Beer culture stretches back more than 4,000 years—and for much of that time, beer was primarily made by amateurs.
The more things change, the more things stay the same: Homebrewing today is on a meteoric rise in the United States.
Since 1978, the American Homebrewers Association (www.homebrewersassociation.org) has promoted the joys of homebrewing. The organization now has more than 43,000 members. An American Homebrewers Association survey done in the earlier part of 2014 estimated that there were at least 1.3 million homebrewers in the U.S. The hobby has been growing at a rate of 20 percent per year in the last five years—oh, and a lot more women are joining in, too.
I recently spoke several notable local homebrewers to get their two cents on the growing trend.
Joshua Kunkle has been brewing since October 2007 and is now the president of the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club. Club meetings are usually held on the first Thursday of the month, at Coachella Valley Brewing Co., starting at 7 p.m.
Unlike most homebrewers, Kunkle began by making alcoholic ciders, after returning home from France. He was living in San Francisco at the time, and sought out local brew-supply shops that sold the appropriate equipment. It came with a free batch of grains to brew beer.
“I did the beer, and the beer turned out better than I thought it would,” he said. “And when I finally got around to making the cider, it was so much of a bitch to do that, I thought, ‘I’m going to stick with the beer. It’s a lot less work, for a lot better product.’ That spurred me into trying different things, and along the way, every time I made a mistake, it turned out to be kind of serendipity in my favor, so that helped me learn new things.”
He later moved back to Southern California—Murietta, specifically.
“I was living over at my parents’ house, which is on five acres, and that gave me impetus to expand the operation and start working my way to all-grain,” he said. “Once I started doing all-grain, that’s when I started building all my equipment.”
That’s right: He’s built his own beer-making equipment. The move also showed him how place can affect the beer-making process. “On one hand, the beer was slightly better at my parents’ house in Murietta, because they lived on a well system. But on the other hand, the weather was perfect for brewing in San Francisco. The temperatures do fluctuate there more in Southern California.”
Kunkle’s system includes a 4-foot-by-4-foot-by-8 foot insulated, temperature-controlled box; it started out as an armament-storage box belonging to his grandfather. There’s a door on the side and a lid that opens at the top. He has the ability to put as much as 70 gallons in it at one time. In half of the box, he’s got a hole cut out with some PVC pipe, a window air-conditioning unit, and a thermostat. He even has a dual-stage controller, to run two different circuits—air conditioning or heating, depending on the weather.
As for the system itself, it was built with a slight pyramid shape to center the gravity in the middle, minimizing the risk of tilting. Each side sits in a set of tracks with heavy-duty wheels, which take the load when the plates holding the pots are being lifted. Using this system, Kunkle has won several medals, including Best of Show at the 2013 Props and Hops Homebrew Competition.
He’s found that temperature control is the key to preparing his award-winning beers.
“I’m dealing with a living organism; I should treat it with respect,” Kunkle said. “I used to joke: ‘You should treat yeast like people.’ If you fluctuate the temperature, hot, cold, hot, cold, you get sick. I imagine yeast is the same way. Your beer is a result of that, for better or for worse. The idea is, you’re creating a nice environment for them.”
His two favorite homebrews have been a Trappist-style honey-orange pale ale, and a “Braggot”-style hybrid-beer—actually a form of mead made with honey and barley malt, using nitrogen after fermentation.
Like most homebrewers, Kunkle isn’t afraid to experiment. He’s even brewed with wormwood, taking concepts from absinthe.
He has ambitious plans for the Homebrew Club.
“I told the club at the last meeting that I want to be part of the community a lot more,” he said. “I want to get our name out there; I want people to know who we are—that we’re not just a bunch of drunk guys sitting around.
“There is a science behind this. There is biology and chemistry. This is a smart people’s sport. You can learn a lot about the art of it.”
He also wants the club’s meetings to have more of a focus on teaching.
“It’s nice trying different beers, but sometimes, a lot of people come to the meetings hoping to learn something,” Kunkle said. “So I’d like to use the meetings as a means of getting people together and learning: ‘Tonight, we’re going to learn why an IPA is an IPA,’ or why sanitation is a good thing.”
Kunkle works full-time as a reference librarian, and brewing feeds his desire to constantly learn.
“I live by the ethos that if I’m not learning something, I’m dying,” he said.
Brett Newton has been interested in craft beer since 1993, but he only started brewing with his cousin a little more than five years ago.
Their first batch was an IPA. It wasn’t very good, he said. But it was drinkable.
He joined the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club in 2010 after meeting four of its members. He sat in with many of the members on brew days in order to learn more about the process. (One of those members: future brewmaster of Coachella Valley Brewing Company, Chris Anderson.) He then went on to be elected president of the club. He also co-hosted the Beer Me Podcast up until a couple of years ago.
“I just kinda watched them do what they do,” he said of his beginnings with the Homebrew Club members. “I feel like I was able to brew better beer right away.
“There are a bunch of resources online. There’s a free older edition of How to Brew by John Palmer. That’s kind of the brewing bible. You can buy a version of it that’s up to date. I also read a couple of books by Charlie Papazian, who’s kind of considered the godfather of homebrew.”
Newton has brewed some delicious English barleywines. For one, he soaked French oak cubes in Maker’s Mark bourbon; for another, he used French oak cubes soaked in Glenlivet Nadurra 16-year-old Scotch. Brett orders his ingredients online at Austin Homebrew Supply because of the quality and customer service, he said. In a pinch, he’ll visit MoreBeer in Riverside.
He said he appreciates having local help via the Homebrew Club.
“It still helps me with learning to brew,” he said. “It’s a great place to come ask questions. … You can go online, and you can get some good advice, but you have to sift through some stuff. You can know there are some guys in the club who can really brew, because you’ve tasted their beer, and you can ask them questions and be a lot more sure of the answers.
Newton said the homebrewing world is changing in a lot of the same ways that the craft-beer world is changing.
“People are willing to try lots of different styles,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘Let’s brew the hoppiest beer we can brew,’ which I always thought was ridiculous, because I try to discourage the beginners from going hoppy right away, because that’s one of the harder ones to get right.”
Brent Schmidman is not only the founder and previous owner of Schmidy’s Tavern in Palm Desert, and a founder of the Props and Hops Festival in Palm Springs; he is also an avid homebrewer, and has been now for eight years.
Brent started with a Mr. Beer kit—and quickly realized that there had to be a better way to brew. He now has a system that was partly purchased from MoreBeer, with some elements he designed himself. One of Brent’s most impressive homebrews was a 17 percent alcohol chocolate-cherry Russian imperial stout, aged in Bourbon barrels.
Like Josh and Brett, Brent uses the Homebrew Club as a resource.
“I’d say when I joined the club, Chris (of Coachella Valley Brewing) was probably the most influential, because he was so open to meeting new people, and that kind of thing,” he said. “… I think the best part about the club is that people can come and just learn and experience and share before they have to actually go and buy equipment to do all of that. We’ve had several members that came for six months to a year before they ever bought anything.”
He said it’s a lot easier to be a homebrewer these days than it used to be.
“Now there are so many different sites that you can order from online. There are tons and tons of books … and you can have kits that take a RussianRiver beer, and you have a clone that’s very, very close to that,” Schmidman said. Maybe you’ve never made a sour before, and you can buy a kit and do it. I think it’s the accessibility to everything, in small quantities.”
Homebrewer Erik DeBellis has been brewing for just 2 1/2 years—but he sure has racked up a lot of medals in that time.
Erik took the gold medal in the American ale category in both 2013 and 2014 at the Hangar 24 homebrew competition. He took home the gold in the German wheat category at the 2013 and 2014 Props and Hops homebrew competition, the gold and silver in the IPA category at the 2013 Props and Hops competition. He also nabbed a silver in the German wheat and rye category at the Southern California Homebrew Championships.
He is now the assistant brewer at Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse in Rancho Mirage.
The Hangar 24 homebrew competition in 2012 sparked his interest in homebrewing, he said. It just so happened that he and a friend visited the brewery on the day of the competition.
I asked him what he uses to make his award-winning brews.
“I used to just do stovetop—you know, everything on your burner. Now I actually bought a propane-powered burner, so, I’m doing everything on that, and it’s awesome. I will never go back to stovetop. … I’m getting so much better isomerization of my hops on this bad boy—more power, more heat. You’re getting a better boil, which allows my hops to bitter more, I’m getting more out of my bittering additions.”
DeBellis said he buys most of his supplies at MoreBeer, although he wishes the store took better care of their hops.
“I pretty much buy everything at MoreBeer or Northern Brewer, but when it comes to hops, I just source straight from the farms—mostly, Yakima Valley Hops,” he said.
What are some homebrewing trends worth knowing about?
Brew in a bag (BIAB) one-gallon kits are becoming more popular for brand new homebrewers. It’s an inexpensive way to for homebrewers to transition to all-grain or partial-mash brewing.
Alternatively, all-grain is becoming more popular, and extracts are declining. This speaks to quality and the fact that the future brewers of America want to make the best beer they can.
Speaking of quality: With the ever-growing popularity of the hobby, you can now find more quality ingredients; including malts and hops from around the world, and top-notch yeast from ever-more companies.
Don’t fear the foam. Join the club; do some online research; and/or read a homebrew book. Then take a sip and exhale with the satisfaction of your delicious, homebrewed pint.
Want to start learning more about homebrewing? Here are some online resources to consider:
- Beer Conscious Training (beerconscious.com) offers beer training and learning videos for those interested in passing exams like the Cicerone Certification Program, the Beer Judge Certification Program and Beer Steward Certificate Program.
- Beer Smith (beersmith.com) is a homebrewers’ dream resource, with answers to just about any question or roadblock. It also has informative video blogs from seasoned homebrew professionals.
- Better Beer Scores (www.betterbeerscores.com) is a Colorado-based company that offers webinar programs to learn more about craft-beer styles and homebrewing. It also features programs to help people prep for beer exams.
- Craft Beer University (www.craftbeeru.com) is an online school offering Beer Judge Certification Program exam-prep courses, as well as other Internet-based educational services to improve home-brewing skills.