How to Change the Beer World and Have a Whole Lot of Fun
Inevitably, it seems, what is good and what is fun can be most accurately represented by those little cartoon angels and devils that perch on our shoulders and whisper conflicting suggestions into our befuddled ears. Who would have guessed that the simple—or complicated, as deep-enders like myself practice it—act of homebrewing could join together good and fun in one sparkling amber liquid.
Okay, it isn’t saving-babies-in-Africa good, but American homebrewers have profoundly changed the beer scene for the better. We’ve made it pretty easy to get a palatable beer just about anywhere, and we’ve resuscitated a number of dead or dying beer styles. What we’ve accomplished in addition to that, is nothing less than preventing beer, a 10,000-year cultural treasure of humanity, from slipping into a coma of faceless industrial anonymity.
If you are a homebrewer, stick your arm up in the air, bend your elbow, turn your hand around and give yourself a few hearty whacks on the back. You’ve earned it. Through a passion and dedication driven by a sheer love of the beverage and its lore, homebrewers have experimented, evangelized, prophesied, and given up jobs their moms were perfectly proud of to put on rubber boots and brew beer in brewpubs and micros, bringing all their happy baggage with them.
It is a supreme accomplishment to have made some of the largest and most powerful corporations that are the industrial brewers do a bunch of things they’d really rather not have done. Remember, at the first frenzied peak of craft brew activity, that all the big fish started thrashing around, making stouts, buying micros, and generally acting as if their world just might be coming to an end. For a hundred years, Big Beer set the direction—paler, lighter, weaker and less bitter—with a profound sense of inevitability. And then, horrors! Geeks in their basements had taken the helm.
It is probably for the best that the 45 percent annual growth of craft brewing didn’t continue, as it might have gotten large enough for the product to be worthwhile for industrial brewers. But (whew!) the pressure’s off, and they can get back to cannibalizing their core brands with the latest licensed alcopop fad of the day and doing whatever it is they do in those cubicles.
The changes we’ve wrought on the industry remain. Craft beer has solidly established itself and isn’t going to fade away. Even in Europe, American-style craft brewing is serving as a model for the future of specialty beer.
A Worty Woodstock
So that’s good. Really good. But does all this saintly do-gooding leave any time to kick back and enjoy the rewards? You better believe it.
Put two homebrewers and a few well-crafted beers together, and you’ve got a rocking party. Put 1,500 of them in a park in southern California for three days in May, doing what homebrewers do, and it’s a sublime state of bliss, a sort of worty Woodstock. The Southern California Homebrew Festival, with ever more elaborate serving displays, and ever more beer, topped off with lectures, barbecue, and even a homebrewed band, is the largest gathering of homebrewers on the planet.
The Gulf Coast Region seems to produce very competitive-minded clubs. A series of homebrew competitions that double as mini conferences in Dallas, Orlando and Houston occupy much of the year for brewers down South. These events are run with much passion and good humor. At Houston’s Dixie Cup, homebrew legend Fred Eckhardt has been cast as an alien, a bandito, a dominatrix, and this year, as a ghoul in the “Night of the Living Fred.” The boundaries get pushed with special competition categories like “The Beer That Burns Twice” (chili beers). This year, it’s “Monster Mash,” big beers made with the addition of your choice of Halloween candy to the brew.
Hundreds of homebrew competitions take place at the local, regional and national levels. The Beer Judge Certification Program qualifies and tracks judges as well as sanctions competitions. Many local competitions tie together to offer regional “best of” awards; the Gulf Coast is one such circuit. The MCAB (Master’s Championship of Amateur Brewing) awards points to individuals at sanctioned competitions, then brings the best of the best together for a final gun down. Beer and Sweat, the world’s largest keg-only homebrew competition, rocks Cincinnati in August with about 130 entries.
The American Homebrew Association National Competition is the biggest of all—3,000 beers, fed into a number of regional first-round sites, and culminating in June at the AHA National Conference where the finalists are chosen and crowned.
Competitions are the surest way to hone your brewing skills. The ruthless honesty of a blind judging gives you feedback that your pals never will. You improve or else.
Homebrewers do more than homebrew; they’re in the vanguard of promoting interest in quality commercial beer. The most active Washington, DC-area club, the Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP), hosts a specialized beer conference called “The Spirit of Belgium” on a roughly every other year basis. My own club, the Chicago Beer Society—a beer appreciation club run mostly by homebrewers—helps Ray Daniels put on Real Ale Fest, the largest gathering of real ales outside of Britain, and hosts five or six other commercial beer events a year. A favorite is the Brewpub Shootout, where local brewpubs compete fiercely for best beer, best food, and best pairing.
There are genuinely nationwide events as well. The American Homebrew Association coordinates a project called “Big Brew,” on National Homebrew Day (surprise!), the first Saturday in May. The idea is to get lots of people brewing at sites across the country at the same time. Sites are typically backyards, but Chuck Skypeck of Bosco’s brewpub in Memphis hosts the local club in his parking lot, and goes so far as to provide participants with brewery-fresh wort for their beers. This year, 196 registered sites across five continents brewed 5,235 gallons of homebrew.
Next June, Chicagoland brewers will proudly host the 25th annual National Homebrew Conference, sponsored by the American Homebrew Association, but for the last few years run mostly by local homebrew clubs. “Sweet HomeBrew Chicago” will feature a dazzling array of speakers, programs, and good, clean homebrew goofiness. Prizes will be awarded for the best booth at Club Night, and for the club that brings the most beer to the conference. The repertoire on Saturday will expand to include foods, especially those, like cheese, that have a traditional association with beer. Courses in appreciation as well as preparation will precede a lavish “Real Beer, Real Food” tasting event. Check the website, chibeer.org/aha03, to see how things are coming along, or better, to get involved.