Local brew culture has a home in the Pioneer Valley

By Emily Brightman

Evan Sahagian/Collegian

The Pioneer Valley is home to a wide array of do-it-yourself lifestyle enthusiasts, but perhaps the most prominent facet of its DIY culture is the art of homebrewing. Amherst alone is home to several breweries and brewpubs, all of which sprung from humble beginnings and a genuine love of craft beer. For those imbibers more concerned with the subtle variances and pointed dedication of homebrewing, local brewing club, the Valley Fermenters, upholds the complex art of craft brewing and celebrates the legacy of fermentation that has been at play since Ben Franklin first said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

The Valley Fermenters are proponents of exactly what its name suggests: fermenting. Founded in 1983 and comprised of aficionados of beer, cider, mead, wine and cheese, the Valley Fermenters is New England’s longest running fermentation club. With a good handful of active and participating members, many of whom are heavily involved in the local culture of fermentation and brewing, the Valley Fermenters are an integral part of the indelible self-sufficient spirit that characterizes the Pioneer Valley.

The roots of the Valley Fermenters club began in Charlie Olchowski’s beer brewing class at Franklin County Technical School in 1983. Having just returned from a long stay in Alaska, Olchowski wanted to teach a class that focused on beer education and lifestyle in the Valley. Attendees of that class included Sid Jensen, who would go on to co-found the Valley Fermenters with Olchowski at the helm. Also in attendance was John Korpita, who would go on to found Amherst Brewing Company in 1997. The 15 other participants in the class became the original members of the Fermenters, and since its inception the club has had a strong presence in local brewing culture.

“I’ve always been drawn to the science of beer,” said Olchowski, explaining that his grandfather’s work as a baker in Turners Falls contributed to his familiarity with the aromatic sensations of yeast and grains, which in turn drew him to the world of beer brewing. Olchowski, a wiry and well-spoken fellow with a welcoming demeanor, experimented with brewing as a teen and found that he enjoyed the challenge of “making interesting and complex beverages,” which led to a lifelong love of the craft of homebrewing.

“I’m so disappointed with commercial beer, because it has changed and cheapened the art of brewing,” Olchowski said with the fervor of someone who is truly passionate about what they do.

“Some (commercial beers) have been adulterated to keep cost at a minimum rather than maintaining their style and recipe, and that just isn’t right,” he added.

With this in mind, Olchowski and Jensen started the Valley Fermenters as a way to “explore certain narrowed focused areas (in brewing)” and further hone their craft as artisans of fermentation. Being part of the Valley Fermenters has been “a vehicle for inquiry into our interests as brewers,” according to Olchowski.

The club hosts monthly meetings centered on a specific brewing or fermenting topic, as well as special holiday dinners and events. The club’s biggest event is its annual Summer Fling, which takes place the weekend after Labor Day and consists of a traditional New England style lobster bake. Meetings typically start off with club business and news, then move on to an educational component. But according to Jensen, “It’s not too long into the meeting before we start getting antsy to drink.”

This month’s meeting consisted of a presentation from member Ron Clapp on spring beers, and specifically the malts and grains which go into making them. Clapp provided the members with an array of different brews for their consumption, including Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout from the North Coast Brewery and Clapp’s homebrewed scotch ale. The delicious aroma of fresh hops permeated the small meeting room at the White Church Community Center in Deerfield as the Fermenters carefully examined each of the beers presented to them. Methodically pouring and scrutinizing each beer for color and aroma, there was not a single gulp that was taken. Instead the beer was sipped delicately and with expert consideration, a staggering parallel to the frantic “chugging” culture of the college drinking scene. Herein lies the true artfulness of the Valley Fermenters: their enjoyment of beer for more than just its intoxicating effects is so palpable and genuine that it makes the act of chugging a beer of any caliber seem almost sinful by comparison.

The members of the Valley Fermenters are an eclectic group spanning the ages between 20 and 90, and the members themselves are as varied as their ages.

“We come from all walks of life, and the only thing we have in common is the love of fermenting,” said Joe Gianesin, a club member for over 15 years.

Gianesin, a Colorado transplant whose fermentation specialty is wine, initially joined the club “hoping to find something to make friends with.” He has since become an integral member of the group and, in fact, hosts the club’s annual wine competition.

Clapp and his wife Marilyn have been club members for approximately five years but have been making beer and wine independently for over 20 years. When they met Olchowski at the club’s county fair booth, “Charlie encouraged us to join, and the rest is history,” Clapp said.

Frequently in attendance at the monthly meetings is Olchowski’s 14-year-old son Kenny, a freshman at Four Rivers Charter Public School. Though he is not old enough to imbibe yet, Kenny says, “It’s interesting to hear about how (beer) is made and where the ingredients come from.” According to both Kenny and his father, Kenny attended his first Valley Fermenters meeting when he was only two days old, which officially makes him a “lifer,” in his father’s words. Kenny is also a regular fixture at the club’s county fair events, helping out where he can.

According to Terry Atkinson, a self-described wine lover who has been a member since 1992, “There’s a group of hard-core regular members and an influx of newbies every month who are interested in brewing culture.”

One of those hard-core members is Mark Renaud, an applications analyst in the University of Massachusetts administrative computing support department. A UMass graduate and an 8-year member of the Fermenters, Renaud has been homebrewing for over 20 years. In his own words, Renaud “majored in beer,” meaning he graduated with a self-directed degree in brewing sciences through the University Without Walls program. While working at the Paper City Brewery in Holyoke, Renaud designed his academic concentration around a selection of microchemistry, microbiology and food science classes, all of which provided him with the necessary scientific background to break his homebrew projects down into an exact operation.

“There is a fantastic depth of knowledge about brewing (among the Fermenters),” Renaud said. “Anything that Charlie and Sid don’t know isn’t worth knowing.”

The club has touted English journalist and beer enthusiast Michael Jackson (not to be confused with the iconic American pop singer) as their biggest inspiration. Jackson wrote a variety of books and columns on beer and whiskey production before his death in 2007, and he is credited with inspiring a rebirth of interest in beer production and culture during the 1970s. He has also been recognized internationally for his popularization of the different styles of beer. Jackson’s principles serve as the basis for the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), a non-profit organization established to “promote beer literacy and the appreciation of real beer, and to recognize beer tasting and evaluation skills,” according to the official website.

Many members of the club are BJCP Certified, including Clapp, Jensen, Olchowski and Renaud, and the club relies on the same standards of judgment and evaluation as the BJCP. Thus, it goes without saying that many members of the club are highly knowledgeable on the different facets of fermenting, and in the words of cheese maker Jim Wallace, “The geekiness of this group shouldn’t be surprising.”

Interested parties should check out the club’s Facebook page for more information and for updates on upcoming events at facebook.com/ValleyFermenters. But keep in mind that their respect for the art of the brew is not a social choice, it’s a lifestyle choice.

Emily A. Brightman can be reached at [email protected]

 
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