For the week of March 17, 1999  thru March 23, 1999  

Local entrepreneur masters the art of brewing

Express Staff Writer

m17beer.jpg (15478 bytes)At his recently launched River Bend Brewery, Chris Harding taps a small keg—nicknamed "the pig." It contains the equivalent of one case of beer. (Express photos by Willy Cook)

South of Ketchum, on a gravel cul-de-sac just off the highway, one of the Wood River Valley’s most prolific artists lives and works.

The artist’s tools include steel dairy tanks, hoses, thermometers, cleaning agents, barley, hops, malt extract, water and yeast.

The artist is Chris Harding, and his medium is micro-brewed beer.

After nearly two decades of home brewing, Harding recently launched the River Bend Brewing Company, which he operates in what used to be a part of his home.

"I converted two bedrooms and a bathroom," Harding said, proud of the sacrifice.

The brewery, modest in size, is an exercise in efficiency. Four steel tanks occupy most of the room, making it necessary for Harding to use every nook for some phase of the brewing process.

It is a spotless space. The four steel tanks gleam immaculately, like prized trophies. Spilled beer, if you were inclined, could be lapped off the brewery’s pristine tiled floor.

"I spend about 80 percent of my time cleaning," Harding said.

River Bend Brewing Company has been incorporated since 1996, when Harding received a conditional-use permit for a home occupation and various permits from the state and federal governments. But River Bend Brewing "got product in kegs and ready to go" in January, Hardy said.

Small, local breweries similar to River Bend were plentiful in America before prohibition. But between 1920 and 1933, when manufacturing, transporting and selling of alcoholic beverages became illegal, only the major breweries survived, often by producing malt products for the food industry.

After prohibition, styles of beer available in America were limited mostly to Pilsen, a lighter ale that easily won the favor of the masses.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill allowing the home production of beer for personal use. The legislation set off a renaissance in the form of beer brewing and appreciation. Suddenly a market was created for high-quality and diverse brewing ingredients.

That’s when Harding began dreaming about having his own microbrewery. A biologist by training, Harding already had a knack for the chemistry of the brewing process. All he needed was some hands-on experience and equipment.

"My mother bought me my first rudimentary home-brewing equipment. That was a long time ago," Harding said. "It has been a gradual process acquiring all the equipment I have now."

South-central Idaho proved to be fertile ground for the aspiring brewer. Scouring the classifieds of local newspapers over the years, Harding said he would occasionally discover dairy tanks for sale. He bought three of the tanks from Idaho dairies and now uses them for boiling and fermenting.

Harding still marvels at the tanks.

"Look at that flawless stainless steel work," he said, caressing the smooth walls of the 150-gallon tank.

Hops, a prime ingredient in beer, grows robustly in Idaho, according to Harding.

"I grow about 12 pounds of my own hops out there," he said, pointing out the brewery’s window to his garden. "I also pass on a few hops rhizomes for friends to grow."

Through years of experimentation as a home-brewer, Harding became mostly self-taught.

"I’ve dumped a lot of beer," Harding said of his trial-and-error approach.

Harding said he gleaned invaluable tricks of the trade by observing other home brewers and microbreweries across the Midwest.

The Institute for Brewing Studies defines a microbrewery as a brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer each year. A microbrewery can sell its beer to the public through several methods, but usually acts as a wholesaler.

Harding’s brewery is capable of brewing about three and a half barrels a week. A barrel is equivalent to 31 gallons. He is producing two styles at the moment, a porter and a bitter ale.

The bitter, which is being poured at the Sawtooth Club in Ketchum, is a gently bubbled beer in the style of British bitter ales. The thicker and smoother porter is infused with chocolate malt, giving it a roasted chocolate flavor. It is being poured at Galena Lodge.

River Bend Brewing plans to sell kegs to local bars and, for individual customers, the brewery offers a small keg—nicknamed "the pig." It contains the equivalent of one case of beer.


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