homebrewing heroes
In honor of Learn to Homebrew Day, get to know some of the unsung heroes of homebrewing. Photo by Brian Lauer via Flickr.

This Saturday, Nov. 1, is the 15th annual Learn to Homebrew Day, designed to encourage new devotees to take up the habit. It is also a perfect time to celebrate the often unsung heroes who, a generation ago, exerted a tun of effort to make homebrewing the nationwide hobby, even lifestyle, it is today.

Alan Cranston: Unlike with home winemaking, Congress never lifted restrictions against homebrewing after repeal of Prohibition in 1933. While federal agents were not smashing up homebrewing kits and hauling off their shackled owners, the illegality did make it difficult to find decent supplies and to share know-how. Until it was legalized, homebrewing would remain a clumsy, sometimes clandestine affair.

Enter Alan Cranston. The California senator introduced legislation legalizing homebrewing at the federal level that eventually cleared both houses of Congress and landed on President Jimmy Carter’s desk. (It was the first such legislation to make it that far; other efforts had floundered in regulatory minutiae.) Carter, a rumored teetotaler who would curiously enough take up home winemaking after the White House, signed it into law on Oct. 14, 1978. It took effect Feb. 1 of the following year.

Lee Coe and Nancy Crosby: Sen. Cranston didn’t spontaneously decide to legislatively champion the rights of homebrewers in the mid-1970s. No, a steady stream of citizenship lobbying nudged him in that direction. This lobbying was led in large part by Lee Coe, a homebrewer and early member of the Maltose Falcons, a Los Angeles group that became the nation’s first homebrewing club in 1974, and Nancy Crosby, another Maltose Falcon and the head of a trade group supporting home-winemaking shops.

The two hobbies often went hand in hand commercially, with home winemaking shops selling whatever homebrewing supplies might be available; the winemaking vendors wanted to be able to sell better materials, and thus draw in more customers.

Byron Burch and Fred Eckhardt: Homebrewers, especially newer ones, needed to be able to know what to do with this materiel—and therefore be able to pass it on, if not eventually turn pro, as so many homebrewers did in the 1970s and 1980s (to the present day). Fred Eckhardt, who taught homebrewing classes in Portland, OR, beginning in the mid-1960s, wrote A Treatise on Lager Beers in 1970, a straightforward guide that became a bible for early homebrewers.

Five years later, Byron Burch, who co-owned homebrewing shops in the San Francisco Bay Area, produced a more expansive book called Quality Brewing, which shed even more of the jargon that had laden earlier English-language homebrewing manuals, most of which originated in Europe. By the time of federal legalization in 1978, the instructional cat was out of the bag with Eckhardt and Byron’s books.