The t-shirt showed my face on the King of Hops. You’ve never heard of the hop suit? This was a playing card, one of two such paraded on the front of these t-shirts. The other card? Ace of the Dixie Cup suit. King-ace: twenty-one. It was the Dixie Cup’s twenty-first birthday, another flagrant example of the T-shirtery nonsense these people have pursued every year now for nearly as long as I can remember.
O.K., I do have memory going back before 1989, but sometimes I think they have t-shirted me past the point of no return. Some of the high points (low points?) include my head floating, amongst those of several other Foam Ranger renegade homebrewers, with the legend: “They won’t stay sober—Night of the Living Fred.”
Another has a WWI German-helmeted me, accoutered in a disgustingly scant leather garment, encrusted with various rings, some of which are obviously not visible and inserted god only knows where, and making demands of the viewer: “You Will Submit.” That’s the back of the shirt. On the front is a slightly leather-clad young lady with really high heels, telling the world that she had submitted. It turns out she had submitted her homebrew, but that’s another story.
My favorite in this line of silliness is the seventeen-dollar bill with the legend “In Fred we trust, all others pay cash.” Or maybe it’s the one with me and Pancho Villa. I’m the good-looking guy with the hopped sombrero, the beer can bandoleer and the goofy smile. Did I mention the shirt where I wear an almost magnificent codpiece? Maybe we shouldn’t go there.
The culprits in this scenario? The mighty Foam Rangers, and their partners-in-crime, the KGB; both Houston homebrew clubs. They, like most homebrew clubs, are groups of really eccentric people. We’re talking serious crazy, here. If there’s an Eccentrics Anonymous Society, they, and homebrewers across the country, are definitely candidates for membership.
The reader might very well tell me, “If it’s such a problem, why do you keep going back down there?” The answer is that I’ve been doing it ever since I was 12-years old. I can’t help myself. Besides, someday they might very well make a t-shirt I can’t resist.
Oh, and every year they let me do a beer-and-who-knows-what tasting. I get to force some really insidious beer-food combinations down their throats. Combinations that make beer and ice cream seem totally logical and sane. Of course, anything seems sane at one a.m., especially if you’ve been drinking all day. This year it was beer and junk food snacks! Who would be crazy enough to drink their beer accompanied by junk food?
So, who are these crazy guys? Well, mostly they are folks like yourself. Homebrewing is a natural result of a) a shortage of commercial beer to imbibe; b) a lack of financial wherewithal with which to purchase one’s favorite libation; c) an innate desire to brew the world’s best beer, or d) living in an area where the only available commercial beers are pathetic and wimpy examples of industrial yellow pre-pollution libation.
Homebrewing as a national sport began with the passage of the Prohibition amendment to the Constitution in 1919. Ordinary citizens had no recourse but to brew their own alcohol beverages, or to buy them on the black market. Smuggling booze became a grand enterprise. As for brewing beer at home, it was at first impractical; but soon the brewers began to make concentrated hop-flavored malt syrup, ostensibly for “bread making.”
This turned out to be a great step forward for booze lovers, but a massive step backward for beer lovers. The hop-flavored malt extract could be augmented by three or four volumes of sugar and water to make a large amount of beer. The resulting beverage was rather pathetic, but it had enough alcohol, it was cheap, and was indeed “beer.”
My step-father was one such brewer and his recipe for 10 gallons called for a three-pound can of Blue Ribbon Hop Flavored Malt Extract, 10 pounds of sugar, water, and a cube of Fleishman’s Yeast. It was fermented in a beautiful old 12-gallon crock behind the stove in my mother’s kitchen. His stuff had a tart, not entirely unpleasant, flavor, with a good alcohol content. It was the very model of Prohibition Homebrew; and with sugar at five cents the pound, my step-father’s beer cost him less than a penny a quart during Prohibition, and only two cents a quart in the late forties when my friends and I consumed most of his production. None of it was of such quality that one would rush to imbibe, except under the most dire of circumstances (like being in college).
In 1969, homebrew was a fading art; most of the folks making beer at home were doing it for cheap booze. Quality homebrew was an unheard-of concept. The silver lining of this dark cloud was the Wine Art franchise chain based in Canada, whose founder, Stan Anderson of Vancouver, had formulated a recipe and a procedure based on several innovations in home brewing technology. These incorporated better ingredients, including superior malt extracts and yeast, superior equipment including a kettle in which to boil the wort, inexpensive open plastic containers for primary ferment (no more wrestling with heavy porcelain crockery), and sanitary closed glass secondary ferment.
Charlie Papazian in Boulder, CO, began brewing and teaching classes in homebrewing in the early seventies. In 1976, he produced his first book The Joy of Brewing, with the amazing recipe for “Goat Scrotum Ale;” but it wasn’t until 1984 that Avon Books published his seminal tome on the subject, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, and the sequel The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing (1991), still the definitive text for beginners and intermediates in that art. In 1978, he formed the American Homebrewer’s Association (AHA), and began publishing Zymurgy Magazine.
In 1978, Lee Coe, author of The Beginner’s Home Brew Book (1972), a small text on brewing Prohibition-style beer, went to Washington DC to lobby (at his own expense) for the legalization of brewing beer at home. In those days, the Feds were firmly convinced that we homebrewers only wanted to make moon shine out of our product. Fortunately, Congress saw it differently (thanks to California Democratic Senator Alan Cranston). The Republicans of that era had wanted to register homebrewers and severely restrict homebrewing to 30 gallons a year.
The new law, equalizing homebrewers with home winemakers, passed in 1978, signed into law by then President Carter on October 14th of that year. It went into effect in February, 1979.
The first homebrew club was the Maltose Falcons formed in Woodland Hills (at the edge of Los Angeles), CA. By 1980, some fifteen homebrew clubs were in operation around the country. Homebrew clubs have been instrumental in popularizing homebrewing across the land, and deserve credit for the amazing quality of homebrew that is so common these days.
Since 1985, homebrewers have been in the forefront of all brewing. They are a cultural asset to our society. There’s probably not a beer type on the planet that hasn’t been brewed in some American home. Prohibition would have been a failure from the start if homebrewers had been as well organized and educated as they are now.
Today, homebrew books are in abundance, new writers have delved into the most hidden corners of beer production and theory. Homebrewers have access to ingredients that are often better than those the large brewers use. I’ve been saying it for a long time, and it gets truer every day: Homebrewers are the cutting edge of the brewing industry. They are inventing the beers the big guys will brew for the masses of the 21st Century.
Fred Eckhardt lives, and brews (mostly sake) in Portland, OR. He is the author of the first American home-brew book (1969) A Treatise on Lager Beer, now thankfully out of print. He poses annually for t-shirts in the crazys movement of Texas.