something that he and I take very seriously and appreciate."
They have hopes of arranging Mad Farmer Ales beer tastings and food events with local eateries in the future. Currently, Bitzel and Kendig are working in collaboration with local folk rock band James and the Drifters to release signature beers in conjunction with the band's two albums as a promotional tool.
Bitzel foresees an extended horizon for Mad Farmer Ales.
"I think Mat and I will brew forever," he says.
For information about Mad Farmer Ales samples, contact Bitzel at 224-3297 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive brewing updates, follow @madfarmerales on Twitter.
Complete caption: Mad Farmer Ales co-founders Ross Bitzel (left) and Mathew Kendig steep bags of hops in boiling water as part of the beer-brewing process. The business partners and Huntington residents home brew specialty beers as a hobby, but have aspirations of making it a business in the future.