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All About Balance

Buck Anderson and his father, Whitey, are brewing their first batch of beer. But they're not at home. The light Canadian Pilsner they've created is bubbling away in one of six shiny copper kettles lining the front window of Brewmasters South in Pembroke Pines.

"We wanted something lighter for the first time," says Anderson, who bought his dad a brewing session for his 65th birthday. "We'll experiment with darker stuff later. It's just neat to get a hands-on experience and learn about beer." And, he notes, "If you brew it here, they clean up the mess."

Home brewing is hard. The temperature and the timing need to be just right, the equipment meticulously sterilized so that microbes don't spoil a batch of beer. All of those details are taken care of in a place like Brewmasters, where the step-by-step process is so streamlined, brewing beer is as easy as cooking soup. No wonder 40-odd "U-brew" shops have popped up nationwide, including this one in South Florida, where owners Tom and Leslie Perlman oversee the brewing sessions.

The only real challenge is deciding just what to brew. In a binder two inches thick, Brewmasters offers recipes for everything from the extremely tame Extra Light Pilsner to the high-octane Belgian Double Trippel.

Just a few kettles away from the Andersons are friends John Alongi, David Cohen, and John Murphy, who've been here before. They're brewing a batch of Basses Ale, which is modeled after the popular English import Bass. Before turning on the kettle, they collected their ingredients from around the store: hops from plastic bins in the cooler; malt extract syrup from spigots attached to industrial-size drums; and chocolate barley malt, which was crushed in a hand-grinder.

When water is poured into a kettle, the temperature is turned up, and the fresh malt -- placed in a mesh container -- is steeped like a giant tea bag. While simmering for 15 to 30 minutes, the sweet flavor diffuses into the water. The malt extract, made from a different type of grain, is also poured in to add extra flavor. The sweetness of the malts is balanced with the tangy, bitter hops, which are added at intervals during the brewing process.

"Beer is all about balance," explains Perlman, as he keeps an eye on the brewers. First-timers, he says, need quite a bit of help, from first step to last. But after a customer has brewed a batch or two, he likes to do his own thing.

Of course, you never stop learning. Only moments after Perlman warns the Andersons, "You can never walk away from your kettle," the "veterans," Alongi and company, turn away just long enough for their kettle to erupt over the rim. "You're not a brewmaster until you've had your first boil-over," Perlman assures them with a chuckle.

Most of the overflow is foam, so the trio hasn't lost much of its thirteen gallons of beer. And in less than two hours, the batch is done cooking. Taken from the kettle, the brew is pumped through a cooling device and into a plastic container for fermentation, which begins as soon as yeast is added.

The brewers won't see their beer again until they come back in two weeks to bottle it. In the meantime Brewmasters lets the beer ferment, puts it into a keg, and adds carbonation. When the brewers return, they'll use automatic bottling machines to pump the beer from the keg into bottles, for which they've already designed the labels.

As a result of this foolproof brewing, the customers will walk away with high-end beer for less than they'd spend on an import. And, oh, when that beer overflowed on Alongi and his friends, they didn't even have to mop it up.

-- John Ferri

Brewmasters South is located at 9948 Pines Blvd., Pembroke Pines. The cost to brew six cases of 22-ounce bottles of beer ranges from $95 to $139 per batch. Add $50 for a set of reusable bottles. Store hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Call 954-438-0888.

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John Ferri

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