Port Washington beer buffs Sean and Valerie Himsl are so into brewing the ever-evolving variety of the lagers and ales they love that they grow their own hops
It’s time to harvest the hops, an event that fills Valerie and Sean Himsl’s Port Washington home with the sweet, heady aroma of the plant that gives their favorite brew the taste they love.
The couple have taken their beer brewing hobby a few notches above most aficionados by growing their own hops and cracking the grains.
Hops, which are surprisingly light and papery when ripe, add aroma and a bitter taste and are a natural preservative, Sean said.
If they could, the couple would also grow barley, wheat and other grains similar to those used by the top breweries — Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst and Miller — that once made Milwaukee the beer capital of the world.
“They all came from Germany or Austria, which is in the same latitude as Milwaukee, so all the hops and grains that grew in their homelands grew here,” Sean said.
“It’s too impractical for a home brewer to grow the amount of grain needed for a few batches of beer.”
Instead, he and Valerie go to Northern Brewer, a home-brewing supply store in West Allis, where they walk among the hundreds of grain bins, choosing the varieties that appeal to them that day.
They usually buy six pounds at a time, enough to make two batches of beer. Each batch yields five gallons of beer. Last year, they made eight to 10 batches.
“I love super hoppy beer and Valerie doesn’t, so we each make what we like. Valerie has brewed apricot and raspberry beers,” Sean said.
“We like a lot of varieties. In the summer, we brew lighter ones. It’s Oktoberfest time now, so we’re into darker beers.
“I pretty much never met a beer I didn’t like. It’s just whether I want one glass or eight glasses.”
The couple brew beer for special events, family gatherings and as gifts. They’re currently brewing a special beer for a friend’s wedding.
At an election day party last year, the couple served a White House Honey Ale they brewed. There is a brewery in the White House that released some of the current and past presidents’ favorite recipes last year. The couple made the beer from a Northern Brewer kit.
In 2005, Valerie gave her husband a home brewing kit for a Christmas gift. Sean learned everything he could about beer — from its history to how to brew different varieties. He also worked alongside the master brewer for Water Street Brewery.
“What makes it one of the most amazing hobbies is you can make it as difficult or as easy as you want,” Sean said.
“I personally like to do something new with each batch and want to do as much as possible by hand. My friend likes kits.
“Guys also like gadgets, and with home brewing there are always new gadgets. You can get everything you need for $150 or spend thousands of dollars.”
Sean keeps meticulous records of all the beers they brew, referring to them often as he tweaks recipes. He also uses clone recipes for commercial beers, such as Speckled Heifer for the well-known Spotted Cow brewed in New Glarus.
Sean said brewing is in his blood. He is descended from Alois Himsl, a brewery owner in Austria who emigrated to Minnesota in the mid-1800s.
Sean and Valerie lived in Milwaukee before they bought their home in Port four years ago. Among the first things Sean planted in their garden were hop rhizomes for four varieties — Hallertauer, Willamette, Sterling and Nugget.
Sean and his friends built a 16-foot-high wood trellis designed by Valerie’s father for the vines that can grow to 25 feet. The hops develop near the top of the vines.
Each variety grows on a separate rope that can be lowered with a pulley system for harvesting. The trellis can also be lowered for harvesting and adjusting ropes.
Hop vines can grow as much as 14 inches in a day, Valerie said. The spacing between the leaves indicate a day’s growth. Mash left from the brewing process is used to fertilize the vines. The vines die back in the fall, but grow again in spring.
“It’s fun when they pop up in the spring and you can watch them grow,” Valerie said.
Hop plants can live for generations and must be controlled to keep them from taking over a garden, Sean said. He allows three or four of the strongest vines of each variety to grow and pulls the rest.
Hops, the flowers of the plant, can be brewed fresh or dried and frozen for later use. The couple use a dehydrator to dry the hops, then vacuum pack and freeze them.
They expect to freeze 50 ounces of dried hops.
“Each year is different and each hop yield is different,” Sean said. “That is a lot of hops for me as a home brewer. It will last me all year.”
The amount of hops used and when they are added to the boiling grain mash determines the intensity of the beer’s flavor and aroma, Sean said. The mash cooks for 60 minutes.
“If you add them with 45 minutes left, it’s super hoppy,” he said. “At 15 minutes left, you get a nice aroma and subtle flavor, and in the last five minutes, it’s a light taste.
“You spend the whole day brewing, then you have to wait at least a month to see if it went bad.”
The grains, hops and technique are important, Sean said, but “80% is sanitation. It’s all about cleanliness. That provides the crisp, clear beer. Otherwise, it’s malt vinegar.”
Image Information: Sean Himsl hoisted a frothy glass of home-brewed ale made with hops from his garden. Photo by Sam Arendt