St. Petersburg home brewer pushes the limits with wild bacteria beers

Five minutes talking to Dave Himmelfarb and the conversation has already turned to the enzymatic process of converting long-chain molecules.

We're not in one of the classes the adjunct professor teaches at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg or Eckerd College. We're in his home on a muggy summer day as he bottles his latest batch of beer, a dry-hop saison brewed right in his Kenwood kitchen.

At this point, most of the work is done. The beer just needs to go from a 5-gallon carboy where it fermented for months to a plastic bottling bucket from which it can be dispensed into bottles. Himmelfarb lets a carbon dioxide tank loose on the bucket. He lays a pink beach towel dotted with flamingoes on the kitchen floor, where he lines up empty bottles and begins to pour.

Himmelfarb, 33, has been brewing since college, long before Urban Outfitters sold beermaking kits and USF St. Petersburg offered a Brewing Arts Program. Himmelfarb is part of Tampa Bay's home brewing community, which is closely intertwined with our sprawling craft beer scene.

For Himmelfarb, it's a way to create flavors he likes to drink. Recent brews, all of which he creates distinct names for, have included Gose Orchid, a sour wheat ale made with sea salt and coriander and aged on local loquats; Ned Ludd's Hammer of Redress, a sour red ale; and Spaceship Earth, a rye saison aged on blueberries from a neighbor's farm.

"I love to cook as well," he says. "You eat something really good at a restaurant, and my inclination is 'Can I make that?' So I started doing that with beer, too.

"It's just like food. You can eat food and not think about why it tastes the way it does and enjoy yourself. Or you can go to a restaurant and taste it and wonder how they're making this thing, and you can do it yourself. And that's a really inspiring and empowering perspective."

The home brewing culture here is steadily growing. Aside from the USF program, offered for the first time this year, Southern Brewing & Winemaking in Seminole Heights is now one of a handful of beer supply shops in the area that sell hops, yeast, grains and brewing equipment; Booth's Brewing & Bar Supply in Tampa offers 90-minute brewing classes; and on June 12, the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg hosts the second annual Beer Project, a two-day event that celebrates "the creativity and ingenuity of home brewing."

Even within this world, what Himmelfarb is doing is pretty niche. His specialty is sour and wild beers, which use wild yeast and bacteria to create flavors.

"I fell down a serious rabbit hole into the more unconventional areas of the brewing world, where brewers deliberately use microbes usually seen as spoilage agents, ferment batches for years instead of weeks, and do all kinds of other things you're not supposed to do," he says. "I was astounded by the possible range of flavors that you can get out of brettanomyces and bacteria."

That was a few years ago, after he brewed a handful of different beers for his own wedding. Back then, he was brewing every weekend, and learned how to make beer from scratch using the all-grain brewing method, instead of relying on malt extract to get the process started. Now, his process differs from other brewers in that he uses microbes like brettanomyces (a wild genus of yeast) and bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus that produce lactic acid in the beer.

"You can buy some of these alternative microbes from yeast labs, but I've had a lot of luck harvesting them from bottle dregs," he says. "Some people go so far as to harvest microbes from the ambient environment. It's tricky to do in Florida's heat -- I tried unsuccessfully once last year -- but it's doable."

These are referred to as "mixed fermentations," and they can take a lot longer (think six months and beyond) than standard beers, which can ferment in about two or three weeks. Himmelfarb's shortest brew took 1?1/2 months from grain to glass, and the longest, a sour red ale aged on fresh plums, dried cherries and figs, was brewed in January 2014 and will be ready to drink any day now. In one year, Himmelfarb says he has made 114 gallons of a combination of beer, cider and mead.

The first beer he ever brewed was with his dad, whom he also helped make wine in the family's basement when he was in high school. For his 21st birthday, he asked for basic brewing equipment, and started cooking up batches with his college roommates. By his own admission, those early brews weren't great, one of the imperial stouts laced with a "distinct soy sauce character." (He adds: "We made a lot of stir-fries in those days, so the pairing was palatable.")

Now, more than a decade later, he has a much better handle on the brewing process. But Himmelfarb is still humbled by how complex it can be, especially when you're working with wild bacteria.

"People are really starting to use these organisms in ways that no one has used them to make beer. They're making beers that have flavors that really nobody has ever seen in beer before."

And here's another interesting thing about "wild" beers: They can literally foster a sense of place.

"Place is something that brewers try to capture in various ways," Himmelfarb says. "And 'What does it mean to be a local beer?' is an interesting question. You can't grow grain or hops really in Florida, so all the raw materials are being imported from (elsewhere). So what's super interesting to me is you can actually get the flavor of the place by capturing wild microbes in the air."

He also works local produce like strawberries and blueberries from friends' gardens into his brews.

Recently, he made seven batches for the new Tangent Brewing. He does dream of opening his own place someday, a brewery that focuses on the kind of sour and wild fermentations he keeps in a cooler in a spare room year-round.

Himmelfarb can talk at length about microbes and hop strains, but says that robust knowledge of how the brewing process works isn't necessary to produce a drinkable, or even a decent, beer. The hobby is a fractal, something you can look at simply with satisfying results or spend inordinate amounts of time studying to reveal new layers.

"You don't need to have a grasp of the biochemical machinations that go into the malting process to make good beer, but if you're curious, you can totally get in there," he says. "And you realize it's more complex than you thought, and then you find yourself reading articles on the metabolic pathways of yeast. I didn't go into it thinking I'd get this interested, but the more you look at something the more you realize how complex it is."

It's this potential level of depth that has kept him interested for so long.

"It's really like cooking. Brewing is cooking. It's just a time scale issue," Himmelfarb says. "You have to wait a few weeks to a year-plus to see what it tastes like. Rather than if you add garlic to a pan, you know exactly what's going to happen if you saute it for a minute."