D ried Woodruff. Heather Tips. Flaked Rye. Gypsum. Iris Moss. Amarillo.
These may sound like things you’d find bubbling in a witch’s cauldron. In fact, they’re just a few examples of the wide range of ingredients, amidst hydrometers and other gadgets, you’ll find sitting on the shelves at Luck & Levity Brewshop, the seven-month-old homebrew and fermentation supply store on Court Street run by 32-year-old Scott Vignola.
Though the vast display may seem daunting, don’t let the sight of Torrified Wheat terrify you. According to Vignola, basic homebrewing is quite simple. “It’s about as hard as making oatmeal,” he says. And although Vignola might eventually like to branch out into offering workshops and classes, he assures that you don’t need a class to get started. “It’s something that illiterate cavemen used to do. We can talk you through it. It’s going to be okay!”
Beer is divided into two main categories: ales and lagers. According to Vignola, most homebrewers make ales—the oldest type of beer—which includes stouts, porters and IPAs, among others. Ales are more readily made because they just need to sit a few weeks at room temperature or so (65-75 degrees) in order to ferment and be drinkable. Lagers, by contrast, generally need a cooler, temperature-controlled environment (requiring more free refrigerator space than most folks have) and a longer fermentation period, making the process more complicated.
“Beer takes an afternoon” of prep work, says Vignola. To get started, you’ll need a five gallon pot in which to boil the hops and a fermenter—a food-grade plastic bucket with a spigot or a glass carboy, with a seal that allows the air to release (else it will explode), does the trick. You’ll also need a few “odds and ends—things to transfer the liquid, sanitizer, thermometers…” adds Vignola.
Though recipes vary, beer is generally made of four things: Hops (which give beer its bitterness, flavors and aromas), yeast (which activates fermentation and converts sugars to alcohol), malted barley (which gives color and supplies sugars, a.k.a. food for the yeast) and water. You basically cook, boil, steep and bottle. “You can drink yummy, delicious beer in four weeks,” says Vignola. You can drink it in half the time if you plan to force-carbonate or keg it (or if you’re okay with imbibing it flat).
Surprisingly, Vignola had never before homebrewed at the time he decided to launch Luck & Levity. He made his first brew just one month before the shop opened. “I am by no means a professional brewer or beer expert,” says Vignola.
That doesn’t mean his store caters only to first-timers; most of his customers are experienced home-brewers, and his staff are quite knowledgeable. Working with Vignola are the suds-savvy Brewmaster Tom Reznick, who’s particularly passionate about porters, and Kristen Bayusik (creator of the blog Now Beer This!), who does marketing and promotion for the store. Of course, humility aside, Vignola himself has certainly picked up quite a bit of knowledge along the way.
Reznick, for his part, is more than happy to talk phenolic notes with fellow beer geeks who drop by (ask him about his slam-dunk batch of Dünkelweizen), to advise on the merits of tossing in smoked wheat or roasted malts to your mix (they add subtle coffee and chocolate flavors), and to share news of a batch of New Zealand hops—Pacific Jade, Zythos and Nelson Sauvin—that just arrived at the store, with bright, citrusy aromas and peppery flavors.
It was a desire to build a community that inspired Vignola to open Luck & Levity in the first place. While serving in the Peace Corps in Morocco, Vignola decided he wanted to “create something that would serve to bring people together” upon his return, he says. “Fermented beverages have done this throughout history.” After exploring the costs and challenges of opening a full-fledged brewery, he decided to open the retail store instead.
Luck & Levity is not only a place to find what you need to make beer (as well as cider, mead and other fermented foods), but it also serves as a gathering spot. On May 3, the eve of National Homebrew Day, the spacious shop will be sampling homebrews as a stop during BrewOn9, the Ninth Square beer crawl. Then, on May 21st from 6 to 8 p.m., L&L hosts its next “Brew Lounge,” where local homebrewers and others get together monthly to sample each other’s creations and swap recipes. (The rest of us are invited to the Lounge, too—just bring beer, even if store-bought.)
Vignola also offers his store as an event space to others, usually free of charge, to host nonprofit gatherings, fundraisers, book signings, art openings (a rotating display of artwork graces his walls) and more.
To support the community even further, Vignola and Reznick are working to start a “Kits-for-Cause” program, which pairs local beer-makers with local nonprofits. Recipes developed by area home-brewers (such as one based on the White House’s Honey Ale, made with dried honeysuckle) will be packaged in beer kits, with a portion of the sales donated to nonprofits like the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen and Urban Resources Initiative.
Luck & Levity’s commitment to New Haven can also be seen in the decor of the shop: a row of antique Hull’s Export bottles line the top of a shelf, for example. One thing you won’t find anywhere in the store, however, is attitude—“never pretentious or too serious,” is the motto.
“I’m not a snob at all,” says Vignola. “My customers like coming here because I don’t have an agenda. I want them to make something they like. Then they’ll brew again, have fun and share with friends—that’s the important thing.”
Luck & Levity Brewshop
118 Court St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Thurs 1-8pm, Fri-Sat 11am-6pm, Sun 12-6pm
(203) 785-0545 | email@example.com
Written and photographed by Kathleen Cei.