The Rise of the Homebrewer
Water, malt, yeast and hops. Four basic ingredients, but when put together you get one of the world’s most time honored drinks, beer.
We blame beer for how relationships end and sometimes start. You might even blame this delightful amber liquid for the forming of our nation. The Free-Masons who met in small brewpubs or home breweries talked revolution over a tall frosty glass. Yet until recently, Americans did not know what it was like to brew beer. Brewing your own beer in the last ten years became a hip and fun hobby across almost all demographics. Interestingly enough, brewing your own beer has been legal for quite some time. So why is it only catching on now?
Accessibility, community and technology are three of the leading reasons making home brewing the hobby to get into. Just like a rich, flavorful and (most importantly) high alcohol content beer the fermentation period can be a while; this revival of the homebrewer was no different.
Now a quick history lesson, saddle up and grab a brew (that always got me through history). People came to their senses and ended prohibition with the 21st amendment. They decided they couldn’t do without their alcohol, and large companies took up the brewing process. The home brewer became almost nonexistent. Wild, a nation practically founded by this brew almost forgot how to make it.
The American Homebrewers Association traces a lack of home brewers back to “a clerical error in the passage of the 21st Amendment.” Accidentally homebrewers were not excluded from an excise tax. This meant for every batch of beer brewed a large tax was paid. Then, in 1978 Jimmy Carter added an amendment allowing an exemption from this tax for beer brewed for personal use and not for resale. You would think once the ban was lifted different kinds of brews and new brewers would pop up. However, it wasn’t until around the mid-nineties that home brewing took off.
Nancy Rigberg and George Hummel, proprietors of Home Sweet Homebrew in Philadelphia and gurus of home brewing have a pretty logical take for the disparity in time. While home brewers were around in the seventies and eighties, the interest grew in the nineties.
“Many American [soldiers] stationed in Europe in the 1970’s came home with a taste for bold European beers. When these individuals could not get the beer desired, they attempted to duplicate the beer they had overseas,” Said George. If you can’t buy what you desire then you have to make it. This desire for foreign beer is what sparked the homebrew movement.
In turn, these people would be the ones to educate those around them about brewing a bolder more flavorful beer than what was commercially available. Nancy also said, “Many of the founders of the early craft breweries began as homebrewers, so there’s always been that symbiotic relationship. Those individuals were the ones to lay the ground work for future homebrewers.
William Pozniak, a resident of Cinnaminson New Jersey and winner of the 2012 Master Homebrewer Competition in New York, is one of those individuals to get into homebrewing just before it got popular. “Little by little [brewing] grows on you, you get into it and start reading about it,” said Pozniak. Pozniak’s reasons for getting started with home brewing were similar to others. His Ex had gotten him a beginner’s brewing kit as a gift. “Well I couldn’t just throw it away, I had to put it to use,” Pozniak said with a slight grin recalling his early attempts at brewing. “The kit sat around for years, I had to take a hammer to separate the ingredients,” Pozniak couldn’t help but laugh a bit thinking how hammering something was at one point involved in his brewing process. “It excited me [his first home brew], I had made something I could buy in the store.” This is a reaction most brewers have after they taste their first batch of home brewed beer.
Though until the mid 2000’s these revelations were experienced mostly on a separate basis. The owner of Barry’s Homebrew Brew Outlet, Nick Less, thinks community is what drove the explosion of home brewing around 2004. That seems too obvious to be true, but would you doubt someone whose store front door is impassable due to his current IPA being brewed? His customers sure don’t. Especially Jennifer Leddy who believes the community helped to turn her passing interest into a full blown hobby. “The [homebrewer] community is awesome, you can learn so much through them. Every time I come here [Barry’s Homebrew] and may only need a few ingredients I end up sticking around for an hour or more. I [can] learn so much from the owners, and other [brewers] from the community,” said Leddy.
Leddy isn’t alone in enjoying her community of fellow brewers, Pozniak believes the small group of people he met in ‘Barley Legal Homebrewers’ (a South Jersey homebrew club) made him the homebrewer he is today. The club originally had a core of 10 members but has grown to just over 100 in the last five years. “[The club] has been the best thing for my home brewing. The feed back made my home brewing take off,” said Pozniak. Just like how the fermentation process creates an environment for yeast to thrive, the homebrew community provided an environment through which these individuals can flourish.
These local communities help to drive up new brewers and pass along how much fun home brewing beer can be. Nick Less, lately, is averaging 6 or 7 beginner kits a week. Not just the amount of new people brewing that is astounding, but the fact you can buy a beginner’s brew kit. Less has managed to piece together what he believes to be varying levels of equipment. There is intermediate kits and equipment made for the refined brewer. A growing community for any activity thrives on making it accessible for those new to it. In the case of the homebrewer, community and accessibility seem to go hand in hand. With more people interested in the craft beer and home brewing scene, the outlets for the hobby have risen exponentially. There are countless online forums, magazines dedicated solely to the homebrewer, you can even buy a brew your own beer kit in CVS for around sixty bucks. You can get your prescriptions, milk and a new hobby, now that’s convenience.
Accessibility in the brewing community has also led to innovations in technology and proliferation of ingredients. Less believes a higher quality of beer able to be brewed from home has helped in turning people onto it. “Techniques have been refined, and processes such as extracts have been made available to beginners, it changed so much over the past 10 years. Its become easy for people to get involved,” said Less. There are even ‘Brew in a bag’ beer kits. These kits are fairly simplistic and perfect for the beginner. These advancements are clear to see with just one step into Home Sweet Home Brew. The boxes of equipment stack to the ceiling and brewing relics of days gone by sprinkle the shop’s interior.
George Hummel recalls 20 years ago there was around 10 different hops available to brewers. Now brewers have more than 50 choices when it comes to hops. “Before there was only a single kind of crystal malt (brewing seasoning), now there’s a full range of crystal malts foreign and domestic,” said Hummel. With a growing community the demand for ways to brew in the comfort of your home helped to innovate home brewing.
The home brew community, its leaders and all of its innovators will continue to work towards turning this hobby into a culture of its own. Homebrewers will keep pushing the envelope making newer, better and more exciting tastes and types of beer. The saga of the brewer is age old and will continue on for centuries. To that we can all say, cheers.