It Was Only a Matter of Time: San Francisco’s First “Beer CSA”

Evidence that home-brewing has stepped out of the basement and into the mainstream is everywhere. Williams-Sonoma now carries one-gallon home-brew kits from Brooklyn Brew Shop. A recent New York Times article noted that membership in the American Homebrewers Association has doubled since 2006. And now, San Francisco is home to Brewlab, a unique collective that helps home-brewers distribute their beer to members through a CSA-like mystery grab bag of brews.

It works like this: The home-brewers mix up a batch of beer and then deliver about 40 bottles to Brewlab cofounders Emily Ford and Sam Gilbert, who put them together into assorted six- or twelve-packs. (Brewlab reimburses the home-brewers for their supplies, but no one is paid to brew.) Nonbrewing members make an optional donation to join (since no one is paid to produce beer, this keeps the project on the right side of the law). About every five weeks, new assortments either are delivered to members or are ready for pickup at a central site, CSA-style.

"Just as CSA members quizzically try to figure out what exactly a kohlrabi is and how one cooks it, I envision members discovering different beers and what to [serve] them with," says Ford.

And the results? The beers range from bourbon-oaked IPA to wheat Kölsch. A few were punishingly hop-loaded for my taste; several were well balanced; and at least one—a Belgian yeast pale ale—was so good I'd pay to drink it again. Creative names, like Randy Savage Lite, are a bonus.

"Brewlab is a labor of love," says Gilbert, who laughed at the idea that Brewlab was established with any sort of business model in mind. While Brewlab only delivers within the San Francisco city limits, it's only a matter of time before this idea is picked up by other home-brewers around the country.