by Alan Moen (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 6, No.2)
As the craft beer movement mushrooms, are its home brewing roots in danger of shrinking?
Not long ago, I attended a meeting of my old homebrew club. In years past, these gatherings had always provided me with experiences that could not be duplicated outside a brewery — a dozen or more kegs typically lined the floor on these occasions as hundreds of pounds of grain were milled and delivered on the spot to club members. Discussions about equipment, ingredients, and brewing techniques were constant. Back then, the beer culture was in active ferment, and it sent forth many of its progeny into the ranks of professional brewers, brewing consultants, and even — perish the thought! — beer writers.
But this recent meeting was a pretty tame affair. Only two small kegs sat on the back porch, and many a six-pack of craft beer comingled with the homebrew. No grain or hops were exchanged. Everyone seemed noticeably older and less enthusiastic about brewing, maybe even a little jaded about the whole process. We were all busy with our chosen careers. It was as if to say: So little time, so little homebrew — and so what?
So what indeed, I wondered afterward. Is home brewing really dying, or are some of us just getting a little lazy? Is the inclination to drink commercial beer at these meetings just a problem with my club, or something that has affected others across the country? As I searched for answers, I found that the malady affecting us was indeed shared by other groups, and for similar reasons.
One of those reasons is that it’s just not very hard to find good beer anymore. When I started home brewing 20 years ago, there wasn’t a craft brewery in sight. Except for a few imports (which were frequently oxidized or skunky), the beer menu was pretty poor — a choice between watery lagers, tasteless light beers, or ersatz “Bocks.” If you wanted all-malt or well-hopped beers in those days, you had to brew them yourself. Homegrown hops were as exotic as marijuana, and just as worthy an indulgence to us denizens of the brewing underground.
But the cachet of belonging to a home brewing counterculture didn’t make up for a certain ignorance that clung to the hobby like trub to a plastic fermentor. Even after home brewing was made legal in my state (Washington) in 1979, it took some time to purge the practice of its Prohibition mentality (a can of malt extract, a sack of corn sugar, dried yeast, plastic buckets, and the endless hammering of bottle caps in the basement). Like beginners plunking awkwardly on our guitars, my friends and I had a lot to learn about our chosen craft before we could really start making music.
With over 1,200 breweries and brewpubs currently in operation from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, reasonably well-made draught beer is nearby no matter where you live in the United States. And the retail scene has changed dramatically as well. Even in my local community, far from big city cosmopolitans, supermarkets regularly stock a dozen or more craft beers on their shelves.
Of course, when the wave of craft beer bottling really started to roll about five years ago, most of these beers sold for twice the price of the major industrial brands. Now that the brewery giants such as Anheuser-Busch and Coors have entered the fray with specialty beers of their own, something of a price war has ensued. As a result, the craft beer category has become a real buyer’s market.
So it’s not surprising to hear a fellow long-time home brewer state the obvious: “Why should I spend five or six hours making my own beer if I can pick up pretty decent stuff at four bucks a six-pack?” Or, for that matter, exceptional stuff for six or seven dollars? Anyone who still claims that they brew because they can’t find good beer anywhere hasn’t looked very hard. Even bottle-and cask-conditioned brews, the very soul of home brewing, are available now in most areas at the pub or on the shelf.
The very popularity of craft beer has introduced yet another factor in bringing about home brewing’s decline in America — a certain deviancy has disappeared from the hobby. When you can hoist a pint of India pale ale at the local shopping mall (albeit a frequently bland version), you get little notoriety for the five gallons you have on hand at home, even if you made it yourself (illicit home-distilled whisky, now, that’s another story). Yesterday’s avant-garde has become today’s status quo. Rock & roll, once the bold beat of rebellion, is served up as elevator music. Likewise, even today’s most casual beer drinker is acquainted with pale ales, porters, and Hefeweizens, though he or she may hold rather sketchy conceptions of what these beers should taste like.
Three homebrew shops in my region went out of business last year. Of course, businesses fail for many reasons. Did these establishments close their doors because of a home brewing decline, or just because of a failure to handle the increased competition from a glut of mail-order suppliers? Other local shops say their sales were fine in 1997, especially over Christmas. Beer kits are still a hot item, apparently, and home brewing is definitely attracting new blood. And I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm at recent competitions that seems to contradict any notion of a home brewing decline.
So maybe there’s no reason for alarm. Perhaps some of the “downsizing” affecting craft brewing today — a levelling off in growth after an industry boom — has reached home brewing as well. This hobby might never again have the notoriety that it once did, but it has definitely risen to a qualitatively higher level. It’s much more pleasant task to judge a homebrew contest nowadays, with far fewer “gushers,” astringent ales, or stale stouts, and frequently many excellent beers.
Years ago, a television commercial promoting responsible driving used a slogan something like, “the cars are better; the roads are better; the rest is up to you.” So it is with this curious hobby of ours — the ingredients available are better, the equipment and knowledge of brewing are better. The rest is still up to us, to keep the magic of making beer alive.
Whatever has been happening within home brewing circles these days, one point is clear to all those who remember the early days — this hobby has been at the very roots of the craft-beer renaissance in this country, and its survival is crucial to the success of the real beer movement here in the future. Now is the time not to relax, but to keep on brewing.
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