Taste Testing Home Brews at Purple Cat

By Jason Jugenheimer and The Flight Crew
COITSVILLE, Ohio – The craft beer industry continues to grow throughout America. Too often, we forget that a majority of brewers begin homebrewing in basements, garages and on kitchen stovetops. Often, they convert anything they can into kettles, chillers and fermentation vessels.

Many of our local breweries began that way, turning their hobbies into dreams. For a lot of them, National Homebrew Day at Purple Cat Farm in Coitsville, sponsored by Gregg Wormley of The Pumphouse and Jimmy Sutman from Purple Cat, has been an important foundation for their brewing journeys.

Wormley told us, “It started back in 1999 at the Brookfield shop. At that time it was just brewers and families and was an event put on by the American Homebrewers’ Association and still is.”

The event, which took place May 7, has moved around over the years, traveling to Hillsville, Pa., and Warren before landing at Purple Cat Farm in Lowellville.

Tom “Choo Choo Charlie” Shepard, who died last year, is remembered on the brew display.

“Brew days started out with eight brewers and their families and has expanded to brewers from all over the local area,” Wormley said.

According to Jared Channell of Birdfish Beer Company, “This event is pretty much where we got started. There are so many great people out here brewing, sharing recipes, techniques and giving advice. It really did help us get where we are. And it all goes to a great cause. It’s one of the funnest events for us all year. That’s for sure.”

This year, more than 50 beers were entered and over 200 people attended the event, which always coincides with The Kentucky Derby. Babcia’s Lunchbox was on hand to provide sustenance and over $2,000 was raised through donations and raffles.

“For 12 years now, this is one of my favorite days of the year,” Sutman said. “This event directly supports GabbaCamp, which serves adults with special abilities.”

This year did feel a little empty, though. Local homebrew legend Tom “Choo Choo Charlie” Shepard and his familiar train whistling sadly left us in 2021. “He always loved to promote the hobby and speak with potential brewers. He helped out with manufacturing things for us in the homebrew world,” Wormley said.

The day included a brewer’s photo and toast in front of Choo Choo’s familiar brewing rig. Wormley echoed the thoughts of everyone who knew Shepard: “He will be missed.”

Here are some of the brewers and beers that shined for us.

ScapeGoat Brewing Highway 2 The Danger Zone Blonde Ale (12% ABV)

Rob Tittel – When homebrewer Brian Gardner and his friends would go out, if something went wrong, he’d get blamed. Everyone got home later than expected…  Brian’s fault. Someone had one too many beers…  Brian’s fault. Something went wrong on home brew day… Brian’s fault.

Even if it weren’t his fault, it probably was. So when he was thinking of a name for his homebrew operation, ScapeGoat seemed natural.

For Homebrew Day, Brian decided to bring Highway 2 The Danger Zone. Cinco de Mayo was just a few days earlier. So it felt appropriate that I would start by sampling this big beer.

Brian, homebrewing about six years, begins with a simple, unpretentious base beer: blonde ale. From there he amps up the fun factor with tons of red raspberry margarita and tequila.

The result is a thick and chewy fruity concoction that goes down smoothly with nary a hint of the tequila to be detected. It reminds one of a frozen margarita slushie.

This is a beer that doesn’t taste like beer. Many in attendance flocked to his table. I could see pounding a few of these too-easy-to-drink brews on a hot summer day by the pool and then waking up the next day blaming Brian for feeling a little rough around the edges.

If you find yourself at a home brew festival where he’s pouring, check out his creatively crafted brews. But do proceed with caution. Maybe bring a DD, lest you find yourself in the danger zone. And if you do – it’s Brian’s fault.

Neshannock Creek Brewing Company Hop Lure IPA (6.5% ABV)

Dave Shively – For every homebrewer, the decision to take that initial step into creating beer begins with two simple ingredients: curiosity and a love of craft beer. That was the case almost a decade ago when Eric Fulkerson took a deep dive into the art of homebrewing.

A stationary engineer by day, Eric is accustomed to tinkering and fixing things. So the process of making beer came naturally.

When the fruits of his labor proved to be successful, that led to experimenting with different styles of beer. Before long, he was sharing his passion with friends and family. He affectionately referred to his hobby as Frizzleburg Brewing Company.

Today, that hobby is, I hope, just a few months away from becoming a bona fide business. Eric has plans to open The Neshannock Creek Brewing Co. in downtown New Castle, Pa., inside the historic Henry Hotel.

One of the beers that will be a staple offering at the brewery is Hop Lure IPA. The name is catchy insofar as the beer will serve as a gateway IPA to lure you into trying a beer with a different taste profile.  Brewed with Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe hops, the beer has a nice citrusy piney taste. At 6.5% ABV, it will be a popular offering at the brewery. The Flight Crew can’t wait to touch down in New Castle to try the other eight beers Eric plans to offer when the doors open. 

Duck Creek Brewing Chocolate Oatmeal Oreo Milk Stout (6.5% ABV)

Jason Jugenheimer – Bill Conn named his brewing project for the creek that runs through the family farm of his wife, Becky, who is also head of quality control.

He’s been brewing only six years but already has a title under his belt, winning in 2017 with his chocolate salted caramel porter. This year he gets to add a little hardware and accolades to his collection, earning second place in the YAHOO Cup, voted on by the public and first place in the brewer’s choice category.

Fortunately, I called this beer long before the votes were counted. When it comes to eating Oreos, I’m a purest. I like a handful of cookies and a tall glass of milk.

Bill created my match made in heaven. Five pounds of Oreos went into this concoction with a generous helping of oatmeal and lactose. The result is dessert in a glass.

His stout is silky smooth and creamy with a terrific mouthfeel. The chocolate flavor shines with that familiar Oreo cookie flavor. Bill cuts no corners with ingredients and his love for brewing is really showcased with this beer.

Polski Brewing Pecan Caramel Coffee Kolsch (5.5% ABV)

Roger Gillespie – I love strolling through the grounds at Farmer Casey’s Ranch during the now famous Big Brew National Homebrew Day: a lot of friends to greet and a lot of great beer to sample.

Early on I spotted a tap that piqued my interest – pecan caramel coffee kolsch. I really like the simplicity of the kolsch style beers but this sounded too good to pass. Turns out that this was the highlight of my day.

MAGMA brewer and Biker Brewhouse salesman Mike Rendziniak shared with me that this project began with his own kolsch recipe and an ounce of pecan caramel coffee beans from Havana House, racked for one week. Mike has been home brewing for about 16 years and isn’t afraid to experiment, including a delicious pistachio pudding nut brown.

Based on this gem, he definitely knows what he’s doing. Great beer Mike!

Pineapple IPA aka Pineapple Bomb (7.2% ABV)

Brian Long – Who would have guessed that I’d picked the 2022 YAHOO Cup winner to review hours before it was decided?  Well, I did. After sampling the other beers that these two correctional officers placed with this year, I definitely know this isn’t your typical old prison hooch.

A few years ago, James Nessle wanted to make a decent IPA – with minimal expense – something approachable and not overwhelming. Nailed it!

This well-balanced brew showcases Amarillo and Citra hops. This swing top bottled, not kegged, beer allows you to hear that explosive pop or “bomb” noise when opened. There’s the fragrant perfume of pineapple and tropical scents and a lively pineapple flavor is up front.  You get hints of citrus and tropical flavors carried across your palate. It finishes with a subtle hop slap.

Penguin City Brewing has offered to brew this winning beer at its brewery in Youngstown.

Nessle and Josh Knisley, who placed second and third in the Brewers Choice competition with Quad Silent Night and S’mores Delicious Dessert Stout, have big dreams of one day opening up their own place. If they do, look out. You’re in for a cellmate of flavor.

Pictured at top: Gregg Wormley from The Pumphouse sponsors the annual event at Jimmy Sutman’s Purple Cat Farm.