By Northern Brewer
The golden age is right now. With the highest number of breweries in over a century and an embarrassment of riches in terms of quality and selection, there has never been a better time to be a cerevisaphile in America.
But look beyond the rows of stainless unitanks standing in the gleaming brewhouse and the queues of the devoted camped out in the cold the night before a limited release, and you’ll notice glass carboys, reused bottles with the labels scrubbed blank, and a critical mass of discerning drinkers with a self-sustaining supply. Behind and beside every great craft beer scene is a great homebrewing scene, and our own state is no exception.
Chicken or egg? Kind of a moot point, really, because it’s not cause and effect so much as it is a cycle of inspiration and mutual support, a beer-fueled feedback loop of creativity. A shared love.
It’s an open secret that the pantheon of craft brewing, local and national, is filled with former homebrewers. Around town, we’ve got Summit, Surly, Flat Earth, Rush River, Fulton, Harriet, Lucid, just to name a few; homebrewing is where it all began for these guys.
Elsewhere, we had homebrew guru/author/media personality Jamil Zainasheff open Heretic Brewing, one of his first production beers was a staple recipe from his homebrew days: the Evil Twin. Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head: former homebrewer. Sierra Nevada and Widmer Bros., two of the nation’s largest craft brewers: founded by homebrewers. Worth Brewing, one of the nation’s smallest nanobreweries: founded by a homebrewer. Worth owner and brewmaster Peter Ausenhus is a Northern Brewer alumnus keeping Northwood, Iowa awash in fresh craft beer. The list of Northern Brewer customers and former/current employees who’ve gone pro is too long to detail.
Homebrewers are among craft beer’s most ardent fans, and this community, this subculture of suds-mustached amateurs, suffused with the same passion and enthusiasm as its pro-brewing brothers and sisters, becomes the incubator for the next generation of craft brewers.
For some, cranking out ale and lager one or two or four cases at a time turns out to be just practice for the big time.
It’s been extremely exciting to witness not just the number of homebrewers increase, but also the quality of their output, which also finds parallels in our craft beer renaissance, a time when the brewers of Europe are looking to us. Good beer is good beer—whether it comes from a basement or not.
Much of the credit for that increase in quality goes to the craft beer scene. Forget the mental image of your grandparents’ generation stirring up a boozy slurry in a bathtub by the light of a single bare bulb, out of sight of the T-men—21st century homebrewing isn’t making Prohibition hooch. Its practitioners have maximized the benefits of quality ingredients (and, it should be pointed out, enjoying unprecedented access to the same raw materials as the big guys) and they’ve internalized lessons learned from both modern brewing texts and from pestering pro brewers on tours, cask nights, and at festival booths.
Besides better homebrew through knowledge, there’s also better homebrew through example. The preponderance of flavorful, intense, and well-made beers in our craft breweries’ portfolios stands as a challenge and an inspiration to every cellar-dwelling, mash-mixing, starry-eyed 1/6th-barrel-brewhouse dreamer. Bars are set higher, envelopes are pushed, beer gets better and better. And when those chosen few answer the call to put on the big rubber boots, they’re that much better-prepared.
But if craft brewing has imparted wisdom by osmosis and challenged homebrewers to up their game, then today’s craft brewers (yesterday’s homebrewers, as they are) have in turn brought homebrewing’s anarchic, DIY, restlessly experimental, small batch, I-like-how-it-tastes-so-you-can-go-to-hell ethos to a commercial scale and made it a popular success. This flowering of creative freedom has given the non-homebrewing beer drinker a taste of what it’s like: fusions of disparate styles (Belgian IPAs), palate-challenging hop bombs, throwbacks brewed from old recipes (Gold Sovereign, anyone?), sour ales, herb-and-spice-and-pepper-infused one-offs, and cask ales. We’re seeing the ultimate expression of beer as a living, evolving, interactive thing.
This has happened before in both craft beer (“microbrews,” as we used to say) and homebrewing, and it’s happening again now; the difference today is that it’s much bigger than it was the last time, and that time it was bigger than the time before that, and the time before that, and so on; the tide may fall back for a bit but overall it keeps rising. The future of American beer is being written right now, with malt and hops and yeast, in both breweries and in kitchens, in the glass in your hand, in a lingua franca of “flannel-shirted beer geeks” (the New York Times’ words, not mine; although I do like me some flannel shirts).
It’s a continuum, and we are personally thrilled to be a tiny part of it, just one miniscule arc on the curve of a single CO2 bubble in a half-barrel keg.Help ensure the future of good beer in America and brew something yourself this week. If you haven’t tried homebrewing, there’s never been a better time to start.
Got a question about homebrewing? Feel free to email us at [email protected] and we may feature your question in a future issue.
Brought to you by Northern Brewer, Minnesota’s and the nation’s leader for ingredients, equipment and knowledge serving the first-time and advanced brewer for nearly two decades. Retail stores in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Photos courtesy of Northern Brewer.