Six men stand around two cardboard boxes as they’re set down on a table in the Galloway Ridge bistro. A few snips of the tape, and one is open, revealing the prize within. There they are — 24 bottles of Dusty Road.

It’s a newly created American cream ale, about four weeks old in all. As they pour samples into glasses, they comment favorably on the beer’s head and amber color. And then comes the taste.

The men are joined by two Galloway Ridge chefs. Each man takes a glass, then takes a sip. Perfect. “It’s really good,” says Tyler Rockmore, a line cook with Galloway Ridge. The other men nod in agreement, savoring the taste. And almost as soon as they’ve started, they set their glasses down. There will be time for sampling later. For now, there’s work to do. “Let’s start our brewing,” Rockmore says.

For the past couple of months, a group of residents at Galloway Ridge, a premier retirement community located north of Pittsboro, have been making their own beer.

Their first effort was something they called Flat Tired – named so because the recipe is similar to the Fat Tire amber ale, which many members of the group enjoy. Then, it was Dusty Road, which earned its name from the dusty scent the cream ale gave off while it was brewing. Now, they’re going to try something different — a porter. Porters are dark beers with plenty of hops. And the one they’re planning is going to have a unique blend of flavors.

Galloway Ridge residents Jack Zollinger and Bob Holton grab a packet of malts and chocolate flavoring, then pour it into a thin bag before tying it off. Rockmore has already cut up five pounds of figs and set them aside, right near a 2.75 pound bottle of honey from Mocksville, N.C. But they’ll be added later.

For now, Rockmore and sous chef Eugene Snipes prepare a 5 gallon pot of water on a stove, which the men bring the sack of malt over to. Dipping the malt teabag, as Rockmore calls it, into the water, he and Snipes tend to it while the residents gather around the boxes. Opening the second box, making 41 bottles in all, they pull each beer out and put labels on them.

The brewing group started with three members in all. Community Food and Beverage Director Toni Scirica-Rowe came up with the idea, then pitched it to a few of the residents. They were interested, so Durham-based Bull City Homebrew offered to come out and teach them how to make beer. And with a couple of successes under their belt, they’ve been expanding their horizons since.

The labeling process doesn’t take particularly long, and the malt teabag hasn’t had enough time to flavor the water. But there’s a simple solution to that. “When you make beer, there’s a lot of standing around,” Zollinger says. “So when you stand around, you drink the previous batch.” Though, this time, they don’t drink much of it. Usually, they like to save some to hand out at special Galloway Ridge events. With Flat Tired, for example, the men and their wives sat down to a four-course meal, all with their first new beer to wash it down.

They’ll save Dusty Road, too, for some other event. Maybe one where they can get some donations to help buy more brewing kits. But just because there’s standing around, that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do. Rockmore and Snipes are constantly checking the water temperature. “There’s a lot that can go wrong,” Rockmore says. The sweet spot for this batch is 165 degrees. If it goes over that, then Rockmore says the various ingredients could seep out and ruin it. And that’s something they want to avoid, especially this time around.

Because this time, their brew isn’t just going back to them. When it’s done, they’ll submit it for consideration at the Shakori Hills Hops & Roots Fest. But they have to actually make it first, of course. Once the water has been flavored, they remove the malt bag and add the first batch of hops and figs, then bring it to a boil. Then, the wait begins.

It has to boil for 40 minutes before the next part can begin. “It’s a long-drawn process,” Snipes says. Fortunately, this time, they don’t have to stand around. The group of eight, including the chefs, head to the Galloway Ridge bar. They get a beer, this time from the tap, then have a seat. “So, what’re we going to call this brew?” resident Al Schalk asks the group. Holton shrugs. “We got honey and figs,” he says. “That’s the unusual part of it.” They dismiss the idea of making another senior-themed name. Dusty Road and Flat Tired were good ideas, even though the former was the result of a misprinted label, but the residents didn’t want to force that onto every beer they made.

The figs are the key, but they’re not too easy to put into name form. Suggestions like Cool Figger’ or Sweet Figure aren’t overwhelming hits. Neither is King Bee, an attempt to work the senior theme in with the honey. But about 20 minutes into their brainstorming session, Rockmore throws a name out. “Hard to Figure?” he asks. There’s a pause. “I get it,” Holton says. “The honey and the figs, it’s hard to figure out.”

Then, there’s keeping the “fig” part in the name via “figure.” After some consideration, they hold a unanimous vote. Their entry into the next Hops & Roots Fest will be Hard to Figure. Unless they think of something better.
After all, it’ll be a while before the process is done, fermenting and whatnot. And they still have to complete the brewing process.

In the meantime, the residents catch up and chat about current events, upcoming Galloway Ridge board vacancies and other things that strike their fancy.

Zollinger was one of the original brew club members. He’s been a resident for nine years. “I was here when it opened,” he says. Before he retired, he worked for IBM, which earns joking nicknames such as “Itty Bitty Machines” and “I’ve Been Moving” from the other guys. In contrast, Schalk has only lived in Galloway Ridge for four months. “It’s a great community, a great location,” he says. His careers included 26 years as a United States Air Force pilot and work in international marketing after that.

Holton, who been in Galloway Ridge for two years, was a magazine editor and publisher, mostly business-to-business publications. Fellow resident and brew club member Anson Cooke was a biochemist, and Jack McNeil owned a metal-cutting shop in Chicago for 37 years. But they’ve all come together with a common purpose. They like beer.

And soon, they’re another step closer to making another batch. Once 40 minutes has passed, they add half the honey and more hops. Another 10 minutes on the burner, and the rest of the honey and figs are in. And after a final five minutes, there’s a burst of activity.

The vat is lifted up and put into an ice bath. The brew needs to come down to 70 degrees before anything else can be done. It takes about 15 minutes, but when it’s ready, they pick up the brew and pour it into an ale pail — a bucket specially designed for fermenting. Then, they top it off with water to be 5 gallons even again, and then, in comes the yeast.

Meanwhile, Rockmore puts in a special thermometer that measures the sugar level, which will translate to how much alcohol there will be. After a moment, he nods, lifting it out. “Looks like 8.5 percent alcohol,” he says to the approval from the club. It’ll be stiff and sweet, if all goes well.

Then, they put a lid on the bucket and cap it with an air-lock to regulate the gas in the beer as it ferments. The next step involves a bit more waiting. Two weeks’ worth, to be precise. The beer will sit in Galloway Ridge‘s cool, dark basement for two weeks to let the yeast do its work. And after that, it’ll be strained and bottled before setting for another two weeks. And after that, it’ll be time to see how Hard to Figure turned out.

“Brew, ferment, bottle, brew, ferment, bottle,” Rockmore says, summing it up. Assuming all goes well, this batch will be ready for the NCAA basketball tournament in March. The beer club’s fellow residents could be set to enjoy a brew during the quarter finals and beyond. They can’t sell it, of course. Alcoholic Beverage Control has regulations against that sort of thing.

But there’s no saying they can’t get some donations from their patrons. “Of course, we’re a not-for-profit,” Schalk says. “So we think our beer is too valuable to sell.” With their eyes on the future, they’ve settled on trying for a lager next month — another result of their 40 minutes in the bar.

Rockmore says it’ll be a tougher, more in-depth brew, but nothing they shouldn’t be able to handle. Besides, the learning process is part of the fun, McNeil says. He just hopes everyone can enjoy their efforts as much as they do. “We just want to brew it better and better,” he says.

And as Rockmore and Snipes haul the bucket off to the basement, the brew club adjourns to go about their days. But they’ll be back in a couple of weeks to continue their work. And if they follow the recipe correctly and put in a little bit of care and patience, there should only be one really tough part. Deciding what to drink while the brew heats up.

Mike Gates
Reporter
The Chatham News