Allergic to hops — it’s a grim diagnosis for any beer lover, particularly in today’s hop-heavy world of brewing. But for an avid homebrewer like Daniel Kent, it’s an especially devastating turn.
Once a fervent fermenter with up to a dozen kegs of his own creations on tap at any time, Kent’s brewing career spanned roughly four decades and a rainbow of styles, from lagers to ales, all brewed simply to his liking.
“I made a style I really like drinking. And to be honest I rarely found a beer that I like more than my own,” Kent said. “Which doesn’t mean they’re particularly good beers other than they were tailored to the taste that I liked.”
At the height of his hobby, Kent, now in his 60s, was growing up to six varieties of his own hops, and even his own wheat and barley. As consumer tastes pushed popular beer toward ever-bigger flavors with ever more hops, Kent chose instead to grow softer and more approachable hop varieties.
“I never really got into this IPA craze, I hate to say it,” he said.
But as the craze grew, it became harder and harder for Kent to ignore.
“I really was quite into it, but somewhere along the line I discovered that … whenever I drank beer, I just started having issues,” he said. “I ended up realizing that, especially with the rampant migration toward IPAs and extremely hopped beers, that it seemed like I noticed that the more hops there were, the more problems I had.”
As his hop allergy came to the fore, his brewing dwindled. “I finally admitted to myself that was the problem,” he said.
But even with his brewing days now largely behind him, Kent hasn’t soon been forgotten among Napa’s other homebrewers.
Mike Riddle of the Napa Homebrewers Club referred to Kent as the group’s resident expert on hop-less beers. Now, working with the Rotary Club of North Napa, of which Riddle is also a member, the Homebrewers Club is bringing homebrewers together again for the Napa Homebrewers Classic.
After a year off, the 2019 return of the Homebrewers Classic comes with a gesture to Kent and a special category: the most popular beer made without hops.
“We decided that we could do something that he could participate in,” Riddle said of his friend. “That’s how we came up with the idea of the hop-less beers.”
The Classic’s main event is the Brewfest on May 4 in the social hall of Skyline Wilderness Park from noon to 5:30. This year, in addition to upward of 50 homemade beers to sip through, attendees will also get food and live music for the $40 ticket price.
The proceeds from each year’s event go to a charity of the Rotary Club’s choice; this year the group picked Napa NEWS. Past Brewfests have raised about $50,000 for Napa charities, Riddle said.
Ahead of the May 4 Brewfest is a homebrew contest on April 13.
Arranged as a bottle contest, homebrewers submit beers of a given style for formal judgment. Winners go on to the Brewfest for judgement by local professional brewers, who will name the year’s “Best in Show” beer.
Two other beers will take home the prize for “Most Popular Beer” the day of Brewfest, in a vote by attendees; one for the most popular beer of all that are poured that day, the other, the most liked hop-less beer.
The hop-less category is open to interpretation from each brewer, Riddle said.
A long-time homebrewer and winner of the Sierra Nevada Homebrewer of the Year, Riddle, 66, is today brewing with his son. The pair will have a handful of beers entered in the Brewfest. For their hop-less entry, the Riddles added in the tips of new growth from Blue spruce trees. The spruce tips have a small window for use in a beer, Riddle said, becoming resinous and harsh after about three weeks.
The father-son Riddle brew team first made the hop-less beer, adding their harvested spruce tips into the post-brew whirlpool. With that, the end beer takes on a citrus and piney flavor, Riddle said. “But you have to try it to see what it’s really like, because it’s hard to describe.”
The full list of hop-less beer entrants is still coming together, Riddle said, but attendees can expect at least one Witbier, brewed with wheat instead of hops and mingled with coriander, chamomile flowers, yarro and orange zest.
Special categories have also played into Brewfest in other years, like the toast-style beers of 2017.
Working together, Kent and Riddle made a 10-gallon batch of mead to enter in the upcoming Brewfest.
Kent’s preferred mead-making style is one of lower temperatures, in part for the natural flavors and the preservation of enzymes from the honeybees, he said. For their mead, Kent and Riddle added a quarter cup of lemon juice to one five-gallon batch and Buddha’s hand to another five-gallon batch.
But while the homebrewers’ gesture is flattering, Kent said, brewing remains bittersweet.
Around a year after his brewing dropped off with his allergy, the 2017 fires claimed Kent’s house on Monticello Road, along with all of his self-made brewing equipment.
With that, he suspects his brewing days are likely behind him now. While a request for an old beer of his might be able to bring him back into brewing briefly, the fires also claimed all of his recipes from over the years.
“So I’d have to go from memory and the longer I wait, the less chance I have of reproducing something that I truly liked,” he said.