Brewed on the Desert: Homebrewing at Burning Man
Charlie Sweatt begins boiling the water to brew his second batch of beer when a procession of several hundred naked cyclists leisurely roll down the dusty road bordering his camp. The unique collection of bicycles are each paired with an equally eclectic nude operator. Sweatt, intently focused on his beer, barely acknowledges the spectacle parading endlessly behind him. “It doesn’t take the water long to get to temperature when you brew in a desert,” he says, unfazed.
Welcome to Black Rock City. A municipality that only exists for seven days a year and is populated by 67,000 people in the middle of the Nevada desert. It is the home of Burning Man and—believe it or not—homebrewers.
This annual art event is based on the principles of radical self expression and radical self reliance. It is no wonder in a community which encourages gifting and rejects commerce (the only things you can buy at Burning Man are ice and coffee) that homebrewers can be found scattered all throughout the 279,000 square-foot city handing out free pours of homemade beer to anyone over 21.
As one of the longest tenured homebrew camps, Home Brew 4A Home Brew’s famed tap room consists of two barracks-style shade structures, a rickety old pool table, and a mobile draft wall customized from a salvaged trailer. The mastermind behind the camp, Dan Bailey, goes by the name of gAWD and has been Burning since the early days of the event.
With a red and grey speckled beard that runs from cheeks to chest, gAWD explains how the camp started out with a handful of Reno homebrewers with the simple goal of “sharing their passion with others.” The camp isn’t limited to beer and serves homemade ciders and sodas to complement its diverse selection of homebrewed beers that range from a jalapeño pilsner to a lemon Berliner weisse.
The sense of community is undeniable as strangers wander into the bar looking for a reprieve from the heat and are welcomed like old friends. Hugs, not handshakes, are the common greeting and with a city this size a helping hand is always available when things don’t work out as planned.
“We have helped out other camps when their equipment isn’t working or didn’t show up,” says gAWD as he pours samples for a crowd decked out in tutus for Tu-Tu-Tuesday. It is not uncommon for the bartenders to offer cooler space to a camp that lost power or loan out taps and keg parts for those times when the elements get the better of equipment, and there are no shortage of dust and heat related mishaps.
There is a reason that this area is unoccupied for 358 days out of the year. Black Rock City is built entirely on an alkaline flat know simply as the playa (ply-uh), a very fine dust that dries the skin, corrodes metal, and manages to find a way into every nook and cranny of your camp. “White out” wind storms aren’t uncommon and can reduce visibility to just a couple feet. This is not the controlled environment that brewers crave, but good beer tends to find a home anywhere.
“‘Strange but tasty’ is the slogan for our bar,” states Anna Berken of camp Orhan Endorphin, a group that welcomes those who don’t belong to a camp. “We avoid serving boring beer and try to give people a taste of something different.” Most of their kegs are bought from breweries, but several are provided by the homebrewers in camp. “Homebrew is my version of a hand-crafted gift I can share with the community.”