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The Alchemist

Sean O'Hern, 35: Home Brewer and Co-Owner of Commercial Tap House


As it turns out, mosquitoes enjoy beer too. It's the sugar — a product of the brewing process, Sean O'Hern says. The heavy smell of it seduces them to frothy deaths inside your glass of Perennial when you're neglectful of a pint.

Not that you would be. Perennial is O'Hern's house beer, an amber-colored ale he keeps on tap for when company calls and, on a recent, unseasonably warm November afternoon, for sipping in his backyard while he brews up a fresh batch of stout.

You won't get a taste at Commercial Tap House, where O'Hern is co-owner. You'll have to score an invite to hang at his house in Manchester. He'll be the bearded guy hovering over a "rudimentary" home-brewing kitchen — a propane burner, various pieces of copper and plastic tubing, and an open keg filled with a few gallons of steaming, unfermented beer, or wort.

O'Hern has been brewing for four years. His first kit came as a birthday gift from an older brother. By then, the backlash against the "fizzy yellow" commercial beers that gave rise to artisanal brewing had swept him up, and he was addicted to craft beers. As a bartender, he served them. As an aficionado, he consumed them in abundance. Curious about exactly how the brew masters of the beers he'd come to love extracted such flavors out of a few grains of hops or malt, he decided to make them, too.

If home brewers fall into two archetypes — hippies and engineers — O'Hern seems to split the difference. A home brewer starts out with a basic recipe and pushes the limits of it, he says. When locally sourced ingredients — hops, pumpkin seed and wild yeasts — are available, he'll use them to see what unique flavors they beget. There's a blackberry bush in his neighbor's backyard that he's used often. "The hook is in the experimentation," he says.

When the wort on the backyard stove cools, O"Hern shakes the jug to oxygenate the mix. He places it beside the three others on the floor in his dining room, all of them wrapped in T-shirts to shield against flavor-killing sunlight.

One contains a batch gone awry, though he can't yet bring himself to dump it. The worn copy of "Brewing Better Beer" sitting atop his microwave may provide some guidance, or the red brewing diary he scribbles his notes in. He'll come back to it, just as soon as he has an idea. "There's a combination of ingredients that still might salvage it, he says. "It's just a matter of finding the right mix." — Vernal Coleman

Sean O'Hern is a member of the James River Homebrewers Club, where his beer has won honors in the group's annual competition. The club next meets at Mekong Restaurant on Dec. 14, from 6:30-9 p.m. For information go to jrhb.org.

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