Minnesota: The State of Homebrewing

A sea of kegs and carboys at Lift Bridge Brewing’s Big Brew Day on Saturday, May 6 // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg, The Growler

The eyes of the homebrewing universe will be on the Twin Cities in mid-June, and many of its citizens will pour into our hometown to celebrate their community and culture.

Homebrew Con, the world’s largest annual gathering of homebrewers, will host its official conference events at Minneapolis Convention Center from June 15–17. Other beer-focused activities and parties are going down that whole week at breweries, beer bars, and restaurants throughout Minneapolis and Saint Paul (stay tuned for The Growler’s forthcoming guide for more information on those).

It’s not the first time that the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) has chosen to host its yearly party and National Homebrew Competition (NHC) in Minneapolis. The last time was 2010, when more than 1,300 homebrewers attended the conference at what was the Bloomington Sheraton. This year, the AHA estimates at least 2,500 will be there. But the change of venue isn’t the only thing that’s different about the conference or the homebrewing landscape in Minnesota since the last conference.

Homebrewers in Minnesota have been major players in the national community for decades. Our state is home to more than a dozen medium-to-large sized clubs with two of the oldest clubs, Minnesota Home Brewers Association (MHBA) and Saint Paul Homebrewers Club (SPHBC), founded here in the Twin Cities.

The clubs have claimed many individual and group awards between them. SPHBC is a three-time winner of National Homebrew Competition Club of the Year (2007, 2008, and 2009). MHBA won the 2014 Gambrinus Club Award when it received the most Final Round points per number of entries in the NHC, with SPHBC having claimed the prize two years earlier. Beyond beer, Twin Cities locals have brought home the coveted Meadmaker of the Year prize in six of the last 11 years and Cidermaker of the Year most recently in 2015.

Homebrewer David Thomas uses his custom-built chiller to cool a batch of homebrew before pitching yeast // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg, The Growler

As suggested from the awards and accolades, the quality of homebrew seems to be on a much higher level these days. “I have heard countless judges at homebrew competitions claim homebrewers are making better beer every year,” says Ryan Schenian, 29, a member of the Primary Fermenters Brewers and Vintners of Minnesota homebrew club. “It seems the amount of good information available to homebrewers allows them to start marking great beer right away.”

To Schenian’s point, the last seven years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of books, blogs, Facebook groups, online radio, YouTubers, and webcasts about promoting and perfecting homebrew—resources which were much harder to come by in 2010. Back then, education and advice was spread mainly by word of mouth, during homebrew demos, or via several popular homebrewing books, magazines, and online forums.

The growing quality of homebrew has been bolstered with access to an amazing variety of ingredients—grains, malts, hops, yeast, “bugs” and bacteria. Brewers in Minnesota (and the U.S. in general) have access to a long catalog of the freshest raw materials, while homebrewers in other countries are often stymied from the get-go with ingredients that are old, expired, or of limited availability.

Other important factors that have changed over the last seven years are seemingly interconnected. While most homebrewers begin by making five-gallon batches, back in 2010 “going big” was the trend. Equipment manufacturers and retailers were making large-scale brewing (10-, 15-, 20-gallon scale) possible with innovative large-volume kettles and fermenters, state-of-the-art brew stands, pumps and contraptions of all sorts. While those things do still (and will always) exist, many new and veteran homebrewers in 2017 are turning a cheek to those mammoth setups and dialing in small-batch brewing with one-, two-, and three-gallon batches. Some find this smaller scale more friendly to experimental brewing, others are looking for activity with less physical strain or simply hoping to brew more frequently.

Homebrewer John Longballa of the Minnesota Home Brewers Association working on a “brew in a bag” batch at Lift Bridge’s Big Brew Day event on Saturday, May 6 // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg, The Growler

The concept of “Brew in a Bag” has become popular and been embraced by homebrewers. This method involves all-grain mashing in a single bag (think of it as a large tea bag of malt) that is steeped and then drained of its sweet wort. Eliminated here is not only the need for additional equipment such as a mash tun (often a modified Igloo cooler or large kettle), but also the time required to sparge a more classically brewed all-grain batch.

Which brings us to one of the most precious commodities for just about anyone alive and brewing in 2017: Time. In an increasingly busy world, it’s often difficult to find or justify the time required to brew. While that time is enjoyable and often spent with friends and/or family, it is typically a half-day commitment at least.

“Over the last few years there have been numerous automated turnkey systems marketed that make much of the brewing process a push-button activity if you want to go that route,” says Steve Piatz, 64. He’s a member of both MHBA and SPHBC. “It seems that in recent years individuals entering the hobby are willing to spend way more money on their initial setup than a few years ago; sort of a change from creating or making a brewing system from parts to buying a ready-to-go system.”

A new generation of automated devices manufacturers like PicoBrew are designing equipment to take some of the time and work out of the equation. Word on the street is that AB InBev is working to develop a Keurig-like system that would turn around a fully-fermented and packaged beer in just a few days. Certainly you can argue your feelings about these new devices, but the truth is that time is worth more than money. In an era where your local bottle shop has an unending selection of quality craft beer, what makes homebrew unique is still that stamp of authenticity of and the fun in having made it yourself, almost regardless of how it was done.

New brewing methods, emerging beer styles, and the topics of homebrew equipment and technique will be among the many discussions being had over an amazing line-up of beer at the upcoming Homebrew Con in downtown Minneapolis. The event includes three days of educational seminars, craft beer and homebrew parties, industry discussions, a large vendor expo area, and the highly anticipated awards for the National Homebrew Competition. Learn more and register at the Homebew Con website. Onsite registration will also be available at the Minneapolis Convention Center if space allows.

See more photos from the 2017 Big Brew Day celebration at Lift Bridge Brewing on May 6 below:

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Big Brew Day celebration at Lift Bridge Brewing on Saturday, May 6 // Photos by Brian Kaufenberg, The Growler