After perusing Homebrewing for Dummies, which lists you as technical editor, and The Homebrewer’s Answer Book, my previous experience converting really good apple juice, made from apples that my son and I picked, crushed, and pressed, into an undrinkable swill that I proudly called “cider”, and the fact that it took me longer to peruse the two books than it would have taken to have made multiple trips to the supermarket to buy some superb craft-brewed beers, I concluded that for people like me, homebrewing is for dummies. Decision made, happy again, nothing to worry about — until my October 2008 edition of Popular Mechanics arrived. Now I’m supposed to believe that homebrewing beer is one of the 100 skills that, “every man should know,” and it was ranked above knowing how to escape from a sinking car! Please explain to me why I need to know how to homebrew beer. Plus, can homebrewed beer ever be as consistently good as the likes of Sierra Nevada or Anchor?
Idaho Falls, Idaho
This question, albeit one of the campier questions I have received, left me scratching my head for an answer for several days. I can only answer by combining my personal feelings with assumptions I have about what may make some homebrewers tick. Homebrewing in the United States historically has its roots in pragmatism. At one time in our history homebrewing allowed people to (illegally) produce at home what they could not legally purchase. I think the homebrewers during the days of Prohibition were happy if they could brew something that was halfway drinkable as long as it provided a pleasant buzz.
There were not very many breweries that survived Prohibition and those that remained did not produce a very broad range of offerings. The number of breweries continued to decline after Prohibition’s repeal as did the selection of beers until the number of domestic brewing companies dropped to fewer than 100 in the 1970’s. This is really when today’s homebrewing scene began to take shape. It seems that young Americans were aggressively seeking more flavorful foods and beverages; homebrewers during this time were brewing beers at home to satisfy this craving for flavor. One thing led to another and articles began popping up in news rags about microbreweries. Most of the early microbreweries had one thing in common and that was a group of brewers who began their journey brewing at home.
Nearly thirty years later the terms microbrewery and brewpub, collectively termed “craft breweries” in today’s lexicon, are part of the fabric of America offering consumers a wonderful selection of beer. So I think things have reversed. Before, homebrewers brewed out of necessity. Now, many homebrewers brew because they feel encouraged by the number of really great beers available on the market largely brewed by those who got their starts as homebrewers.
In other words, craft brewers are trend-setting hipsters inspiring others to take the brewing plunge. That’s why Popular Mechanics listed homebrewing as one of the 100 things real men must know how to do. And the editors of that magazine correctly listed knowing how to homebrew above how to escape out of a sinking car. Seriously, how many men do you know who drink beer? And how many do you know who have been in a sinking car, alive or deceased? It’s clear to me that the latter skill is far more practical!
OK, so the above argument is a self-serving and narcissistic observation since I am a craft brewer. Maybe there are other reasons for homebrewing other than joining the ranks of the über cool. Some homebrewers want to outdo what we commercial brewers do. Given the excellent selection of palate-pushing beers available in most areas of the country this is not as easy as it once was, but a rising bar also leads to more aggressive competitors. And homebrewing competitions are certainly among the things motivating many backyard brewers. This unofficial training ground continues to spawn commercial brewers and upstart breweries.
Homebrewed beer can be truly exceptional in terms of flavor and these beers give brewers a lot of pride in their work. The honest answer about consistency is that commercial beers, with few exceptions, win that contest hands down. The two breweries you cite, Anchor and Sierra Nevada, are among my favorite domestic craft breweries and their consistency is notable. But consistency is only one aspect of quality. You can consistently produce something that is uninspired. You can also produce delicious beers that are totally inconsistent from batch-to-batch, yet each batch is delicious. While that lack of consistency would certainly result in failure in today’s highly competitive beer market, it is not such a big deal for homebrewers.
As far as hobbies go, homebrewing does require some academic preparation before beginning and some investment in equipment. To some, building the gear is half the fun and I have tasted homebrew from those who have more talent building equipment than brewing beer. It doesn’t matter if you are a builder, chef, chemist, biologist or artist. Homebrewing can be rewarding to all types and that is why I believe Popular Mechanics listed it as one of the top 100 skills every man must know.