With the proliferation of commercial breweries — more than 2,500 at last count — you might think there would be less impetus to brew at home. Why boil malt and hops, then wait weeks for the bubbling liquid to ferment, when you can stroll over to your local convenience store and pick up a six-pack of IPA?
In fact, the home-brewing hobby is growing in lock step with the pros. A record 3,400 attended June’s National Homebrewers Conference in Philadelphia, reports Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, which sponsored the event. Membership in his organization, he adds, has grown from 9,700 in 2005 to 38,000 this year.
Based on surveys of home-brew suppliers, Glass estimates there are “definitely over a million, probably closer to 1.5 million” amateur brewers nationwide. Their ranks include Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), co-chair of the House Small Brewers Caucus; brewer-to-the-commander-in-chief Sam Kass, the White House nutrition policy adviser responsible for the White House honey ales; and actor Wil Wheaton of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Big Bang Theory,” who says he took up the hobby two years ago to bond with his college-age son and now brews about every two weeks. He recently teamed with Stone Brewing to make a bourbon-barrel-aged wheat, rye, and pecan stout.
Lest those examples give the impression that home-brewing is a white male bastion, the winner of AHA’s Homebrewer of the Year award for 2013 is Annie Johnson, an African American resident of Sacramento whose Lite American Lager outdid 7,755 other entries.
Home-brewing is best pursued as a group activity, says Hugh Sisson, who, before he opened Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe, Md., helped found the Cross Street Irregulars home-brew club in Baltimore. When he encounters solitary home-brewers on brewery tours, “I urge them to join a club!” he says. “I tell them, ‘You’ll be in a room with 50 other people who’ve already made all the mistakes that you’re going to make.’ ”
The AHA’s Web site, www.homebrewersassociation.org, lists more than 1,400 clubs in 28 countries. The oldest such organization in this area is Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP), which dates to 1981 and the dawn of organized U.S. home-brewing. (Congress legalized home-brewing in 1978. But states had veto power over the federal law, and not until this past July 1, when Mississippi rescinded its ban, was the hobby permitted in all 50 states.)
BURP has nearly 300 members. (Full disclosure: I am one of them.) It holds monthly meetings, mostly at homes in the Washington suburbs. As of press time, members were preparing for their annual Mashout camping trip in western Maryland.
Recent years have seen three other clubs sprout around the city to “fill in the gaps,” as Marine Corps Maj. Rip Rawlings of Falls Church puts it.
Rawlings, 42, is president of GRIST (Grains Result in Something Tasty), a club serving 26 mostly military members in Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church. “We’ve been around about a year,” he says. Meetings are held once or twice a month, alternating between VFW posts in Arlington and Falls Church.
The fledgling group lugged 10 kegs and 80 bottles to the Philadelphia conference for Club Night, a celebration of home-brewing talent across the nation. It scored a hit with its Ghost Chili Beer, a strong amber ale spiced with potent hot ghost pepper grown in India. More recently, GRIST borrowed a pair of 60-gallon oak barrels from Mad Fox Brewing in Falls Church for a club brewing project that’s now fermenting in Rawlings’s back yard.
Even more localized is BADASS (Brewers and Drinkers Around Silver Spring). “Most of us can walk to meetings,” says Allen Perper, coordinator for the suburban Maryland group. He estimated that half of its 30 members are home-brewers and the rest are “beer appreciators.” Meetings are comfortable, low-key affairs. Attendees swap homemade or commercial brews (those who arrive empty-handed are asked to chip in a modest amount to defray other members’ costs), share technical advice, maybe listen to a guest speaker.
Perper sees home-brewing as a logical outgrowth of his interest in cooking.
“I love the process, identifying the right ingredients to get the flavor I want,” he says. The club also has its tech-heads who “are much more proficient with equipment than I am, the McGyver side of home-brewing” Perper says. One craftsman, he notes, hand-carved his own mash paddle.
Founded in 2007, DC Homebrewers might be the region’s fastest-growing club.
“I think one of the distinguishing features has been our commitment to the urban D.C. home-brewer, who tends to be young, experimental, occasionally transient and often without a car,” says club president Bob Rouse. Monthly meetings are at Metro-accessible locations. Although DC Homebrewers has more than 900 addresses on its e-mail list, typical attendance is 40 to 60, estimates Rouse. That’s enough of a crowd that the club has had to shift some of its gatherings from members’ homes to beer bars such as Meridian Pint and the Black Squirrel.
DC Homebrewers made headlines last year when one of its members, John Lutz, successfully petitioned the White House to release its beer recipes. The White House Honey Porter proved “a little on the sweet side and one-dimensional,” says Rouse. This past spring, several club members joined Mike Roy, head brewer at Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville, to brew a beefed-up version, christened A More Perfect Union and poured at the Philadelphia conference.
Former club president Josh Hubner has been working with DC Brau and fellow home-brewer Mike Stein to re-create a “classic American Pilsener” that beermakers such as the city’s long-defunct Christian Heurich Brewery would have marketed in the pre-Prohibition era. Their effort, Heurich Lager, will debut at the Heurich House Museum on Monday during DC Beer Week.
“I think the reason that home-brewing is exploding is the same as people making cheese or bread at home, or starting their own vegetable or herb gardens,” Rouse says. “Sure, you can get good stuff at the store. But there’s something satisfying about doing it yourself. It allows you to create the beer that you want to drink.”
Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.