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American Beer Month
American homebrewers: Setting the pace

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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 one of the largest single-site competitions 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, 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."

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This story was written in the spring of 2001.