Once the basic steps of homebrewing are understood and eventually mastered, a whole world of creativity opens up. This may be one of the most attractive things about it, in fact. Stodgy style definitions are becoming of less interest to brewers and drinkers alike, so the ability to create your own style-defying beer is a big draw. You can play with hop and malt varieties, dry-hopping, adjuncts and different gravity levels to make something truly original.
For Tofte, that creative freedom is one of the most satisfying (and rewarding) aspects of it. A last-minute shake-up of a tried and true recipe recently had an exciting result: the beer won a gold medal for the best IPA in North America at the North American Brewers Association in 2012. “We changed the hops, the strike temp, the mass temp, the gallons of water per pounds of grain. We changed everything. The dry-hopping time. We did it just to experiment. And, sure enough, whatever we did, won the gold medal. It just shows that it’s always so much fun to experiment and try something new. The last thing in the world I want to do is make a [standard] German or English beer.”
Even small tweaks can produce dramatic results, however. “I sometimes like putting in a pound or two of malt that isn’t typically found in the style I’m brewing,” Murphy says. “I made a Doppelschticke Alt for a homebrew competition and I added rye malt, which isn’t typically found in the style, for a little added spiciness. It was a great beer, and I won Best in Show.”
Homebrewers who start out following other people’s recipes inevitably find themselves writing their own recipes. You not only get the satisfaction of doing something original, you can brew to suit your own palate. “Frequently I’ll think of a beer that I like to drink and try to make something like that,” Robinson says. “Or, more frequently,I’ll try to change it and make it a new type of beer using maybe less traditional ingredients or maybe some different brewing techniques to make something that you can’t necessarily buy at the store. I like to do something that’s unique.”
From Homebrewer to Professional Brewer
There’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained from sharing what you’ve made by hand with people you care about—whether it’s a loaf of bread, a bowl of organic tomatoes, or a well-hopped IPA. What may begin as a hobby for perhaps self-interested reasons can grow into something larger as one’s skills and interest level increase. For Homebrewer of the Year Perman, the next step was entering his beers in competitions, so their quality could be assessed by Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) judges. “I enter them in competitions more for the feedback, just to sort of see how I’m doing and what people think of my beers,” he says. “I don’t really think that I have the greatest palate, so I like to have some feedback on what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong.”
Though it obviously doesn’t always lead to this, with the growing number of craft breweries, many homebrewers find themselves gainfully employed doing what may have started out as a hobby. The modern craft brewing industry was, in fact, founded by enthusiastic homebrewers who basically just transferred their skill to larger brewing and fermenting vessels. For decades, homebrewers have been like minor league ball players in professional sports perfecting their craft before they move up to the big leagues.
Though a passionate homebrewer in his early twenties, Tofte actually became a restaurateur when he had the opportunity to buy a defunct business at age 25. He kept a 20-gallon homebrewing system going in the back of the restaurant, so he and friends could brew on it. But it wasn’t long before he figured out that with the proper licensing, he could realize his dream of also being a brewer, albeit on a nano scale. “One of my friends’ brothers was like, ‘If you want a brewery so bad, why don’t you just use what you [currently] have as a brewery?’,” he says. “At first I thought that was silly, and then the following year I applied for all the licensing. The next thing you know, what we were doing for fun all those years—my passion—became my job, which is great. It made me accountable for making really good beer. It was a great growing opportunity and experience to go from making it for fun to then making it for fun when you actually had consequences.”