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  • Leslie Sterling /

    Annie Johnson, reigning national home brewer of the year, brews beer at Brew Ferment Distill, a home brewer's supply store in Oak Park. Making an award-winning beer, Johnson says, starts with "picking a classic style and trying to make the beer taste just like it's supposed to taste."

  • Leslie Sterling /

    Annie Johnson, reigning national home brewer of the year, brews beer at Brew Ferment Distill, a home brewer's supply store in Oak Park. Making an award-winning beer, Johnson says, starts with "picking a classic style and trying to make the beer taste just like it's supposed to taste."

Sacramento woman home brews a national winner

Published: Monday, Sep. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8X

Annie Johnson is the kind of person you'd probably want to get to know over a couple of beers – especially if you're into craft beer.

For one thing, she has a refined palate and can dissect any beer in any style with the best of them. She's well traveled, has visited many of the world's best brewing regions and has been learning about great beer long before it was commonplace in the United States.

And since June, when her beer bested 3,400 other entries at the annual Homebrewers Conference in Philadelphia, she's the reigning "national home brewer of the year."

In other words, she knows her beer – and she's brewing some of the best beer out of her east Sacramento home.

Johnson, 48, already well respected in the Sacramento area's tight-knit home brewing community, has raised her profile significantly since winning the prestigious title.

What's more, the personable and self-effacing Johnson is bringing new attention to the burgeoning Sacramento beer scene.

Recently, Johnson talked about her brewing background, her enthusiasm for well-made beer and – while sipping a pint at Track 7 Brewing – her observations on the recent beer boom in Sacramento. This was Johnson's first visit to the bustling craft brewery and taproom in an industrial area on the edge of Hollywood Park and Curtis Park.

"I love it," she said, looking around at Track 7's crowd shortly after the 5 p.m. opening. "This is what they've been doing in Oregon and Washington, all these roll-up doors. It's nice to see it in Sacramento."

Johnson, who has a career as an IT specialist, got her start in home brewing in the late 1990s when she bought her best friend a home brewing kit. The friend moved away, and Johnson thought she would try brewing on her own. Before long, she had figured out how to produce quality beer.

Like most good brewers, Johnson possessed several traits that made her successful. She learned the craft systematically, paid attention to details, corrected her mistakes and, most importantly, had an educated palate that could identify good beer from bad.

That palate comes from her late mother, Arlys, an accomplished singer, musician and teacher, who as a young woman performed at U.S. Army bases throughout Germany.

While in Germany, Arlys and her husband, Bob, decided to adopt a baby, who turned out to be Annie.

When Johnson came of age, her mother taught her plenty about the finer points of high quality beer.

"She was a very big beer and wine lover," said Johnson, whose mother died in 2009. "I inherited my love of beer from her. She always had good beer in the house."

With that foundation guiding her, Johnson started home brewing.

"I was focused," she said, when asked to explain how she progressed from beginner to expert. "I brewed on my own for a while and I put a beer in a local competition in 2001 and I won. In 2002, I started entering competitions around the country and was placing."

Soon, people were recognizing her name. She says that as a woman in a largely male endeavor, she had to work that much harder to earn respect.

"Now it's different," she said with a shrug. "When I mention something, people listen."

Indeed, when Johnson showed up recently to brew a new batch of beer at the popular home brewer's supply store Brew Ferment Distill (BFD), other home brewers stopped by to say hello and watch her work.

In this instance, Johnson was brewing a style of beer called a Belgian saison.

"It's from the French-speaking region of Belgium," she explained. "We are going to be traditional and get all of our spice from the yeast and the hops. The yeast strain I'm using really gives a nice profile."

Looking on was Mike Brennan, a longtime home brewer and member of a local brewing club called Underground Brew Squad.

"She's extraordinarily meticulous," Brennan said.

That Johnson won her national title with a light lager – and bested beers from many bolder styles – "there is an elegance to that, absolutely," he added.

Tim Clark, owner of Brew Ferment Distill, said there are about a dozen brewing clubs in the area and the numbers are growing. Johnson's victory will add to that momentum, he said.

"It's fantastic for us," Clark said of Johnson's win. "Sacramento doesn't have a lot of festivals, but we're becoming a brewing hub."

After her early successes, Johnson occasionally became frustrated that her beers weren't getting noticed. "Some competitions I would enter, and nothing would happen. It really crushed me," she said. "But I kept on brewing. I knew my beer was good and the judging was subjective."

Johnson has become an expert on lagers, a clean, straightforward style of beer where even subtle flaws are readily detected.

"In the last six years, I've done nothing but lagers for competition. It takes so long to perfect them – picking a classic style and trying to make the beer taste just like it's supposed to taste."

When it comes to brewing, Johnson is a traditionalist. She'll take a style, learn its history, its flavor profiles and potential flaws, then proceed to brew and brew until she gets it right.

"I spent three years brewing nothing but Belgian beers. I was picking the ones that were the best and trying to make those. If I make a strong golden Belgian beer, I want it to have the meringue-like head and that sweet, candy-like sugar," she said. "I don't want to adulterate it. I want it to be traditional. I think that has helped me have a thorough understanding of a style. Then if I want to change it, I can do a hybrid."

Since winning the home brewing national title, Johnson said she has received an offer to open her own craft brewery, but, she said, "I don't think I have the stamina for that."

Instead, she wants to continue brewing at home, honing her recipes and sharing them with others.

She doesn't do it for the money. It's all about her love for good beer and her uncanny knack for brewing some of the best.

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.

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