At 35, Marion County transfer station truck driver and equipment operator Martin Combs of Lincolnville is attempting to perfect an ancient craft that can raise one’s spirits in the comfort of home.
“I’m a homebrewer,” Combs said. “It’s simple but it’s not.”
Combs has spent about 20 months concocting various flavors and styles of beer.
“You can go into crazy amounts of detail; there are so many different varieties,” he said. “I read and watch anything I can get my grubby hands on, and I am constantly trying different things.”
Using chemistry, science, a little math, as well as a lot of personal taste and intuition, he typically brews about 5 ½ gallons a month, which he said is equivalent to about 50 bottles of beer, but he plans to double that amount soon.
“I primarily brew pale ale because I enjoy that range,” Combs said. “I aim for balance between hops and malt.”
He regularly brews American and English brown ales, “Pale Honey,” another pale ale that he said is a more malty with a hint of honey in its smell. He also has attempted an Irish red, amber ales, a cream stout, and multiple other styles, including another pale ale he called “Pale Smoke,” that conjures up images of campfires.
“I make my friends and family suffer through my experiments,” he said. “Basically anybody that wants to try my beer, I let them. I just like getting honest feedback.”
His wife Melissa, a nurse, likes tasting the fruit of her husband’s labor.
“Everybody has their favorites,” she said. “But I would say the Pale Honey is the one everyone agrees on.”
Immersed in the intricacies of minute changes and possible outcomes, Combs catalogues results of different ingredients, temperatures, and time spent in certain stages.
“I taste it at all stages to see how the flavor is progressing,” he said. “It’s complex as hell.”
Even that’s an understatement, but he’s modest and thirsty absorb everything on the subject.
He trusts advice from Charlie Papazian’s book “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing,” and takes inspiration from work done by several brewers who work for Northern Brewers, but above all, the idiom “cleanliness is next to godliness” might sum up his brewing philosophy.
“Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize; clean, clean, clean,” Combs said. “I try to keep all my equipment as contaminate-free as possible.”
He uses a biodegradable, food-grade, chemical sanitizer and never uses bleach because it can be a yeast inhibitor.
“Yeast is very much a living thing,” Combs said. “It’s what makes water fun. I try to give the yeast the most hospitable environment to live in to make the best flavor I can.”
Brewing-at-home variables like accidentally breathing into a brew kettle or the fluctuation of ambient room temperature can affect the flavor and quality of his beer.
Combs enjoys tailoring beers to his taste, and the challenge of brewing to other people’s taste palates.
“Right now, I am just trying to repeat what I have done before and working on consistency,” he said. “I usually can get the same results as long as I stay with the same grain.”
Another reason Combs started brewing was his interest in prepping or the idea of being self-sufficient in the event of an emergency scenario that might cause him, his wife, and two children to be cut off from the luxuries of modern society.
“I wondered what skills I could bring to a group,” Combs said. “If nothing else, brewing beer is a really good bartering tool.”