In 1980, a homebrew shop, if you could find one, was an unkempt corner of a wine-making shop or Italian hardware store, a few dusty cans of English malt extract crowned by wrinkly packets of dying yeast. On the shelf were boxes or bags optimistically marked “fresh hops,” displaying an autumnal brown glow. Bags of corn sugar, bottle caps, and perhaps a bit of crystal and black malt completed the smorgasbord. Altogether, perhaps 4 feet of shelf space, not counting the plastic buckets on the floor.
Despite our achievements, there remains plenty of opportunities to strengthen and refine our institutions and individual skills.
Only a few of these early brew shop proprietors were properly tuned into the potential of the hobby. The chain-smoking denizen of a particularly notorious Chicago brew shop denied the existence of the local brew club and remained hell bent on selling every customer his sure-fire combination of a can of extract and a 3-pound bag of dextrose until the very day his shop shut its doors forever.
How Far the Art Has Come
But from these impoverished beginnings, a passionate and sophisticated movement developed. Hops, malt and, most of all, information started to become available, and many of us tore Fred Eckhardt’s imperfect little books to shreds as we fed on his brewing revelations and uniquely cantankerous charm. About this time appeared a new kind of shop owner who saw the value in clubs, typified by John Daumé in Woodland Hills, CA. Daumé generously nurtured the Maltose Falcons, giving them the opportunity to build themselves into one of the great homebrew clubs on the planet.
Charlie Papazian recognized the value of community early on by, as he taught homebrewing classes in Boulder. Lucky for all of us, he had the nerve to think big, and he gave homebrewers—and later craft brewers—their own national organization.
And we continued to brew. Along the way we revived the venerable porter and India pale ale styles, which had pretty much vanished in their British homeland. We revived once-popular American beers like pre-Prohibition pilsners and stock ales, and sought out obscurities like Kentucky common beer and Pennsylvania swankey.
As we have marched along, our little band of brewers has gathered up a fascinating cast of characters: geeks and goddesses, artists and engineers, judges and poets. Yeast hunters, hop growers, party throwers and malt monks. We revived the dead, rescued the past, and charted a course for the future. We have built a culture of borderless collegiality, a welcoming community that may be our greatest achievement.
The Good-beer Revolution
Our influence has extended far beyond our sphere. Craft brewing, now a $3.5 billion business, was largely built by entrepreneurial homebrewers. Today, you would be hard pressed to name a small brewery not staffed largely by former, sometimes even current, homebrewers. The basics of beer judging were devised first to evaluate homebrewed beer. Without the behind-the-scenes effort of a horde of homebrewers, commercial beer competitions and beer festivals would be nigh impossible.
And we do love beer. Our thirst for hops appears insatiable. A dribble at first, in beers like amber and red ales, then a rush into pale ale, dripping with the uniquely American Cascade hop. We pressed on to India pale ales, rich and resiny, topped with the grapefruity tang of high-alpha hops whose vivid personalities command fierce loyalty from their fans. And today, a torrent–hops gushing out of our half-drained glasses of double IPAs, an arms race that rages on to who knows where.
Where indeed? Despite our achievements, there remain plenty of opportunities to strengthen and refine our institutions and individual skills. The camaraderie that is so strong within local clubs should be equally strong between clubs, as it is starting to become in certain regions. The pool of judging expertise continues to expand and should grow even more sophisticated in the future.
The American Homebrewers Association continues to thrive and has been given even greater autonomy by its newly reborn parent group, the Brewers Association.* Consequently, the framework for a national organization has never been stronger. Increased involvement will lead to expanded influence and opportunities, and I personally encourage you to join forces with us. The role of homebrewers as ambassadors of great beer will likely expand and come into sharper focus. We will be the ones who fill the void that exists in the area of organized beer appreciation.
Above all, we will continue to think big. In the Chicago Beer Society, we fantasize about a bricks and mortar clubhouse, a sumptuous temple of Gambrinus serving our every beer whim. Is this as ridiculous a dream as it sounds, or something to really work toward? Would today’s reality have seemed just as unreachable back in the dark days of 1980?
No dreams, no destination. So let’s keep going.
American Pale Ale
As it would hardly be a homebrewing column without a recipe, I leave you with the following recipe for American pale ale. It seems a bit quaint now, but it was a powerhouse in its day and is still quite delicious. Surely a classic!
*By January, 2005 the Association of Brewers will join forces with the Brewers’ Association of America to form a single, stronger organization called the Brewers’ Association, to represent the interests of small brewers. Homebrewers retain their seat at the table in the new organization, and our member-elected governing committee has been charged with charting the future for the AHA.