Omar Al-Nidawi is the current Education Co-Chair for the DC Homebrewers Club. He has won over a dozen awards at various national and regional homebrew competitions and is best known for his lower-ABV malty and smoked beers, such as an English mild and a smoked Porter. Omar is also an all-around great dude, malt traditionalist, and beer educator. I had the pleasure of meeting with Al-Nidawi on Indigenous Peoples’ Day while he was brewing up a pale ale recipe. What follows is a transcript of our interview, lightly edited for clarity.
Was there a beer culture where you grew up in Iraq? When did you get into craft beer in general?
When I was in college in Baghdad, it was more of a hard liquor situation. People usually drank imported whiskey, or if they couldn’t afford that, arak or other traditional Middle Eastern liquors. Beer was more of a youth drink. There were about three or four legal breweries when I was in Iraq; they mostly made the standard international lager, although one of them made a more highly hopped Czech pilsner style. However, after the US invasion, most of those breweries closed due to foreign competition. You started getting Efes (Turkish Heineken) and other cheap brands coming in from Turkey. When I moved to New York City in 2007 for graduate school, I had Brooklyn Lager, Guinness, [and] IPA for the first time. It really opened my eyes to what beer could be.
What drew you to making beer? How and when did you begin home brewing?
Beer is a universal beverage. Starting in Sumeria and Mesopotamia, and every other ancient civilization, whether it was barley or rice or some other fermentable, people always made a form of beer. I started making beer in the spring of 2011. At that time, I had moved to a group house in DC with a larger kitchen, and a friend suggested that I buy a beer kit and try making something. Prior to that. I didn’t know beer was something that could be made at home, I always assumed it required a lot of industrial equipment.
Do you remember what the first beer was you made? What’s your current system? How did things evolve to where you became the DC Homebrewers education co-chair?
My first beer was a kit for an American wheat. It turned out fine, but I found that the learning curve for homebrewing was pretty step. At the time, I didn’t know about the DC Homebrewers Club, and the Internet wasn’t quite the source for quality information that it is now. There was a lot of confusing junk. Over time, I learned about things like hop varietals and schedules for pitching the hops, as opposed to using the pre-hopped liquid malt extract. Definitely messed up a few times by trying to stuff too many hops into those cheesecloth bags. I also began to improve on things like the proper temperature for pitching yeast, instead of just waiting until the wort felt “cool enough” to my hand. When you pitch yeast too hot, you can get a lot of unpleasant fusel alcohols, and I had some batches that just tasted like pure booze. Luckily, the first year of brewing I could make a lot of mistakes because I was brewing maybe three to four times a month. That provided an accelerated learning curve, and once I got over the rookie mistakes, I moved to an all-grain system in 2012-2013. Currently, I have a two vessel system, where I don’t sparge, mash at full volume, and then transfer to the boil kettle. It cuts down on efficiency, but I prefer the simplicity and ease of cleaning. I became the education co-chair in August 2017. I had told Sara Bondioli (the president of DCHB) that I wanted more involvement with the club, and that was the role she recommended for me.
How have you been enjoyed being the education co-chair? What are some activities you’ve put on that you’re especially proud of?
I’ve enjoyed it a lot. Mike Stein, the other co-chair [Ed. Note: And a long-time DCBeer contributor!], and I have provided a bit of education at every meeting, and Mike has been invaluable. My favorite thing we’ve done so far is the flaked adjunct experiment. We had a bunch of folks brew up the same exact beer recipe, except we added a different adjunct (buckwheat, flaked rice, etc.) in each beer. It was really fun and informative.
You have made a number of older and historic beer styles in the past couple of years. I was wondering if that was due to Mike’s influence or if you were previously interested in those styles?
Traditional styles and alt brews were part of my repertoire already, but working with Mike increased my interest further. About three years ago, I became interested in “forgotten” styles that I thought had a lot of value. They were approachable beers that still had a lot of flavor. Those styles are like deposits of tradition, when there is the new obsession that keeps changing year to year. Pushing boundaries is great, but [that] doesn’t mean you should forget history. That’s what drives me to highlight older styles like a classic Belgian blond. I discovered the English Mild style by accident actually. A couple of years back I was at a homebrew meeting with what I thought was a Southern English Brown Ale. Someone started exclaiming about what a great Mild the beer was and gesturing people over to try it. It was a pleasant surprise and kickstarted my focus on that particular style.
You’re someone who can be described as more of a beer traditionalist. You keep your focus on malt as the central ingredient of beer as opposed to playing with newer hop varietals or yeast strains or different adjuncts and additives. I appreciate that dedication, but I was wondering what led your preferences that way?
Some of that is a reaction to the prevailing wind. Right now, there is too much reliance on adjuncts, like in milkshake IPAs. I like malt. I identify with it as the heart of beer, and it’s the part of beer with the most significant connection to the earth. I enjoy all the different beautiful flavors that you can generate with just malt: smoke, chocolate, toast, caramel, toffee, spice, coffee. When you can get all those flavors [and more] with malt, why go elsewhere? I keep remembering the idea that “could doesn’t mean should.” You have to be deliberate when making a recipe and ask why you’re adding something. How will it make a more enjoyable, balanced beer?
Lastly, the homebrew community, and greater beer world, is still very much dominated by white guys with beards. Is that something that you notice? Do you think it’s important to have more diverse folks involved?
It’s not something I think about a lot. Being the Arab guy in the room is something that I tend to notice more, only when there are other people of color around. I look around, and if there are a few other diverse faces, [I] might consciously note how predominantly white the rest of the room is. However, at homebrew meetings no one has ever made me feel out of place. What matters is the hobby, and club meetings are the key to people improving their beers. As for whether diversity is important, sure. People from different backgrounds have knowledge of different ingredients, culinary traditions, climates, perspectives on taste. Someone from Brazil or South Africa or Japan can approach beer differently, and that’s a great thing.
DCBeer would like to thank Omar for taking the time to speak to us. If you’d like to pick his brain some more and get valuable brewing advice, he can be found working at the 3 Stars Home Brew Shop on Saturday afternoons and some Sundays.
Greg Parnas, is a contributing writer to DC Beer and local alcoholic beverage attorney. If you'd like to discuss more about this issue, or other concerns with beer and the law, please feel free to reach him at Greg@dcbeer.com.