This story is from 2001.
The American homebrewing community rallied with its usual passion last year (2000) when a devastating fire that leveled 400 homes in Los Alamos, N.M., forced all 18,000 residents to be evacuated and closed the Los Alamos National Laboratory for two weeks. As news spread that three members of the local homebrew club, the Atom Mashers, lost their homes and another a storage shed, donations poured in.
Manufacturers and suppliers shipped equipment and ingredients, while members of other homebrew clubs sent cash.
“Some people who hear about the contributions think that it is silly to give homebrewing equipment to people that have just lost everything,” Atom Mashers president Mike Hall wrote in thank-you letter. “We can assure you that it is not — after the immediate short-term needs have been satisfied, the reality of the situation sinks in. Homebrewing is not one of the essentials in life, but sometimes it is the small pleasures that restore our sanity.”
American homebrewers are just plain different. Different from homebrewers in other countries. Different from amateur winemakers. Different, in fact, from other hobbyists. For instance, the most enthusiastic band of model railroaders could never change the U.S. railway system like homebrewers changed the face of beer in the United States.
“They are still the ones setting the damn pace,” said Fred Eckhardt, who was there to put it down on paper when modern homebrewing was born.
It began before California Sen. Alan Cranston introduced the legislation to legalize homebrewing and President Jimmy Carter signed it into law in 1978. “It was more a matter of decriminalizing it,” said Charlie Papazian, who became the evangelist for the movement. “It added a comfort level for the shops selling ingredients. People were more willing to stock good ingredients, to advertise they had them.”
Papazian had been teaching homebrewing classes in the Boulder area for five years when he and friend Charlie Matzen published the first issue of Zymurgy — a nationally distributed newsletter about homebrewing — and filed the papers to form the American Homebrewers Association. That was also in 1978, and the first issue of Zymurgy carried the news about Carter signing the Cranston bill.
“From the beginning, we never were brewing just to save money,” Papazian said. “In Canada and England that was a reason to brew, because of the taxes. American homebrewers want to make beer like they can buy somewhere in the world.”
If it hadn’t been Carter and Cranston in 1978 it surely would have been another legislator and another president before long. Americans have been homebrewing since English settlers reached the New World. They didn’t stop for Prohibition and weren’t deterred by a typographical error when Prohibition was repealed (when the law legalizing home winemaking was printed in the Federal Register, the words “and/or beer” were left out although Congress intended for them to be included).
By the early ’70s they had a new focus. “Homebrewers brew home beer because domestic beer lacks the rich malty taste they like,” Cranston said when the measure passed Congress. “Homebrewers share a creative desire to concoct beer to their own personal taste.”
The ‘shock troops’
In the 20-plus years since, homebrewers have been what author Michael Jackson calls the “the shock troops of the beer revolution.” They provided both a customer base for fledging breweries and brewpubs, and a training ground for most of the brewers who manned the kettles. It hardly seems like coincidence that there are about 1,500 more breweries now than there were when homebrewing was legalized.
“The current (post-Jimmy Carter) generation originally brewed to make styles of beer they could not find in the U.S.,” said Jackson, who like Eckhardt has been around to chronicle much of the change. “The brewing of classic styles, and the adventurous approaches that have developed since, were almost unknown in other countries. To a great extent, they still are.”
Homebrewers can be pedantic when defining styles, precise when focusing on the engineering of beer equipment, anal when following process and as demanding as any piano teacher — yet in the end there is always beer. “You know in your heart, beer is not serious,” Eckhardt said. “It is what you drink when you want to be sociable.”
Many hobbyists brew alone, but the best stories about homebrewing revolve around those sociable moments. For instance:
- Eight members of the Tribe, a Longmont, Colo., homebrew club, set what they are certain is some kind of record in August 1997 when they brewed a batch of beer at 14,433 feet. The six-man, two-woman, two-dog team carried all brewing equipment, beer ingredients and water up to the summit of Mount Elbert (the highest peak in Colorado), brewed a batch of barley wine and carried everything back down. For this they get credit for brewing beer at the highest recorded elevation ever in the Western Hemisphere.
- When Katherine Glazen and Andy Cutko were married in Glastonbury, Conn., all the brewers in attendance brought homebrew for the reception. The offerings included “Union Ale,” “Paramour Alt,” “Love Potions Number One and Two,” and “Kiss Me Kate.” There were more than a dozen cases of homebrewed beer. The bride returned the favor by giving all the brewers bags of hops grown on her Connecticut farm.
- When astronaut-homebrewer Bill Readdy blasted into space in 1992 for mission STS-42 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery he carried an unofficial package, a bag with nine ounces of Cascades hops. Another passenger on that flight, Dr. John Boyce of the University of British Columbia, was a regular at Spinnakers Brewpub in Victoria, B.C., and was able to make arrangement to have a beer brewed with the hops that circled the earth 128 times. All the members of the STS-42 were on hand for a special tapping.
Join the club
The Maltose Falcons, based in Woodland Hills, Calif., was the first club anybody knows about and certainly is the oldest active club. When Eckhardt began publishing the Amateur Brewer in 1976 he sought out club news. He heard only from the Falcons, who were established in 1974, and a club in Saudi Arabia. The Falcons first worked to get homebrewing legalized in California then with Cranston on the national legislation. They organized events, hosted demonstrations, won awards and sent several members into the professional brewing community. Ken Grossman, co-founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., John Maier, brewmaster at Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore., and Alex Puchner, director of brewing for the BJ’s chain, are just three of many.
Not only did the Falcons set a standard for excellence, but they chose their name well, mixing brewing nomenclature and their location near Hollywood. Thus inspired, hundreds of wonderful club names followed. It would be hard enough to pick a favorite 100, and impossible to pick a top 10, so here are just a few:
- Suds of the Pioneers, Bisbee, Ariz.
- Yeast of Eden in Costa Mesa, Calif., and The Barley Literates Homebrew Club of Escondido, Calif.
- Iowa Brewers Union (IBU’s) in the Des Moines area.
- Boneyard Union of Zymurgical Zealots (BUZZ) in Champaign, Ill., where the Boneyard is a creek that runs through part of the University of Illinois campus.
- Mystic Krewe of Brew in Mandeville, La.
- Chesapeake Real Ale Brewers Society (CRABS) in Columbia, Md.
- In Michigan, Keweenaw Real Ale Enthusiasts United for Serious Experimentation in Naturally Effervescent Refreshment Science (KRAEUSENERS) in Calumet, and Brewers Union of Zealous Zymurgists Homebrewing Over Pints Supreme (BUZZHOPS) of Battle Creek.
- Brew Free or Die in Merrimack, N.H.
- In Buffalo, N.Y., there are clubs called Brewbonic Plague, Libatious Anarchistic Mashers of Buffalo’s Inner City (LAMBIC) and Sultans of Swig.
- In Corinth, N.Y., the Last of the Brewhicans.
- In North Carolina, the Outer Banks Grain and Yeast Necromancers (OBGYN) in Corolla had to go some to match two Research Triangle clubs: Cary-Apex-Raleigh Brewers of Yore (CARBOY) and Triangle’s Unabashed Homebrewers (TRUB).
- High Plains Draughters in Oklahoma City.
- Green Bay Rackers in Green Bay, Wis.
- Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP) in Washington, D.C.
Instruments of change
BURP was founded in 1981 and grew into one of the largest clubs in the country, with about 300 members. Twice it has hosted conferences focusing on Belgian-style beers — most recently Spirit of Belgium 2001 earlier this year — designed in part to demonstrate to local distributors and retailers that they should stock more Belgian beers.
Will the result be felt in Durango, Colo., just as much as in Alexandria, Va.? Perhaps, and maybe in more ways that we might realize. The first BURP Belgian conference helped inspire Chicago’s Real Ale Festival, which in turn heightened interest in (British-style) cask-conditioned beer across the United States.
In 1998, St. Patrick’s of Texas, an Austin homebrew supply store, began importing undermodified Czech malt from Moravia. It is the same malt used to produce Budweiser Budvar, and while it requires a multiple temperature mash there are those who think that is the only way to brew a true-to-style Czech pils.
“We had heard so much about it and it seemed like a great opportunity,” said St. Patrick’s owner Lynne O’Connor, whose grandparents came from Prague. She sells the malt to homebrewers and microbreweries — including several Texas brewpubs, Austin microbrewery Live Oak for its excellent Pilz, and Greg Noonan (homebrewer turned author and microbrewer) for his two brewpubs in the Northeast.
She recently shipped undermodified malt to the Miller Brewing Co. pilot brewery in Milwaukee, where Miller used it to recreate a 19th century beer that Frederick Miller would have made. “That’s one I’d like to drink,” Eckhardt said when he was told about the project. If the beer, which won’t remind you at all of Miller Lite, reaches Eckhardt and a wider audience it will have traveled through the homebrew connection.
“We are the ones who break the rules, who do the wild things,” said O’Connor, a homebrewer herself. “But here I am bringing in this traditional malt, going the other way.”
Homebrewers have managed to be innovative both by embracing tradition and by breaking away from it. As a result, they can claim partial credit for some the adventurous beers small brewers produce. In some cases, the professional brewers making those beers started as homebrewers and brought the recipes with them. In others, the inspiration came straight from homebrewers — consider the number of beers now aged in bourbon casks, which was most unusual before homebrewers began experimenting with the barrels in the 1990s.
“It seems a lot of time like the micros and brewpubs are following the homebrewers,” O’Connor said. Of course, homebrewers have the advantage of brewing in smaller batches, such as five, 10 or 15 gallons at a time.
“You have the potential to make better beer than most commercial beer because you are not tied down to profitability concerns. You can use more expensive ingredients, or be wasteful in certain processes if you believe it makes a better product,” said BURP’s Andy Anderson, the Washington, D.C. Brewer of the Year the last two years. “I make a pale ale with all English Maris Otter in a no-sparge process. The malt costs more and my grain bill is higher, but I think it makes a better product. However, my local microbrewery could not do this, as their profit margin would disappear.
“But before anyone runs off thinking that I believe homebrew is always better quality than commercial beer, please keep in mind one caveat: the homebrewer has to fully understand basic concepts such as sanitation and yeast viability if he is to fully realize his potential. Better ingredients alone do not make better beer; understanding the brewing process is the key to success.”
Still having fun
Homebrewing had little to do with understanding the brewing process before the 1970s. Eckhardt’s experience with his stepfather’s homebrew in the 1940s was pretty common. The recipe for 10 gallons included a 3-pound can of Blue Ribbon Hop Flavored Malt Extract, 10 pounds of sugar, water and a cube of Fleischmann’s Yeast. “It was hideous beer, but it had alcohol and it did sustain me and my friends in college,” he said.
He began learning about winemaking in the 1960s, but had no interest in recreating his stepfather’s homebrew. During a trip to San Francisco in 1968, just a few years after Fritz Maytag had rescued Anchor Brewing Co. and its unique steam beer from extinction, Eckhardt enjoyed an Anchor Steam with a friend.
“He said, ‘This tastes just like homebrew’ and I thought, ‘You don’t know what homebrew tastes like,’ ” Eckhardt said. “Then I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make beer like this?”
Given the amount of information available to homebrewers today — in print, on the Internet, from other brewers — it’s hard to imagine now what a formidable task that seemed to be 30 years ago.
Eckhardt ended up writing a booklet called “A Treatise on Lager Beer” because there was nothing like it, and various editions sold 120,000 copies in the next 11 years. Like Papazian in the Rockies, Pat Baker on the East Coast and hobbyists from Florida to Canada, Eckhardt discovered he wasn’t alone in his interest in making what he chose to call amateur beer rather than homebrew.
Papazian has been the most visible proponent of homebrewing, but Eckhardt enjoyed notoriety as well. “I was on national TV as the last person in the country to brew illegally,” he said. NBC sent a cameraman to his house the night before homebrewing was legalized to shoot video of boiling wort through a window.
“I made the beer (a barley wine) and I never bottled it — I just forgot about it for years,” Eckhardt said. “That’s one of the reasons I quit homebrewing, the bottling. I used to bottle four or five bottles from a batch to get the information (for articles he was writing about brewing) and leave the rest.”
In the course of 25 years he has spoken to scores of homebrew clubs across the country. “The crazier the group, the more successful,” he said. The Foam Rangers in Houston have invited him back every year since 1989 to lead a beer tasting during the Dixie Cup, a homebrew competition and celebration unlike any other. It is the largest single-site competition in the country — there were 721 entries last year. Each year the judging includes one special beer category. Past styles have included Big and Stupid, Most Bitter Beer, Malt Liquor (in a large bottle and presented to the judges in a brown paper bag), and Breakfast Cereal Beer. They produce a new “Fred T-shirt” every year with Eckhardt’s likeness on it.
A ‘frivolous passion’
Winemakers do nothing comparable. “Winemakers are so serious. Beermakers are frivolous,” Eckhardt said. “You get together for a few beers, you don’t get together for a few wines,” Papazian noted.
Brad Ring, publisher of both Brew Your Own (beer) and WineMaker magazines, has noticed another difference since he and his wife, Kathleen, took them over 18 months ago. “In winemaking there tends to be more of a generational aspect,” he said. “They learned from their grandfather or their father.
“You don’t see that with homebrewers. So many homebrewers have become professionals that you see more interaction between professional brewers and homebrewers. There’s an affection there.”
The Rings both worked with other specialty publications before acquiring these two. Homebrewers themselves, they were still startled by the enthusiasm of their readers. “The amount of letters we get from homebrewers compared to the other magazines, there is no comparison,” he said. “People devour the information in a way I haven’t seen before. It’s great that people care that much about the hobby.”
The tagline for Homebrew Digest, an Internet-based mailing list, is “Beer is our obsession and we’re late for therapy!” To those outside the hobby that may sound a little un-hobbylike, but homebrewers are not without perspective. Ray Daniels went from hobbyist to full-time beer writer (he’s the current Zymurgy editor, founded the Real Ale Festival and has written four books about beer). He recently reflected on his experiences with the Chicago Beer Society, one of the nation’s largest (and occasionally craziest) homebrew clubs:
“It has introduced me to the friends that I value most — people with whom I connect on several levels and the first one just happens to be beer. Finally, the organization has been a vehicle for many activities and indeed accomplishments over the past ten years. Without the club I certainly wouldn’t be the brewer that I am; but more than that, I wouldn’t be the person that I am.”
There was no official club in Boulder in the early ’70s, but by 1974 Papazian had offered instruction to enough fledgling brewers that the loosely knit group decided to throw a party and call it Beer and Steer. Going on 300 homebrewers gathered in the mountains, camped if they wanted, built a stage and listened to live music, and drank a lot of beer. There was no place to keep kegs cold, so they piled snow into a truck and chilled thousands of bottles. It became an annual event for 10 years, and people still come up to Papazian and tell him they were at one of those parties.
To celebrate Beer and Steer in 1984, 55 homebrewers took 20 kegs of beer and mead as baggage for a trip to the Fiji Islands. Then for the 20th anniversary (“There weren’t that many between,” Papazian said) 55 people filled their kegs once again and headed for Grenada to spend six days partying on the beach.
Every weekend this summer there will be less extravagant gatherings on campgrounds somewhere in the United States. Homebrewers will fill coolers with bottles, or maybe look for a mountain steam in which to chill their kegs. They’ll play horseshoes, roast marshmallows with the kids and when everybody else is in bed they’ll sit around the fire and debate the merits of hop pellets versus whole hops.
They couldn’t do it in Germany. They couldn’t do it over wine. They wouldn’t do it if their passion was collecting coins.
“It’s not just beer,” Papazian said, talking specifically about Beer and Steer but generally about more. “It’s homebrew. You wouldn’t do the same thing for store-bought beer. It’s making the beer that inspires the party.”
This story first appeared in All About Beer magazine in 2001.