Photography by Jason Stephens
On the back porch of his apartment, with a relatively simple setup and a ton of skill, Dave Leslie creates some great beer and even better times.
The Lakelander: Why isn’t there a beer in my hand?
Dave Leslie: Because you drank the first one. [Hands me a beer].
TL: Besides loving beer, what motivated you to brew at home?
DL: I had some friends at work and some here in Lakeland who brewed, and I wanted to brew with them.
TL: How did you get started?
DL: A friend with some brewing experience walked me through the process, and it sounded like something I could do. I went to a store called Booths over in Brandon and the guy there told me, “Brewing is like chocolate chip cookies for guys, man. Can you clean a pot? Can you boil water?” “Yeah,” I said. “Well then you can make beer!” he said. He went on to tell me the process, and I got scared because I thought I couldn’t do it — it seemed like too much. He showed me the kit, which for $120 to $150 has basically everything you need but a heat source and a pot. I lucked out; I found a turkey fryer with the burner and everything for about $35. It wasn’t the right equipment, but think of it this way: People have been brewing beer for hundreds of years — they brew it in metal garbage cans — so I figured the turkey fryer from Walmart was good enough. It got me through the first brews, but after a while the bottom
was all dented and warped because it was that soft metal; it was terrible. But you know, you upgrade a piece at a time, here and there. The first time I brewed beer on the stove, the pot was burnt on the bottom because it took about five hours at high heat to brew. The next time I tried it over a fire, which it took a lot less time. But now my setup is a bit more professional.
TL: Explain the equipment you have here.
DL: It’s a banjo burner. You see every little hole. There are one hundred twenty of them so I can control the heat. Right now I’m steeping the grains in a large pot of water, and I want it to get to 150-160 degrees. I’m not trying to boil it; I’m just trying to steep it. I don’t want to harsh the grains.
TL: So the first step is like brewing tea?
DL: Right. You want it to steep for a little while, between thirty and forty minutes. The first batch I brewed as a goodbye beer for a friend. We were actually going to brew in his garage and split all the costs, but then he decided to move to Texas. So I thought it was now or never to get my own equipment. I had a few nickels coming back from a tax return, so I bought my own equipment and brewed up a Newcastle clone, and I had beer to take to his goodbye party. So that was the motivation for getting the right equipment, but since then I hardly ever brew by myself. I post on Facebook when I’m doing a brew, and I’ve had strangers come over to hang out while I brew.
TL: I remember seeing a post like that recently. I’m sorry now I didn’t come over. Are you part of a home brewers club?
DL: Yes, the Lakeland Brewers Guild. You can find them online and on Facebook. There are probably forty-five to fifty members but typically twenty to twenty-five members per meeting. We try to encourage each other, take brewing notes, discuss, criticize, talk about esters, talk about temperatures, what we’ve learned. We meet once a month at a local restaurant to try to give them business at a time when they otherwise might not have a lot. So we have a least a beer there with food, and we bring at least two bottles of our own beer. It can be the same beer, but we have a style of the month that everyone brings. I made some Pumpkin Ale for October, but I’ll bring some more to the next meeting because even over a month of just sitting and chilling, the flavors can really open up and change. So I want people to bring their notes from last month and see if they get the same experience, see if they write the same thing as they did last month. We also do charity pours such as the one at the Brass Tap on November 16. It was ten dollars admission. We had all kinds of our beer laid out. You got a little sampler glass, and we poured beer into those glasses until all of our beers were gone. All proceeds go to charity. Last time we raised a thousand dollars and then Brass Tap matched it, so we had two thousand dollars to give to a food bank. This time it was for the Military Order of the Purple Heart. So it would be beneficial to “like” the Lakeland
Brewers Guild on Facebook so you can keep up with the charity pours and other events. Even if you don’t know anything about beer or brewing, once a quarter we do “All Brews,” where we go to somebody’s house and brew. Or you can just come to a meeting and say, “I want to learn how to brew beer.” I have five brew-children and I’m waiting for my brew-grandchildren to come along. But that’s five people who have started brewing because they came over and said, “Hey, I could do that.” And almost everyone who comes over also cooks.
TL: What is this? Breaking Beer?
DL: [laughs] No, they’re people who understand how to prepare food. After all, this brewing is like really runny stew that just makes you feel better than any other stew could!
TL: You mentioned “esters” earlier. What are they?
DL: They’re the flavors you get from yeasts as a result of varying the temperature during the brew. When you let the beer ferment and the sugars are being eaten by the yeast — the yeast is turning sugars into alcohol — you can get different flavors by varying the temperature between the extremes of the yeast’s life range. Lagers are kept cold, around forty-two to forty-eight degrees. Summer beers, such as saisons, want to be warm, so much so that a back heating pad is sometimes put around it to keep it in the eighties. Most ales like to be between sixty-two and seventy-two degrees. I keep those in a bucket of water because water evaporates at seventy-two degrees. So during the first two days, which is the most critical, I throw ice packets in there to keep it around sixty-eight, because the colder it is during the first couple of days, the better the flavor you get out of it. If you make chocolate chip cookies all the time, after some experience you detect nuances in flavor — did you use sweet cream butter or unsalted butter? I taste a little of this or a little of that.
TL: So do you need to have a well-developed beer palate to do this?
DL: Well, this was my journey: Four or five years ago, I was a Miller Lite and PBR kind of guy, but I kept wanting to drink more. It got to the point where I was drinking an entire sixpack. I didn’t want to feel that full anymore. Then someone introduced me to Newcastle and then to Guiness, and then I went out to Portland and decided to journal about beer and try everything. I hardly had any full beers while I was out there. I just had samplers, and then I’d have one of whatever I liked the most. Let me tell you, there were some numb teeth on that trip! [laughs]. So I ended up going out there again and had a better idea of what I was looking for. I started thinking in terms of flavors instead of simply alcohol. It’s just like wine — you start thinking about the different kind of grapes and what region they’re from, and the acidity of the soil, and talking about the tannins, and you start learning about it. And then you can really taste it because you know what you’re looking for.
TL: You’ve mentioned a few elements of the process, but walk us a through a brew.
DL: Basically, you want to get a lot of water, with a lot of grains and grain flavors, with sugars from grains that yeast can eat. And you want to give that yeast time to eat the sugars at a temperature where the yeast will survive and not be infected. Then you bottle it with a little more sugar so that it will carbonate in there. Or, if you keg, you hook it up to CO2 and then drink it. So it’s just chemistry. Getting flavors results from what grains you use and how much, what hops you use and how much, what other elements you include — fruit, other edible
types of sugars like maple syrup, honey, and molasses. And do I want to put currants in there at the end? Right now, the brew here is just steeping, but when we get to the boil, then we add all of the malt extracts, add some of the hops then and some later, and at the end add some coagulant, like Irish moss. It’s a natural coagulant that makes it a bit thicker and results in a better head on the beer. But the simple process is to get some water, make it dark with the grains, add sugars and other flavors, cool it down to a temperature at which the yeast can live, put it into a safe environment to let the yeast eat the sugars, and then put it in a container and pressurize it.
B r e w i n g i s l i k e c h o c o l a t e c h i p c o o k i e s f o r g u y s , m a n . C a n y o u c l e a n a p o t ? C a n y o u b o i l w a t e r ? “ Y e a h , ” I
s a i d . “We l l t h e n y o u c a n m a k e b e e r ! ” h e s a i d .
TL: Tell us about some of the beers you’ve made.
DL: I started out doing clones where I didn’t have to think about it at all; I just followed a recipe. You buy the clone brewing ingredients in a box. But after four or five of those, I started thinking about what I wanted to brew on my own. Part of that is because I’m a cook, and I cook at my house, and I try to make all my own recipes, just make stuff up. Sometimes I see what I have in the fridge and ask, “What can I make out of that?” With this, you go to the brewery supply store and you either buy a kit or ask yourself, “What kind of brew do I want to make?” I just brewed a light-colored beer that’s a little fruitier because I thought some of my friends who are women wouldn’t like the dark beer. But as it turned out, they all love this
dark beer. I always write out my recipes so if I like it I know exactly how to replicate it. I can buy the same grains, hops, yeast, and so on. I have a poster on my fridge that lists all
different kinds of yeasts on it, and that’s where I get ideas. It’s like if you were trying to decide on spices to put in a soup, you might say, “I want to put a bay leaf in, or I don’t want to use
garlic here, or I want to use more basil.” That’s the same process. Some people are starting to put bizarre things in beer. I just had mango habanero beer. It was so hot! I had one sip
and thought, this is beer for chili. The girl that brewed it loved it, though. So, I started with clones and then began to think how I wanted to change those recipes, adding fresh ingredients instead of dry ingredients, for instance. That led me to search online for ideas. There are a ton of recipes online. So I moved from recipes to beers that I thought I’d like. I’ve done at least thirty beers that I can remember off the top of my head. Luckily, by law, I’m allowed to brew three hundred fifty gallons for household use.
TL: I have to tell you that I’m not usually a fan of the heaviness of darker beer, but this one is delicious. It’s not light in color, but it is in taste.
DL: That might be because of the type of brewing I do instead of all-grain brewing where you get a richer, more syrupy beer. My favorite beer that I brew I call Citrus Saison. A saison is a warm brew with French and Belgian yeast strains. It’s a barn beer, or summer beer. You brew it at the beginning of the summer when it turns hot. You throw it in the barn, cover it with burlap, and let it brew for a couple of months. I’m used to ales. Ale yeasts are seven-day brews, and there’s no more bubbling — the yeast has eaten the sugar buffet. Whereas the saison yeast like to live warmer. I’ve wrapped them in a heating blanket and tried to keep them up around ninety degrees, and it took two and a half months for it to stop bubbling. At first I thought I did something wrong because the bubbling hadn’t stopped. I did some research and found that it was normal for saison yeast to take much longer than ale yeast. I checked the gravity. It was still 120, and the recipe said it should be around 110. So I knew it wasn’t done. I made sure everything was sanitary, put the lid back on, watched it, and sure enough — bloop! — another bubble would pop up and I knew it was still eating. I used some fresh orange peel in there (but not the bitter part), and that makes it really bright. It’s
almost like, “I will mow the lawn just so I can drink that beer!”
TL: Homebrewing seems to have gained a lot of popularity recently. Why do you think that is?
DL: I think that people doing things for themselves has become more popular generally. More people want to raise food in their own gardens. You go into some big cities and people are keeping chickens or turning a small yard into a garden. So, because beer is so tasty and delicious, and it’s not hard to do once you get your equipment and you have the ancillary benefits of having a good time hanging out while doing it, it’s easy to understand why more people are doing it. And it feels good to share, too. I probably give away half the beer I brew. I’ll
go four or five days without having a beer now. I went from wanting four or five beers at a time to wanting just one or two good beers.
TL: Do you have a desire to brew more widely, or are you content to keep it in your home and share it with friends?
DL: That’s always in the back of my mind because it’s something I really love and enjoy doing. I have a name for my brewery now. You are standing on the porch of Broken Elbow Brewing. The joke is, it’s so delicious that you’ll break your elbow bringing the bottle back and forth to your lips. The home brewers who’ve been really successful are those who’ve partnered with local businesses — they’re connected, they’re participants in their communities, and they move into the commercial kitchen of an existing restaurant so the health code
requirements are already met. That’s how Dogfish Head did it. So right now it’s just a matter of developing recipes, doing events where I pour for free and get feedback on recipes,
and learning from it. There are tasters who judge beer by actual beer-judging, five-star standards, and then some who give more subjective feedback. But it’s always good to hear honest feedback. I’m always begging my friends to tell me if they don’t like a brew. Going to beer festivals is also a good way to get feedback. I recently went to one in Philly and sat and talked to the guys in the craft-beer tent. They’re all really passionate about brewing, and they’re partnering with bars and restaurants and finding ways to a larger audience. And because it’s such a fast-growing segment of the beer market, distributors don’t consider craft beers as risky as they once did. There are even businesses opening up around craft beer, like Brew Hub, where they will brew your recipe for you. So I wouldn’t necessarily need to own a kitchen. But I would almost rather brew in an existing business that has room in their kitchen for me to brew and then there would be very minimal startup costs. In that case, I wouldn’t be subject to the distribution laws because I’d be selling it in-house. So I could sell bottles and growlers, and when it runs low I’d just brew more.
TL: So without a distributor’s license, could you sell cases of the brew from the establishment you just described?
DL: No, I could sell only open containers and growlers. Right now that means thirty-two ounces or a half-gallon. So the home brewers are really pushing for a half gallon to be legalized because that’s the perfect size. If I had purchased a half gallon of whatever brew at a bar to share with you guys (author Adam Spafford and photographer Jason Stephens), I could pour us all a nice big glass and it would be just about gone. But thirty-two ounces wouldn’t quite be enough, and a gallon would be too much to drink before going flat unless you had a lot of people over. Big beer [large beer companies] doesn’t want the half gallon, but in other places in the country — Texas, Oregon — the half gallon has been the most popular size.
TL: Any final words?
DL: If you like beer and like making your own stuff, you should hang out with people who brew. Everyone probably knows someone who brews. It’s so popular and simple. You can easily tell if you’ve done something wrong or not. If it looks like there’s a dead opossum floating on top, then something went wrong! So you lose $30 to $40, but you know how to fix
it easily next time. With the cost of craft beers, I can go spend $14.99 for a six-pack of Dead Guy Ale, or I can brew five and a half gallons for about $65. Of course, there are some startup costs to consider. But I say, hang out with someone. Hang out with me — Bob Marley’s always on — and have a great time.