A healthy dose of anarchy has fueled the American beer revolution. In the 1970s and '80s, a handful of people rejected the notion that all beer had to taste the same.
They flocked to any new imports on the shelves. They sought novel beers wherever they traveled. And if that didn't satisfy the desire for variety, they retreated to their kitchens and garages and made the beer themselves.
Homebrewing already had a renegade pedigree. For the illicit brewers during Prohibition, the goal of homebrewing was the production of alcohol, pure and simple. And even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the hobby remained illegal (unlike home winemaking) until the Carter administration, when the newly legit practice attracted a young generation motivated more by quality and diversity than easy alcohol.
In time, some of the most committed and talented recruits turned pro. Almost every microbrewery and brewpub of note was founded not by a formally trained food scientist or brewing chemist but by a homebrewer with a dream and enthusiastic friends. Here in North Carolina alone, a career in brewing has lured defectors from livelihoods as varied as anthropology, economics, philosophy and engineering. The crazy inventiveness of the American beer scene may indeed owe its energy to the unconventional backgrounds of its homebrewing pioneers.
Today, though, an average American city can offer a wider range of commercially produced beers than any beer capital in Europe. You no longer have to brew your own to get something other than light lager to drink. So why does homebrewing still attract hobbyists, and in growing numbers?
Keith Klemp, an established Durham homebrewer, has an explanation that is one part gracious host and one part Mr. Wizard: "Homebrewers love to create and experiment by nature, enjoy a sense of accomplishment and are generally interested in the technical aspect of art. That, and it brings a smile of contentment and appreciation to the faces of those who drink a well-crafted homebrew."
The desire to produce a beer that is exactly what the brewer wants motivates others. Glenn Waters, who has brewed in his Cary home for eight years, explains: "The beer I may be able to buy may not be exactly the flavor I want right then. For example, right now I have on tap a mild-styled beer I made with a large percentage of rye malt to give it a little extra spice. Tastes exactly like what I had in mind, but no way would I ever find that on tap somewhere other than at my house."
All of the homebrewers I spoke to mentioned the camaraderie of the craft. Homebrew clubs have become the place to share techniques, troubleshoot and—of course—enjoy one another's experiments.
The clubs have something of a culture in common. They seem to be populated by punsters and limerick writers, and club names are frequently acronyms that salute the technical side of brewing: Durham-based TRUB (Triangle Unabashed Homebrewers) is named for the sediment in fermenting beer; a CARBOY (Cary-Apex-Raleigh Brewers Of Yore) is a large glass brewing vessel. Greenville's Down East Alers (DEA) and New Bern's Alcohol Through Fermentation (AFT) share acronyms with federal agencies, and the Catawba Lager and Ale Sampling Society (CLASS) may think it's a wee bit better than the rest of us.
The clubs meet, brew together, host competitions, organize field trips and entertain visiting speakers. They have a reputation for welcoming newcomers.
They also push the professional brewing community. Homebrewers are the goad that keeps the pros on their toes. They are at once the most passionate supporters of any new craft endeavor and the most exacting critics, as any exhausted craft brewer will attest after escorting a tour group of homebrewers around the facility. Homebrewers are also a continuing source of innovation: If there's an expensive, time-consuming brewing technique out there waiting to be scaled up to full commercial production, some homebrewer is beta-testing it in his kitchen today. Want to know what commercial beer styles you'll be drinking in three years' time? Drop in on your neighborhood homebrewer and see what's in the fermenter.
If you're tempted to learn more, a first step is to taste some real homebrew and talk to the people who make it. There happens to be a great opportunity next week, where you can sample home-crafted beer, meet the brewers and support a good cause as well.
On Saturday, Nov. 12, Fifth Season Gardening Co. will host the first Homebrew For Hunger festival at the new West End Public event space at 462 W. Franklin St. in downtown Chapel Hill. Starting at noon is Homebrew U, featuring educational sessions, product demonstrations and a panel discussion with craft brewers from Mystery Brewing, Fullsteam and Bull City Burger and Brewery. Then, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., attendees can taste samples from more than 30 local homebrewers and the craft brewers who have "gone pro," including promised kegs of Smoked Milk Stout, Rye IPA, Chinese Green Tea Ale and Belgian Orange Spiced Ale. For $20 admission, check out the wild fringes of beer you won't see in a beer bar (yet)—and benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina at the same time.
Tickets for Homebrew For Hunger are available at www.homebrewforhunger.com or at Fifth Season Gardening's Carrboro and Raleigh locations. Attendees must be 21 or older. If you've ever been tempted to create your own distinctive beer, here's the place to start.