Exploding Bottles

When John Peed, director of the Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing, began making his own beer in the 1970s, he was clueless. He went to a local home-brew shop and bought a cellophane pouch off the shelf containing papery brown hop leaves, not realizing hops are supposed to be green, and made some bad beer out of them. "That was just what was available back then," says Peed. "Home-brewing was not a viable hobby."

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