Think of beer devotion like an onion: The top layers are disinterested Bud drinkers; the mid-level, microbrew devotees; and beyond that, exists the beer-fest goers. Peel back each level and the group gets smaller, till at the core you have only the most dedicated, the most steadfast, and the most zealous. These are the homebrewers.
This is not about that stud in your freshman dorm who rocked out with his $29.99 Mr. Beer kit. True homebrewers may start with beer-in-a-bag, but have since ascended to a much higher plane of expertise. They join clubs around the country, some with alarmingly cute names like “Barley Literates,” “Dead Yeast Society,” “Urban Knaves of Grain,” “Foam on the Range,” and “BURP” (Brewers United for Real Potables). They participate in nationwide contests, and some, like Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver, move onto full-time commercial careers. And they are not just a product of the suburbs, where there is the luxury of space.
Founded in 1987, the simply-named New York City Homebrewers Guild meets at Burp Castle every month to share their homemade creations, discuss recipes, and listen to guest speakers from nearby breweries talk about the craft. Of all the members, 45 to 50 regularly attend meetings and brew from home—even if home is an L.E.S studio, or a one-bedroom on the Upper East Side.
Dave Witzel, the current President of NYCHG, is one of those guys. “I am able to do it in my tiny six-by-seven kitchen, where there’s not really room for two people at once. For most of us, the kitchen stove is our heat source. And it’s really a five-gallon bucket sitting in your living room at hopefully a constant temperature, as constant as you can get it. My wife doesn’t want to be around when I do it, cause it takes up three hours and the whole place smells like wort.”
Witzel admits it’s a hobby that instantly ferrets out the casual beer lover (or those mildly curious about that homebrewing trend from a few years ago). “There’s some equipment you have to buy, which is going to take up some room, especially in New York City. You gotta babysit the beer, be very clean, and sanitary—and it still might not come out all that good.”
To an outsider, listening in on a Q&A with a visiting speaker—last Tuesday, a representative from the Chelsea Brewing Company—is a bit like sitting through chemistry class, or eavesdropping on a lecture about aging prize Gouda (i.e., hearing statements like “Because with some yeast, if you drop the temperature 5 degrees . . . ,” “What can I do to maximize the yeast potential?,” or “The strain you’re dealing with is made for high gravity.”)
Part of the challenge is experimenting with new tastes. A business systems analyst during the day, Paul Lau socks away time to create beers he flavors with lemongrass, kaffir limes, or jasmine tea leaves. Phil Clarke, a freelance writer for the Ale Street News, wants to try a spruce beer, made from real pine needles. If this were a foreign car club, Phil would be the rock star with the million-dollar Maserati. He has the beer-club equivalent: A spacious Bronx apartment with a designated brewing room and a wife who’s as much a fan as he is. Phil produces 80 gallons of beer a year, although he informs me the legal limit is 200.
To the outside observer, the members produce what appears to be a baffling variety of beer. Jeff, a software developer, brews everything from ale to hard lemonade to even sake—out of a two-room tenement apartment in the East Village. He has no bathroom sink, but his greater problem is rodents. “You have to store your grains in metal tins. The mice in my apartment are super mice.” His website details his experiments with spiced ciders, English beers—and a peanut butter porter, made with real organic peanut butter he let sit out for a month, diligently scraping away the oil that rises to the top every three days. “Not very oily, like the others you’ve had, right?” he hopefully says at the meeting, proudly offering up his porter to the other members. Not very oily at all. And it tastes . . . like peanut butter.
Some admit they don’t whip out the good stuff for people they don’t know, or even less-interested relatives. They are almost sweetly bashful about it, sharing their creations only with those who would appreciate or understand. Says Paul: “I’ll offer them Bud, Bud Light, and Heineken instead.” Their motives for brewing have little to do with price or lack of variety, in a city that offers every kind of beer imaginable. “The reason why everyone brews is just so you can make the beer exactly how you want it. That’s like asking a baker why they want to bake their own bread,” bellows Phil. “You can buy a jar of Prego,” pipes in Paul, to offer up his reasoning, “but it’ll never be the way Mom makes it.”