Ale to the Chief

For Arlingtonian Brad Winkelmann, craft beer-brewing is a labor of love.

There’s a sign outside Brad Winkelmann’s basement door warning would-be burglars that “nothing inside is worth dying for.”  

Lovers of craft beers might beg to differ. Hidden in the laundry room of his Rock Spring home is a gleaming stainless-steel keg fridge, neatly labeled with the names of the home brews that flow from its 10 taps. The shelves are lined with amber growlers, extracts and additives, and several 5-gallon containers of potions at various stages of fermentation. Off to one side is a drying rack laden with freshly harvested hops. From a distance, they look like little green pinecones or brussels sprouts. But pinch them and their aroma is unmistakable.

For a beer connoisseur, this cellar is the Holy Grail.

A former police officer—Winkelmann is certified by Glock to dismantle, diagnose and repair its pistols, and he owns nearly every model—he has been passionate about home brewing ever since he started with his first kit to make a Guinness-style stout (he still has the hand-scribbled recipe) as a student at Virginia Tech in the early ’90s.

With each passing year, his techniques have grown more sophisticated. He started growing his own Cascade hops in the backyard four years ago, when a worldwide crop shortage made the ingredient nearly impossible to purchase.

These days, it’s as much about the process as it is about savoring the final product, says the father of three, now a licensed real estate agent and owner of a local property management company. “My double-IPA [India Pale Ale] has been tweaked a dozen times,” he says. “Just experimenting is half the fun of home brewing.”

During a visit to Winkelmann’s home, I find him standing in the driveway in shorts and flip-flops, stirring a slurry of hops, water, malt and wheat extract in a 10-gallon stainless-steel brew pot over an open flame. He chats easily, sets a timer for 60 minutes, and hands me a printout of the recipe from the BeerSmith home-brewing software he uses to tweak each batch. As the flame dies out, he adds honey—“Never sugar!” he says emphatically. Once the mixture has cooled, he will “pitch” the yeast to begin a two-step, 20-day fermentation process.

To Winkelmann, nothing beats the aroma of a fresh IPA (a good one will taste hoppy and flavorful, but not bitter like so many of the pale ales hailing from the West Coast, he says), although his current repertoire runs the gamut from light to dark brews and from light to heavier alcohol content. It includes two IPAs, one Imperial IPA, a Belgian triple, hard apple cider, brown ale, a honey brown (back-sweetened with locally sourced clover honey), a barley wine aged for almost two years, a Belgian lambic and nonalcoholic root beer.

“I only brew ales—and only wheat ales at that,” Winkelmann says. “I do not brew any lagers, because I think they are bland.”

Some beers are intended for immediate consumption, while others are meant to age. When his three kids—who are 4, 2 and 1—were born, he developed a special batch for each one. “I brewed it to pull out for them on their 21st birthdays,” he says.

For his wife, Laura Hernandez-Winkelmann, a chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security who, ironically, is not a beer drinker, he has been experimenting with different wines.

Gregarious and curious by nature, Winkelmann has never been shy about calling up the pros and asking for advice. He will do anything to make his “delicious beer,” as he often refers to it, even better. Over the years he has scored tips from Starr Hill Brewery in Charlottesville, Va.; Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Del.; and others. “The majority of professional brewers started as home brewers,” he explains. “They want to share [what they know].”

But his queries have never been made with the intention of perfecting a recipe he can sell. Not wanting to pay the steep taxes imposed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Winkelmann says he simply brews for the fun of it. He likes sharing his beer with family and friends at no charge.

That includes his neighbor Rick Barry, a former Navy pilot, for whom he always keeps a porter on tap. Sometimes he jazzes up the recipe, adding extra ingredients, such as oak chips soaked in Maker’s Mark bourbon. “That took it to another level,” he says.

Barry isn’t his only regular. Winkelmann, a 1990 graduate of Yorktown High School, lives within a mile of his parents and his twin brother’s family and routinely hosts impromptu gatherings. (One of his proudest accomplishments was converting his Corona Light-loving father-in-law into an IPA drinker.) Ever hospitable, he always keeps a variety of tapped kegs at the ready for the unexpected visitor. And he and his wife host an annual Fourth of July pig roast and beer fest. Last year’s partygoers polished off five kegs (25 gallons) of home brew.

But the makeshift tavern that currently shares space with the washer and dryer won’t be open forever. The couple plan to tear down their 57-year-old, two-level brick home on North Kensington Street five years from now and rebuild. One of the most important features in the new house, he says, will be a basement designed to resemble a “scaled-down brewery.”

Those planned investments speak to his passion for the craft, although he readily acknowledges that you don’t need fancy barstools or restaurant-grade equipment to make a good batch of brew.

“If you can make a box of macaroni and cheese, you can brew beer,” he says. “It’s as simple or as complicated as you want to make it.”

Les Shaver is a beer lover who lives in Arlington and has visited several domestic breweries.

Categories: People