Home brewers find kindred spirits at HomeBrewUSA


Butch Brenton loves beer.

He loves drinking it. He loves talking about it. And he loves making it.

So what was the best way for the 46-year-old mechanical engineer to up his beer-making game? Take a second job at a Norfolk home brew store.

"What better way to learn?" the Virginia Beach resident said with a laugh.

Brenton is one of about 10 employees at HomeBrewUSA, a cornerstone in the Hampton Roads beer-making community for the past 14 years. The founders of several local breweries got started buying supplies from the store.

"That is the only place to go," said Tom Wilder, owner and president of Young Veterans Brewing Company. He praised the store as the place he learned to brew.

HomeBrewUSA opened in 2000. It was later sold to Mike Pensinger, who went on to help found Williamsburg Alewerks and two other breweries in Virginia and Tennessee. Current owners Elizabeth and Neal Erschens bought it in 2007. They opened a second location in Hampton two years later.

The chain eschews the stereotype that brewing is a man's hobby, even if the clientele and staff are primarily bearded white guys in their 20s and 30s. While Neal may be a co-owner, Elizabeth is the boss.

"Most people look at my husband and say, 'Oh, you have a great shop,'" Elizabeth Erschens said last month while showing off her Norfolk store. "They don't realize this was my hobby."

The Norfolk and Hampton stores are full-service shops, helping brewers of all skill levels make a variety of beers. Erschens said about half of her customers are interested in the easier-to-perform extract brewing method and the other half prefer the more intensive all-grain method. Erschens credited the store's success to her staff.

"All of them have to be professional brewers practically, because they have to be able to answer all types of questions," she said. "We have to be able to teach people every day."

Amateur brewer Brian Paskey tried his best to stump employee Tom Bova. The Norfolk resident was looking to branch out and try something a little different: Maybe a spicy brew, where he could get some peppers involved in the mix.

Bova, who is also president of the Old Dominion University Big Blue Brew Crew, didn't miss a beat. He had not only made a spicy beer before, but considered his Strawberry Banana Jalapeno Ale one of his greatest successes. Bova urged Paskey to use only a couple of jalapenos for a five-gallon batch, and to keep out the seeds. "A little goes a long way," he said, wearing a black "I brew the beer I drink" T-shirt.

The other trick: Let the beer age for several months before drinking it, so the flavors can mingle. "You don't want just the capsaicin," he said before selling Paskey most of the ingredients he would need to make a spicy version of DogFish Head Craft Brewery's 60 Minute IPA.

Fellow HomeBrew USA employee Brae Hammersley said half the fun of making your own beer is experimenting. You don't have to make the same beer every time, he said. You can try new things. "There are some weird things you can put in your beer. You can put bacon in your beer," he said.

Vaughn Erschens, Elizabeth and Neal's 22-year-old son, said he tries to be supportive whenever customers walk in with crazy ideas for new beers. "I would never want to stop someone from doing something new," said Vaughn, who helps manage the Norfolk store most days.

Vaughn invoked the name of Sam Calagione, the owner of DogFish Head. He noted Calagione's penchant for trying outlandish recipes. What if he didn't do that? He could miss out on the next big thing," said Vaughn, who is regularly consulted by customers interested in tweaking their recipes for local brewing competitions.

Like most home brewers, Paskey said, he loves making his own beer because it lets him tailor the flavors exactly how he wants them. Plus, it's always fun to show up at a party with some of his home brew and listen to the accolades roll in. "It's kind of addicting," he said. "When you've got your own beer, it's hard to drink anything else."

Website: www.homebrewusa.com

HomebrewUSA - Norfolk
5802 E. Virginia Beach Blvd. #115, Norfolk, VA 23502
Phone: 757-459-2739 
11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday - Friday
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday - Sunday

HomebrewUSA - Hampton
96 West Mercury Blvd., Hampton, VA 23669
Phone: 757-788-8001 
11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Thursday - Friday
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday - Sunday
Closed Monday - Wednesday 


By Scott Daugherty