Today, in Peed's home state of Tennessee, there's a brewing supply store that carries 140 types of grain and over 50 varieties of carefully refrigerated hops. Between October 2009 and February 2010, 50 new home-brewing clubs registered for membership with the American Homebrewers Association, the national organization for hobbyist brewers, says Director Gary Glass. Brewing supply stores are opening at a rapid clip, and amateur brewing competitions, like the ones put on by the AHA, are getting an unprecedented number of entries. Home-brewing is exploding.
Glass credits the trend to the growing number of craft breweries, many of them started by former home-brewers, turning drinkers on to the taste of small-batch beer. For many drinkers, trying to make their own is a natural evolution.
"Some of the first beers I made were, literally, finding 'clones' [recipes] for expensive beers I liked, like Erdinger wheat and Mirror Pond Pale Ale," says Portland home-brewer Lucas Jones, who started brewing a few years ago after his friends got into it and now regularly produces 30-gallon batches of beer he dispenses from kegs in his garage.
Home-brewing is not difficult but does require attention to detail: chiefly, reaching and maintaining specific temperatures during the brewing process and keeping equipment sanitized (see our how-to here). The grain, hops, and yeast that go into it aren't terribly expensive, nor are the jugs, pots, and buckets for a basic set-up, especially considering that if you keep on brewing, you'll use them for years. However, it takes four to six hours to brew a batch, then another two weeks or more for it to finish fermenting—which makes buying a six-pack of your favorite beer easier.
But like quilting, making jam, or raising acorn-fed pigs, saving time or money is not the draw.
"It's the confluence of DIY meets locavore meets adventurist," says Rich Higgins, owner of the new Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco. Higgins, a former home-brewer, gives away free yeast from the brewery to hobbyists who bring in a sanitized container.
It's also social: Participants often belong to clubs and are generous about sharing information, recipes, and advice. Josh Bernstein, a New York–based writer, even gives tours of home-brewers' apartments in Brooklyn to other brewers and beer-lovers. Residents talk about their set-ups and processes, then let people sample their beer.
Raised on extreme, ultrahoppy beers, imperial barrel-aged stouts, and other experimental styles, the new breed of home-brewers is far more likely to play with nonstandard ingredients than hobbyists of past eras.
Patrick Horn, a home-brewer in San Francisco, says he spends more time at a pagan herb shop, looking for "unusual flavor combination ideas" amidst the crystals and dreamcatchers, than he does at the home-brew supply store. Other people are making spontaneously fermented beers in the style of Belgian lambics, using local fruits, honey, and sake yeast. John Peed saw a guy asking about a peanut butter beer in an online brewing forum.
In San Francisco, the appropriately named Richard Brewer-Hay by day works for eBay but by night runs a now well-known "secret" speakeasy, Elizabeth Street Brewery. Skirting the authorities by not charging anybody, he invites the public to drink his home-brewed beer in his tricked-out garage. Eventually, thanks to Twitter, his professional-looking website, word of mouth, and the tastiness of Brewer-Hay's mostly English-style bitters, ESB became the subject of several media stories.
Brewer-Hay says the pub is now "too popular" and is on hiatus until he can figure out how to institute a reservations system.
But he may not need to figure it out after all. Brewer-Hay recently went, as he put it, "pro-am" and brewed one of his beers on the shiny equipment of a local—licensed—brewery, San Francisco's 21st Amendment. The beer, Imperial Jack, was so good that 21st Amendment entered it in the annual World Cup of Beer, a pro brewing competition akin to the Olympics in prestige. It took home a gold medal.
Brewer-Hay is looking forward to getting even more into home-brewing.
"I refuse to let this award die on the vine," he says. "It has just created more fire in my belly to take this to the next level."
Image source: CHOW.com