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Vidalia man wins awards for home brewed beer

JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Vidalia resident Chris Couie home brews his own award-winning beer in his “man cave.” Couie recently participated in the Good Time Brewers Classic in Lake Charles, La., where all three of his submissions won awards.
JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Vidalia resident Chris Couie home brews his own award-winning beer in his “man cave.” Couie recently participated in the Good Time Brewers Classic in Lake Charles, La., where all three of his submissions won awards.

It’s not unusual for friends to get together and drink beer when they watch football. Chris Couie and his friends certainly do.

Less usual is the fact that the beer they drink is Couie’s house beer, hand-crafted right there in the same space they’re using to watch football, possibly even during a previous game.

The consensus is unanimous — the beer is good, whether they’re drinking the blonde house ale, the red Irish stout or even the seasonal pumpkin ale.

And the accolades don’t just come from Couie’s friends.

In September, Couie participated in the Good Time Brewers Classic, a contest in Lake Charles, La., sanctioned by the American Homebrew Association Beer Judge Certification Program.

Vidalia resident Chris Couie's heat exchanged recirculating mash system is used in the homebrewing process to make his own award-winning beer.
Vidalia resident Chris Couie’s heat exchanged recirculating mash system is used in the homebrewing process to make his own award-winning beer.

All three of Couie’s submissions — The Hessian Trooper Pumpkin Ale, The Crow’s Nest Hawk-Eye Stout and the Privateer Dark American Lager — were awarded bronze medals in their individual categories. More than 60 brewers entered more than 100 beers in the competition, and Couie was the only one to walk away with three awards.

The three brews and all other beers produced under Couie’s private, not-for-sale Crow’s Nest label all draw their names from military history, another one of his interests.

A self-employed network information technology engineer and IT book author, Couie said beer brewing is something that helps him relax, but it’s the kind of hobby that takes more than a little dedication.

“To be able to do it right, you better have a good amount of time and a good marriage,” he said. “With the blonde ale I make, it’s a 45-day turnaround, and you are going to be interfacing two to three days with that beer — and that’s assuming that you’re not going to enter it in a contest.”

Entering the various brews in the contest requires meeting an additional 28 quality standards in addition to just tasting good, Couie said.

To understand Couie’s dedication to doing it right, you need to look back five years. When he decided he wanted to brew beer, Couie spent more than a year studying the process to make sure he understood it.

While simpler methods of home brewing existed Couie wanted to do electric rather than propane-powered brewing using a heat exchanged recirculating mash system — commonly referred to as HERMS by home brewers. The only problem was that HERMS rigs weren’t available on the market at the time.

So he built one, arranging tanks, piping, an electronic switchboard and an insulated cooler to which he added insulation — to be able to keep things exactly the right temperature — into a configuration ideal for brewing.

“This is basically the same thing they use in a craft brewery on a smaller scale,” he said.

“It has electronic monitors on it where I can time a brew precisely at an exact temperature, and I can hit it on the head every time.”

Couie set everything up in his large office and “man cave” outfitted with a small bar, pool table, arcade game and television. In the back of the building he has several fermentation chambers for the beer after it is brewed and has a draft tap in the bar for the house beer after it’s carbonated.

“What’s ideal about using the electronic brewing over the propane-powered brewing is that I can sit inside in the cool while everybody else is saying, ‘It’s too hot out; I can’t brew.’”

But even inside, making award-winning beer takes a lot of work. Couie said setup on a brew day starts at 6 a.m., brewing hopefully starts by 11 a.m. and cleanup can be finished by 8 p.m.

“A lot of times I will do it when there’s a game on, and my friends will come over and I will brew while they watch football — and drink beer,” he said. “I have a few people who like to watch, but they are not so much trying to learn as they are just interested in the process.”

Couie’s attention to detail doesn’t stop with the brewing setup.

He’s planted a garden growing 30 hop plants representing nine different varieties of hops, some of which are not available in the United States. The water he uses is purified through reverse osmosis, but he then treats it with minerals so it mimics the water used in beers in specific regions. He has a lab in which he grows the different yeasts used in the beer.

“It is certainly a labor of love, but you are drinking the product — that other stuff people are drinking has no flavor,” he said.

“You have to work, but I can brew this for half the cost of Miller Lite, and what I make would sell in the stores for $8-$9 a six-pack.”

Federal law allows for married couples to brew up to 200 gallons of beer at home a year.

“That comes to 2,100 bottles of beer a year,” Couie said. “If you’re drinking that much beer, you need a lot of friends or a lot of therapy.”

Couie has settled for the friend route.

“The last impression I want to give people is I’m running some kind of beer joint here,” he said. “I don’t sit out here and imbibe until I can’t slur a word. I don’t believe in drinking to be drunk — I do this because I like the taste of good beer.”

And that’s why the beer in Couie’s man cave this football season will not only be consumed, but produced.

“Why not do this, because when you’re doing it you’re having a little fun, you are saving the cost and you are getting a little recognition for it?” he said.