Hop to it: Q&A with Chris Walowski
BY: SASHA MILENA
Cal State Long Beach graduate student Chris Walowski is the ultimate home brewer. He’s turned his hobby into a career and is now the head brewer at Ohana Brewery in Los Angeles. Walowski has been brewing craft beer in his home for six years using his custom-made home brew system. How did you get into brewing your own beer? About six years ago, I saw an episode of “Good Eats,” a TV show on the Food Network hosted by Alton Brown. The episode was all about how to make beer at home, and it inspired me to brew my own beer.
What’s the appeal to brewing your own beer at home? Why not just go out and buy a craft beer in the store? Part of the appeal is that aspect of ‘I made this myself.’ With home brewing, the sky’s the limit. A commercial brewery is going to make something like a chipotle-mint imperial stout. If you think that’s up your alley and you want to drink 5 gallons of that, then go for it. You can have the craziest ingredients you want and it’s completely up to you.
What are you studying at Cal State Long Beach? I’m working on my masters in biochemistry.
Do you find your biochemistry background helpful with beer brewing? Do you feel like you have an advantage? As a home brewer I feel like I’ve always had an advantage, because I’m used to following procedures and directions. Brewing is definitely very meticulous and there are different ways to construct a brew house and different equipment you can use. I think my background has really helped piece together the right system to really accomplish what I can do in my home brewery.
So what is it like being a professional brewer? It’s pretty much every home brewer’s dream to make beer professionally and to do it as a living. I’ve always been a little nervous to do this full-time, but now I absolutely love it.
Were you involved early on with Ohana? No, I got hired two months ago, so I just got started with this. It’s definitely not an easy business to get going. It takes a lot of money... Ohana took three years to open, before they could even brew their first batch of beer.
How big is the company? It’s me and [the owner] Andrew; just the two of us.
Have you guys had a good response? Yeah, because the whole thing is all local. Everyone wants local things, local places and local breweries. I’ve been talking to a few bars that didn’t even know we were opening. I’ve introduced myself and they say ‘Oh, you guys are in LA? That’s awesome! We want your beer and we want to support local craft beer.’
How long does it take to make beer at home? A typical brew day is 6-8 hours, depending on what type of beer you’re making. It takes a total of at least two weeks from brew day to drinking, but a typical brew is about 4 weeks. Typically you do the mash and then you boil the beer for about an hour. After you’re done with brew day you cool down the beer, you add the yeast and then sort of ignore it for 2-4 weeks.
Do you have to keep the beer at a certain temperature while it’s fermenting? It’s good to keep it at a certain temperature, usually between 65 and 70 degrees. So a little bit on the cooler side, but not too cold. That’s for your typical ale. If you’re making a lager it’s anywhere from 50-55 degrees.
What happens during the mashing process? So the mashing process is the part of the beer-making process where you’re converting all the starches in the grain into sugar. That’s where you get all your fermentables that are then used to generate the carbon dioxide in ethanol, the alcohol.
Do you have any tips for first-time brewers, who are 21 and older of course? I say, just try it. If you can boil water, you can brew beer. I think people are sometimes intimidated and they think it’s harder than it really is, but I think once people get comfortable it’s no big deal. Beer almost makes itself. It’s really ingenious. I teach some of the classes at Stein Fillers, and I think it’s a great introduction. I highly suggest Stein Fillers because their products are great, the prices are fantastic and everyone is super helpful there. The quickest way to get started is to buy one of their beer kits. It comes with everything you need to brew your first batch.
What are the basic supplies needed to make a home brew system? Equipment-wise you need a pot, a stove, a fermentation vessel and somewhere cool to store it.
What’s your favorite beer you brew at home? A rye pale ale made with New Zealand hops. I have friends and family that don’t even drink beer, but for some reason they love this beer. My other favorite is a 13 percent American-style barley wine that takes about 2-3 months to make.
Do you brew with friends? Yeah. Home brewing is super social. I love it! Normally when I brew I’ll have a couple people over.
What do you think about the beer selection on campus? I wish it could be better. We’ll leave it at that.
Have you always been into craft beer? When I turned 21, I had a short phase where I drank crappy beer, but quickly moved on. When I first got into craft beer, my friends would make fun of me because they’d bring a 30-rack of Coors Light to a party and I’d bring a 12-pack of some good craft beer that was made in California. They’d say ‘Hey, what are you doing over there beer snob? What’s wrong with our Coors Light?’
For first-time brewers, what do you think is the easiest type of beer to make? I would stick with a nice stout- like an Irish stout, a dry stout or an oatmeal stout because they’re a little bit bigger, bolder beers and with that it encompasses a lot more heavier flavors, which make it easier to hide off flavors. The lighter, clearer beers are much more difficult to make because they take much more control.