Zymurgy: AHA at the beginning

(Note: I wrote this article in 2003 to appear for the 25th anniversary issue of Zymurgy, a magazine for members of the American Homebrewers Association.)

This story was typed on a computer keyboard in New Mexico and emailed to another computer in Chicago, then on to Boulder, Colo. After the story was proofed, on a computer screen of course, it was “poured” into a layout program, and later sent electronically to the company that prints Zymurgy magazine.

That’s not the way it was done back in 1978. “It was always an extra job, nights and weekends,” said Kathy McClurg, who served as an editor for nearly 20 years. “We used to use hot wax. Do you know what that is?” she asked in a way that indicated she has explained the concept of pasting up camera-ready pages to more than one college student raised on desktop publishing.

By the time hot wax was part of the process, Zymurgy was already in Phase 2. Founders Charlie Papazian and Charlie Matzen put the first issue together with rubber cement. Volunteers such as John and Lois Canady helped package the printed products, affixed mailing labels and sent the “magazine” on its way.

“I don’t think (Papazian) had a proofreader for that first issue,” said McClurg, whose day job was in public relations at the University of Colorado. “That’s when I told him he needed one.” She stopped to laugh. “He didn’t like that I edited out his hells and damns, but I didn’t want it to look like high school,” she said. “It still had his personality all over it.”

To this day, volunteers remain an essential part of the American Homebrewers Association operation, but, as John Canady is fond of saying, “before the beginning,” Papazian and his friends created a beer culture where events such as Beer & Steer showed how passionate people could be about homebrew.

“We pretty much started working on the next (Beer & Steer) right after our hangovers were finished from the current one,” said Grosvenor Merle-Smith, who was among the 55 homebrewers who took 20 kegs of beer and mead as baggage to the Fiji Islands for Beer & Steer X. He was also in Grenada for Beer & Steer XX and traveled to Thailand for another (1987) with his wife and daughter, who was just four months old.

Travels with Charlie

Matzen, now 53, met Papazian when he became one of hundreds of people who took homebrewing classes from him in the early 1970s. Both were schoolteachers, and they fell naturally into hanging out. “Charlie had done some homebrew parties, and I’d done some parties with large amounts of food,” Matzen said. Eventually that would lead to Beer & Steer.

They also traveled together. Papazian joined Matzen in Hawaii one summer after Matzen had been painting and doing other work on condominiums that his parents owned. “We went camping, and we talked about ways we could make (extra money). That’s when we came up with the idea of the homebrew newsletter,” Matzen said.

“We talked about what we’d write about, mainly anecdotal stories about people making homebrew and traveling with homebrew,” Matzen said. While he was still working on the condos, Matzen had made a batch of beer.

“One of the 5-gallon carboys exploded. There were large shards of glass in the walls, and beer ran through the floor into the closet of a woman’s condo below,” Matzen said. “That ended up being one of the early stories in the magazine.”

Those were the types of stories that Matzen liked to contribute. “I didn’t have the same passion about brewing and homebrewing that Charlie had,” Matzen said. “It was new and challenging, but I didn’t view it as a business.”

Papazian quit his teaching job in 1981, but Matzen continued to teach sixth grade in nearby Longmont, and later became a real estate agent. “There wasn’t enough money at the time to support both of us,” he said.

“I saw it as mostly a Boulder operation,” Matzen said. “Charlie saw a business. He had the vision of it becoming a national organization, a full-time job, a way of life.”

Matzen remained involved, judging at the first national AHA competition, helping with Beer & Steer, serving on the AHA board of directors until just a few years ago, and enjoying events more than when he was in charge.

“I mainly made mead. There was more room for error,” he said, frankly. “I found that the beer I was making was not as good as I could buy. I brewed beer more like I cook. It was not scientific.”

He oversaw preparation of food for 400 at Beer & Steer, which was held at the Heil Valley Ranch up the Left Hand Canyon northwest of Boulder. “We dug pits (to roast pigs), there was beef, tofu, vegetarian entrees even back then. Of the 400 people who attended, I’d say that at least 100 were directly involved in putting it on. The ticket price only covered the cost of ingredients for making beer, food and something for local bands. It wouldn’t have happened without volunteers. That was the beer culture we had going.”

“I’m sure it helped Charlie learn how to put on large-scale events,” Matzen said. “By the time we did the first (AHA) competition, we know we had the ability to put something on.”

Getting more technical

McClurg, now in her 70s, was one of the first in Boulder to meet Papazian. She talked about it while picking hops in her Boulder backyard. “Cascades. Charlie brought them back from Oregon in the 1970s,” she said. “If I had my say I’d say no more hops, but you don’t say that to a hops plant. So every spring I’m out there staking them up.”

She doesn’t homebrew any more, so she drops the hops by the AHA offices in Boulder.

She met Papazian “at dinner at my neighbor’s house, the Robertsons,” she said. “That’s when I first heard the dock story. Maybe it’s a myth but it’s a good story.”

Jan and Dave Robertson had driven to Maine to pick up their 12-year-old son, Ken, from summer camp, where Papazian was his counselor. “When we were standing on the dock saying goodbye, Ken said, ‘Drop in when you are in Boulder.’ Or it might have been me who said that,” Dave Robertson recalled. “In any event, not long after that Charlie was at our door.

“He got to know Boulder quickly by doing a lot of things. He ran a marbles tournament, he was creative, and there was the pie contest. He had all sorts of activities. He was, and has continued to be, a magnet.”

McClurg took Papazian’s homebrew class. “I used Blue Ribbon (liquid) extract from the can for my first batch,” she said. “I never went to all grain, but I always added other malts, hops, made it my own recipe. It wasn’t simple, dimple, easy as pie. I was happy to make some to drink and have some to give away.” She taught her three children to homebrew, though none do now. “I tell you what, their high school friends thought that was pretty cool,” she said.

She was more than a little surprised to pick up the first issue of Zymurgy and see that Papazian had reprinted an article that her father, a newspaper editor in Michigan, had written about homebrewing. “He found it (“The Lost Art of Homebrewing, Memories of Agonizing Experiments,” by Karl Zeisler) while looking around in the library,” McClurg said.

Like the stories that Matzen wrote, it was mostly a good yarn. McClurg saw the content begin to change in the next few years. “Basically, the writers were reflecting what was going on in homebrew,” she said. “There was a huge technical revolution, and the magazine went from anecdotal stuff to technical.”

The technical stories were not necessarily her favorites. “Some of those guys, it was a real slog to get through,” she said. She particularly enjoyed tales from Michael Jackson and Fred Eckhardt. “I tried not to take out the quirky things of anybody’s writing,” she said. “I think that was one of the strengths of the magazine.”

Although older than the twenty-somethings she worked with, McClurg was happy to consider herself a member of the group Jackson once described as “Boulder hippies.”

“I remember one time Charlie wandering through my backyard with David Bruce (founder of the British chain of Firkin pubs). He was pretty surprised to see five kegs just sitting on my back porch,” she said.

“It involved our way of dressing, our interest in what was going on around us, what we were eating, what was happening to the air,” said McClurg, who has been keeping an organic garden for 32 years. “That you could make your own beer and control what it was like was pretty cool.”

Aiming for bigger and better

Canady, 84 now, was twice retired – first from the military, then from the National Bureau of Standards – when he met Papazian. “A friend of mine was going to one of the homebrewing parties at Charlie’s and asked me along,” Canady said. “I had made a little bit of beer and wine and I was interested in learning more.”

He soon had a new career, running a homebrew supply store from his house and helping launch Zymurgy. Lois remembers spending many hours at the University of Colorado library, digging through city directories from across the country in search of potential stores to carry the magazine.

Canady wrote a column featuring recipes called “Col. John’s Country Wines.”

“The wine thing never did catch on,” Canady said. “Charlie was pressing the beer side real hard, and he wanted somebody to do the same with wine. I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t me.”

Because he had the store, Canady played an integral role in Beer & Steer. “I had the task of getting people to make the beer,” he said. In return for brewing 15 gallons, volunteers received a ticket to the event.

“It was really a deal,” Canady said. “Some of the kegs didn’t turn out so good, but some were real nice.”

Merle-Smith always tried to make something special for Beer & Steer, often a stout or a mead. Unlike Matzen, McClurg and Canady, he considered himself something of a beer expert, and that was reflected in the roles he took at the AHA. “We were all part of the family,” he said, “but maybe I was brewing more.”

He served as a liaison to the growing microbrewing industry in the early 1980s, and as vice president of the Association of Brewers between 1983 and 1988, when he returned to his native Virginia to hunt hounds professionally.

“Charlie needed somebody to carry the flag forward officially, and it was the natural progression for me,” said Merle-Smith, who is now 50. “Almost everybody involved in the brewing industry and homebrewing that I dealt with was totally immersed, so it seemed like a normal thing to me.”

On the homebrewing side, he directed the AHA National Homebrew Competition from 1984 and 1987 and helped create the AHA and Home Wine Beer Trade Association Beer Judge Certification Program.

“It’s not that we invented beer judging or anything, because professionals were already evaluating their beer,” he said. “But in order to have normal people judging beer in a professional way we had to develop a system to train judges, for judging criteria, of guidelines.

“That was a never ending development process.”

On the professional side he remembers when there were only a handful of small breweries. “We’d have seven, then eight, then seven again, then nine, and it was a big deal when we hit 10,” he said.

“We were building an organization,” he said. “Just look at the budget. First it was in the low thousands, then the high thousands. Then it was in the hundreds of thousands, and then more than a million. We had to build an organization before we could grow.”

Although Beer & Steer was “strictly R&R” and had nothing to do with the AOB, there was plenty of crossover when it came to organizational skills.

“Our goal was to make every year bigger and better than the year before, to have something new,” Merle-Smith said. “For Charlie, that certainly carried over to the AHA as well.”

Written in August of 2003.