Today’s beer scene plays host to nanobrewing, microbrewing, contract brewing, and megabrewing, but have you ever wonder where all of the craft brew madness started? The simple answer is homebrewing.
Some 200 years ago, homebrewing was a craft most households practiced and handed down to future generations just like a family recipe or heirloom. In fact, before the invention of the microscope and modern scientific knowledge of yeast, homebrewers passed on the mash paddle, believing it to magically turn their wort into beer. Beer also proved to be one of the few sanitary drinks people could count on due to its alcohol content. Homebrewing was thus, in some aspects, crucial to survival. With a limited number of breweries, combined with poor transportation and cooling, one needed to brew at home to enjoy a palatable libation.
Just like cooking, hunting, and gathering, brewing required the use of what was at hand. Farming your own barley and hops, and unknowingly cultivating wild yeast unique to each farmer collectively gave birth to regional styles. Belgians brewed true farmhouse ales with wild yeast, Germans brewed bocks for sustenance during Lenten fasts, and the British brewed pale ales and bitters accentuated by their hard water. These styles were brewed for centuries and eventually carried over to the Americas with colonization.
The tradition of homebrewing continued through the late 1800s, but was almost completely eradicated with the passing of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol. The 21st amendment put to rest the dark age of beer, and in 1978 Jimmy Carter helped pass HR 1337, an act that effectively legalized the in-home production of beer and wine for personal and family use. That same year, Carter blessed us with the right to practice the science of fermentation — more commonly known as zymurgy — and Charlie Papazian founded the American Homebrewers Association (AHA). According to a 2013 survey conducted by the AHA, an estimated 1.2 million people nationwide brewed their own beer at home. Thanks to these two goodfellas, homebrewers have developed their craft to a whole new level, creating enterprises solely based on the brewing of beer and wine.
The present gives us a glimpse into the past as the vast majority of craft breweries’ brewmasters started out as homebrewers. Forest City Brewery brewmaster Corey Miller comes from a line of homebrewers, and recalls the stories told by his great-grandmother about how she was responsible for gathering the necessary brewing supplies. “She told me how she used to go to the store to gather his malt extract, and he wouldn’t let her in the kitchen when he was brewing, she hated that.”
Influenced by this great-grandfather, Miller began brewing one-gallon batches in his dorm room about five years ago. Miller, who also manages the Cleveland Brew Shop — a homebrew supply store located in Ohio City — brews for Platform Beer Co. as a part of their innovative incubator program. Catering to homebrewers who are ready to operate on an industrial scale, this program teaches the ins and outs of business and large-scale brewing, acting as a stepping-stone to the next level.
Homebrewing continues to produce talented new brewers seemingly every day. With this development, we get to reap the benefits of their labor. But as with all businesses, there comes a point where buy-outs, mergers, or expansions occur. There is a noticeable cycle in the brewing scene wherein large-scale megabreweries replace small breweries, only to be replaced by the preferred small-scale brews once again. We’ll have to wait and see whether the craft beer movement continues to persist, but if the cycle stays true, homebrewing as a tradition will not be lost.