Mar 02, 2024

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American Beer Month
American homebrewers: Setting the pace

by Stan Hieronymus

The American homebrewing community rallied with its usual passion last year 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.

Modern homebrewing

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.

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