Kelly Fitzgerald is a crafty person.
She creates wreaths out of wine corks and sews fleece blankets. She decorates her home in earthy browns and greens. She bakes peach pie, red velvet cake and chocolate chip cookies.
And she brews craft beer.
The 24-year-old Omaha college student first home-brewed two years ago, and she’s hooked.
Fitzgerald is among a new style of home-brewers. Though home beermakers have tended to be guys in their 30s and older, more young people and women have been jumping into the hobby the past five years, said Kathryn Porter Drapeau of the American Homebrewers Association.
“They are being exposed to flavorful craft beer and they want to capture that themselves,” she said. The home-brewers group estimates that 1 million people brew beer at home.
Fitzgerald says she loves the creative side of home-brewing, such as adding more hops to give her beer more bite and give it her own twist. When Fitzgerald walks into a party, friends ask if they can trade her a Fat Tire, Blue Moon or other store-bought beer for one of her home-brews, like her pale ale or wheat beer. Friends also stop by her midtown Omaha house and ask what she’s brewing, hoping for a sample or two.
One of the first beers Fitzgerald home-brewed was a porter, a style of dark beer. She remembers sipping it for the first time.
“It’s cool to know you can make something that tastes really good,’’ she said.
Fitzgerald grew up in Omaha near 48th and Q Streets with two older sisters and an older brother.
She’s always been creative, athletic and talkative, her mom said. Teri Fitzgerald said she never had to ask her daughter how her day went at school. She’d tell Mom how math and spelling class went or whether she got to clean the chalkboard for the teacher.
She graduated from Omaha Bryan High School, where she played varsity golf and tennis and received mostly A’s.
Her good grades earned her a two-year, full-tuition scholarship to Metropolitan Community College. She later transferred to the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Fitzgerald sampled her first craft beer a few months after turning 21. Craft beer — which used to be known as microbrew — is produced by small independent brewers known for innovation, like making beers flavored with chocolate or fruits like apricot and cherry.
She was working at a grocery store in Omaha’s Old Market, and at the end of her shift, she would stop at friend Chad Rozniecki’s nearby craft-beer bar. Until then, she had tried mostly beers like Bud Light.
She thought craft beer was amazing, especially a rich stout she sampled.
“I liked the creaminess,’’ she said.
She decided beer would be her new craft project.
Rozniecki also brews at home, and he showed Fitzgerald and boyfriend Jimmy Vollmer the basics.
Fitzgerald stores her bottles, jugs and other brewing equipment in the basement of her rented Omaha house.
Her kitchen — home to her expansive baking — soon became home to her beer operation.
She estimates she’s brewed more than 100 gallons of home-brew: a variety of beers such as ales and wheat beers.
During the past two years, she believes she’s become a better brewer. That’s partly because she understands the ingredients better, such as knowing that a dark malt gives the brew a richer flavor.
She’s not afraid to experiment. On Saturday, she and Vollmer started brewing a beer they’d never made. It’s a red ale that will be aged in a whiskey barrel. Fitzgerald hopes the ale will pick up hints of whiskey flavor.
She started by pouring 160-degree water into an insulated, 10-gallon drink cooler, the kind with a spigot at the bottom. Then she added grain and malt.
The hot water extracts the sugars and other flavors from the grain and malt. That step took about an hour.
Then she moved outside, onto a driveway behind her house. She took the extract and put it in a 10-gallon metal boiling pot. She set the pot on a propane burner and boiled the extract for about one hour while she added hops. Hops give a bitterness to beer, balancing the sweet flavors of the malt.
After boiling that mixture, she cooled it to about 75 degrees.
Normally, she places copper tubes flowing with cold water into the mix to cool it. But this time, she put the pot on the ground and packed snow around it. The temperature of the extract dropped to 75 degrees in a half-hour.
Then she poured the mixture into a single 6½-gallon glass jug and added yeast. She set the jug in the corner of her kitchen to ferment. The yeast turns the sugars into alcohol.
Between fermenting that mix and then aging it in the whiskey barrels, it will be at least six weeks before she can sample the beer.
She says it’s fun to share her beer with others.
When her uncle goes fishing, Fitzgerald gives him a 12-pack of home-brew for the trip.
She brings home-brew to her boyfriend’s family gatherings. Her pumpkin beer was a hit at Thanksgiving.
She’d like to share her beer with a wider audience. She thinks about opening a brew pub someday.
“It’s fun to dream,’’ she said, although she’s doing more than dreaming.
She’s a senior studying business management and marketing at UNO. She’s learning to write business plans and hopes to draft one for a brew pub. She also works part-time at a specialty wine and beer store. She’s observing customer buying habits, such as why they like certain beers over others.
Her perseverance and methodical approach to achieving the dream mirror the way she made Christmas cookies as a girl. Mom Teri said she showed a lot of patience and creativity for one so young.
Some kids lose interest after decorating just a few Christmas cookies. But Fitzgerald would decorate three or four dozen at a time. She’d carefully place tiny round candy for eyes on snowman cookies.
Her work ethic developed early too.
She started her first job when she was 12. Her dad worked with a woman who grew flowers, and Fitzgerald helped her make bouquets and sell them at an Omaha farmer’s market.
Fitzgerald would ask customers what colors they liked and build them bouquets with daisies, bachelor buttons, snap dragons and peonies.
She started making crafts in her early teens, giving them as gifts.
If that brew pub dream is to become reality, brewing good beer is an essential step, and she’s off to a good start.
Last spring she and Vollmer picked up a first-place award in a contest sponsored by the Nebraska Brewing Co. in Papillion. Their winning pale ale carried hints of Chardonnay wine and oak.
In the meantime, she’ll bide her time, brewing more beer and waiting to see the results. How will the whiskey-barrel beer turn out, for instance?
“It’s a mystery until you actually try it,’’ she said. “That’s fun.”
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