Confessions of a Beer Geek: 'I'm definitely a beer snob'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- It's late afternoon at TableRock Brewpub, and the beer is flowing as easily as the conversation.

Just out of earshot of customers, Kerry Caldwell, her dark hair gathered in a twist, and wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the name "Hopzilla," sits in her usual corner.

But she's not a customer.

She is the in-house superhero of suds. Instead of a cape, she sports pink work boots. And work she does, as one of two brewers at TableRock.

"It's always been interesting to me," she says, "and I always have been a huge beer geek."

Caldwell got her first gig as a brewer quite by accident. She was in Boise visiting friends and heard about the position.

She quickly ran home and typed up a resume, and that led to an interview and, ultimately, a job offer.

She never looked back.

Now the menu board reflects her growing influence, with offerings like Orange With Brandied Apricot and Double Chocolate Porter.

To a reporter who thinks a bottle of Amstel is being adventurous, tasting her creations is a revelation.

Handing me a shot glass of a dark brew, she says confidently, "This is a dark double chocolate beer that has been aged in a wine barrel. It has two kinds of chocolate that would appeal even to a fan of dark brown stout beers."

Caldwell is a pioneer of sorts, as a woman in a male-dominated arena.

"I don't want people to come in and drink my beer because I'm the girl who brewed them or, 'Pretty good for a beer a girl brewed,' but if that's what gets people in the door and they try the beers, I'll take it, ya know?"

Of course, there's nothing girly about Caldwell, especially when she hoists 50-pound sacks of grain over her shoulder and ferries them from a storage locker outside into the back door of the pub.

She grabs a small knife and tears a huge hole across the top of the sack. Then she dumps the grain into a hopper for grinding.

It's noisy and dusty work, but necessary if you're serious about crafting a microbrew.

Creating beer is a time-honored ritual that involves many must-perform steps. One look at the line of shiny aluminum tanks, the tubing, the buckets and you can see Caldwell has her work cut out for her. And it shouldn't come as a surprise that turning a sugar mash into alcohol is far more complicated than you might have been led to believe.

So be sure to add a healthy dose of prayer.

"it's a lot like baking bread," she confides, "where you don't get to taste it as it goes along. You put all your ingredients in there and then cross your fingers and hope in two weeks, when it comes out of the tank, that it tastes the way you wanted it to."

In some ways, Caldwell is like a mother hen, constantly monitoring her creations.

In the brewing room, she has a small laboratory where she checks what's called the gravity of the fermenting beer. She carefully pours a dark yellow liquid into a large plastic test tube and then inserts a measuring device to determine the percentage of raw sugar in the mix of water, yeast, hops and grain.

It's alchemy and rather mysterious, at least to this outsider.

Caldwell smiles, which is a good thing. The brew is going according to plan and that means her gamble is paying off. Every time she brews it's costing TableRock owner Chris Nelson real money, at least a couple of hundred dollars in ingredients alone.

Brandied apricot syrup doesn't come cheap, and neither does specialized chocolate. So little by little, by successfully incorporating these exotic ingredients, Caldwell is developing a reputation as a trusted brewer.

Beaming, she says, "I actually just got the go-ahead to brew an imperial stout, which is really cool, because I have been pushing that across the table every week at the brewer's meeting for six months. Persistency pays off."

And once her creations start pouring from the tap, she can relax, but just a little.

"I love sitting in the pub and looking around watching people enjoy something I created," she says with obvious pride.

A few hours with Caldwell begs the question: now that she's a professional brewer, can she ever go back to the stuff you buy at the market by the case?

She winks and then confesses, "Much as I hate to say it, I've definitely become something of a beer snob."