Meet the Brewer: Tracy Hensley

Homebrew Con is upon us! The annual conference of the American Homebrewers Association begins towmorrow in Portland. Today, in the final installment of my profiles of local brewers, we get to know Tracy Hensley.

Homebrewing is generally described as a hobby, which may be accurate in many cases. But there's a note of condescension and dismissal in the word that is dead wrong in many others. Brewing at home isn't some childish facsimile of actual brewing as the term implies, but just a noncommercial expression of the same process. Commercialization doesn't confer brewing with some special authority. Some homebrewers, accordingly, take their brewing as seriously--more so, in some cases--than professional. Moments after I sat down with Tracy Hensley at the Rogue Eastside pub to taste her kölsch, I knew I had found a perfect example of this kind of homebrewer.

Since 2009, Rogue has hosted the Green Dragon Brew Crew (named for the previous incarnation of the pub), a collective of homebrewers who get to use the brewery's one-barrel system to make beers served onsite. The day I met Tracy was hot and my bike ride had left me overheated. I took a drink of her freshly-brewed kölsch, which had an aromatic Weyermann-malt nose and a playful fruitiness. It was crisp and satisfying. Tracy also took an exploratory sip and declared herself dissatisfied. "It has an oily quality to it," she said, "or a 'weight.'" She'd used Mandarina Bavaria hops and regretted it. She was right about the beer, but it would take me the better part of the glass to begin to recognize what she was talking about.

I got really tired of wine. I switched over to champagne, but that’s an expensive habit.

Tracy has one of the most acute palates I've encountered, and she honed it first with wine. Before discovering beer, she was living in upstate New York, where her husband sold wine for a living. In what I would see was a proclivity of Tracy's, she embraced wine fully, deeply immersing herself in the world. She studied for and passed the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Level 3 exam--akin to the Cicerone certification. Amid all this, though, she started to become aware of beer--finding bottles of Ommegang at the like at her local store. That led to an eight-month ramble across Europe and Canada, where she began to go as deeply into beer as she had in wine.

She and her husband ended up in Portland after the travel, where she decided to take up brewing. Again, she immersed herself in homebrewing books, reading through Malt and For the Love of Hops--the former of which she liked more because it is more highly technical and has less of that history Stan Hieronymus loves and put into FTLOH. She was looking for the most technical guides possible, and we joked that her German wasn't good enough to read the classic brewing manuals from Germany. "I pretty much just set about figuring it out," she said about her immersion.

Many homebrewers have a technical background and I assumed she did, too--but in fact, she has a master's in art history. She wants to know everything about the brewing process, but not the way a technician does, because she loves process, but because it seems to give her a deeper knowledge of the beer she's making. There's a wonderful recent book called Cræft, which comes from an Anglo-Saxon word author Alexander Langlands defines as the "power or skill in the context of knowledge, ability, and a kind of learning."

As we spoke, I sensed that this was Tracy's orientation to the brewing process. At one point she was describing a Vienna lager she was planning to let condition for two months. She had used a decoction mash on it and when I expressed surprise said she does so routinely. "I really like decoting. I mean, why wouldn't you?" She seemed entirely insensitive to the labor and time she was describing--the cræft of the beer demanded these techniques, and so that's what she was going to do.

The little test brewery at Rogue Eastside.

Later, she talked about an expensive conical fermenter she was eying, mentioning that it was $1,800. I voiced the universal noise that someone has encountered something out of their price range--a low whistle--but she was focused on the temperature controls it would give her, not the price. Given the value it brought, it seemed line a no-brainer. "But you can afford that!" she exclaimed. "Not with the kind of beer I make," I may have said. At one point, she described preferring the performance of third-generation yeast, another clue to how seriously she takes her "hobby."

I was only dimly aware of the Green Dragon Brew Crew, but it's worth stopping into Rogue to taste the fruit of the homebrewers' labor. Tracy brews once a month there. The little brewhouse has a direct-fire mash tun and is both a big step up over a typical homebrew kit, but also quite hands-on, which gives the homebrewers a chance to really tinker with their craft. In the past, as one example, the crew has made a Samiclaus-like strong ale from first runnings, and the second runnings produced a 4.2% session ale. Tracy seemed to like the latter better. "It was brilliant," she said.

When she brewed the kölsch, she got better efficiency and consequently a stronger beer than she expected. The Mandarina hops added a layer of fruitiness that played nicely with the yeast esters, but ultimately I came to see what she meant about the "weight." It was a subtle aesthetic quality she was pointing out. The balance point of the beer, owing to the greater gravity and strength, was higher than a typical kölsch. The fruitiness was in balance, but it was heavy, like overripe fruit.

Judging best-of-show in Bend.

This led us to a discussion of aesthetics--so often ignored in beer tasting. Casual fans tend to look either for spikes of intensity or their inverse, "crushability." Technical assessments tend to focus on the constituent elements, and anyone who's judged knows more time is spent discussing chemical compounds than overall composition. Tracy's background in wine and art have oriented her to these elements, though. Her exceptional palate allows her to see more deeply into the beer, like her kölsch, as she makes these assessments. She's a judge and writes reviews of beer for Beer Connoisseur, and you can see all this at work in the way she describes beer. Here are some of her notes on Fort George's Vortex:

This beer's aroma is of medium pineapple juice with low, pizza dough yeastiness, vanilla bean, button mushrooms and whiskey alcohol notes.... The flavor is of caramel cinnamon bread, pine tips and dried apricot. A dry, mouthwatering and chalky finish with piney bitterness leads into a hot, alcoholic heat in the aftertaste. The mouthfeel features medium-low carbonation, medium-low warmth and a slight prickle in the the back of the throat. 

I made an amazing beer when I was pregnant. You know that perfect moment during conversion? I could *smell* it. You can taste everything.

I had wanted to completely avoid drawing attention to the fact that Tracy was a woman--this would have been as self-evident as it was beside the point--except that toward the end of our discussion about tasting and aesthetics, she mentioned how acute her sense became when she was pregnant. She called it a "pregnant palate," and there's at least preliminary research that backs up the idea. We didn't speak about it much, but being a woman does put her in a small minority of homebrewers, and I suspect her brewing skill, excellent palate, and role as a judge are all going to make it easier for more women to join the club--with or without pregnancy-enhanced powers.

We steadily drank through her beer over the course of our conversation, and she hadn't seemed very happy with it. To get a sense of what she really thought, I asked her how she would rate it in a blind tasting. "Oh, highly. It's a great kölsch," she admitted. This is the way brewers talk about beer, though. To use Fred Eckhardt's old phrase, they listen to their beer. She was happy enough with how the beer came out, but she was absorbing its lessons. The next time, it may be a little lighter and she won't use Mandarina. And, if you want to see if you can detect its "weight," head over to Rogue Eastside and try it for yourself.