Above: Rodney Parker meets up with beer brewing buddies. He’s part of the Covert Hops group, as well as The HopBreakers, a home brewing club based in the south Atlanta metro area. Photo courtesy of Rodney Parker.

A little over 10 years ago, a brain hemorrhage left Rodney Parker with only partial use of his left arm, which ended his involvement with his favorite hobbies of fly fishing and building and flying remote-control model aircraft.

Rodney Parker tasting beer
Parker samples a home-brewed beer at a
recent Covert Hops Society brewing event. Photo courtesy of Scott Lathrop.

“I told my wife and children that my new hobby would be working until I died,” laughed the retiree, 71, whose career was spent dealing with vascular implants, imaging and helping startups bring new medical devices to market. “They weren’t excited about that, so they gifted me with several one-gallon beer brewing kits. These were okay, but an awful lot of work for 10 or so bottles of beer.”

The experience was appealing enough that Parker, who lives in the south metro area, decided to explore home brewing further. He sought technical advice from a nearby home brew store, where he purchased his initial equipment.

He’s been brewing beer ever since.

“I started making three-gallon, all-grain batches with a very basic setup,” said Parker, whose “brewery name” is The One-Armed Bandit. “I’ve gradually transitioned to making six-gallon batches and have expanded my system and equipment considerably.”

At its most basic, beer is the fermented product of a grain (such as barley or wheat), hops (the flower from a variety of the hops plant), yeast and water. Because the ingredients are organic, they’re subject to seasonal influences that affect beer’s character, providing brewers with an extra variable for experimenting with new recipes.

“I enjoy the process and the ability to vary the final product, usually by using different yeasts and hops,” said Parker. He’s frequently joined by his daughter. “Brewing gives us an opportunity to spend time together on a hobby we both enjoy.”

Covert Hops logoCovert Hops Society

Parker is a member of the Covert Hops Society, considered Atlanta’s oldest and largest home brew club, with members drawn from throughout the metro area. Membership numbers are difficult to pin down because the group keeps no roll nor charges dues, but its Facebook page boasts more than 500 followers. About 25 to 30 people attend the meetings, held on the third Tuesday of the month at various locations in the Atlanta area.

The group’s name is a tongue-in-cheek nod to Prohibition, according to Scott Lathrop, a former society director who lives in Stone Mountain and works as a hospital purchasing agent.

“Covert Hops meetings are more social than technical, but there are plenty of experienced brewers there who give feedback and technical help,” he noted. “We always share samples of home brew for feedback and admiration. There’s no requirement to bring beer, but if you have it and want feedback, bring it.

“We discuss club business for a few minutes, which includes any upcoming group brews, competitions in the Southeast and planning for the Peach State Brew Off,” said Lathrop, who joined Covert Hops in 2007.

Scott Lathrop head shot
Scott Lathrop enjoys the camaraderie and accumulated knowledge offered by the The Covert Hops Society. Photo courtesy of Scott Lathrop.

Club brew days are held three or four times a year. Participants agree on a particular recipe and type of beer, and then produce 50 gallons of it with the club’s equipment.

“It’s a good way for someone new to home brewing see an advanced level of brewing and take home some wort — unfermented beer — to finish the process,” he said.

Samples are submitted to regional competitions and frequently win top prizes.

Brew Offs and Experimentation

The Covert Hops Society hosts the Peach State Brew Off, which attracts home brewers from around the state to compete in dozens of categories ranging from the familiar (lager, ale) to the exotic (mead, fruit beer). Next year will mark the 26th anniversary of the event. Lathrop has organized the competition and serves as a judge, having graduated from the Beer Judge Certification Program.

Lathrop brewed his first beer in 2005, guided by trial and error and directions from a brewing friend. “I also received help from fellow club members, online forums, books, magazines and YouTube.

“I got more serious in 2008 when I moved from the stove top in the kitchen to an all-grain process outside,” he continued. “It’s more intense, but I have more control over the final product.”

Like every home beer maker, Lathrop is continually experimenting with ingredients and technique to improve the end product.

“My primary reason for joining Covert Hops was to obtain honest feedback on the beer I brewed. Club members are not shy to tell you what’s wrong, and most importantly, they’ll tell you how to fix it.”

Charles Wier home brewer
Charles Wier brews beers that are enjoyed by himself and his friends. Photo courtesy of Scott Lathrop.

The home brewing seed was planted in Charles Wier, 58, 10 years ago when, on a trip to Belgium, the longtime beer drinker and Brookhaven resident tried some of the local products and discovered that he liked them far more than the domestic American beer he was used to drinking.

“I started drinking imports, but they’re expensive and they don’t taste the same here as they do in Europe,” he said. “Imports get oxidized during shipping to the U.S., and by the time they get here they’re not fresh. So I decided I could brew my own beer at home and maybe save money at the same time.”

Wier now laughs about the “save money” idea, but he thoroughly enjoys making versions of beer with the attributes he likes. “And even though I may not make a beer that’s quite as good as the absolute best out there, I learn from those beers so I can tailor my beers to my taste.”

His favorites are IPAs — India Pale Ales — and American Pale Ales.

“I brew mostly for consumption by me and my friends,” he said, “not for competitions.”

Beer Brewing Basics

Brewing beer takes time, which makes it an excellent hobby for retirees with a little extra time on their hands, Wier said. “It’s not that much different from cooking food as a pastime.”

There are many all-in-one brewing systems that look like huge coffee urns, but it’s something you can do indoors in the kitchen, he said.

The cost for a home brewing setup varies greatly, from do-it-yourself kits priced at under $100 to elaborate systems costing $1,500 and more. The consensus advice for would-be home brewers is to acquire an inexpensive kit first to find out if they enjoy brewing. They should also attend a local brew club meeting.

home beer brewing set up
Photo courtesy of Rodney Parker.

The larger systems favored by some of the serious home brewers require a certain amount of physical work; a five-gallon bucket of brew weighs about 40 pounds. “There are many kits available locally or online that make sourcing supplies simple,” Parker said. “Nothing really special is required beyond having a minimal space where temperature can be controlled — between 66 F and 68 F — plus attention to cleanliness and patience. By the time you’re a senior, hopefully the last two will be easy!”

Parker said that there are numerous books available that are excellent resources not only for the beginner, but as resources for experienced brewers. John Palmer’s “How to Brew” and Charlie Papzian’s “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing” are among the best, he said.

“If you have good cleanliness and follow directions, you can make really good beer,” Wier said. “You have the personal satisfaction of knowing that you made it yourself, and it’s very fresh — probably better than what you buy at the store.”

Where to Learn More

Covert Hops website: coverthops.com

Covert Hops facebook page: facebook.com/groups/coverthops

Peach State Brew Off: The event is normally held in early spring. Watch for information on the 2019 brew off at the beginning of the year.

For a list of American Homebrewers Association-sanctioned brew clubs, arranged by state and city, visit homebrewersassociation.org.

Gary Goettling is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.