Saturday morning around my place frequently is accompanied by the sweet smell of malt and cigar smoke. But this isn’t the morning after a Friday-night poker game. It’s Joe Sixpack’s rowhouse brewery, hard off Girard Avenue in historic olde Fishtown.
Just a few blocks from the spookily vacant Christian Schmidt & Sons brewery, I cook up some of the meanest ales you’ll ever taste.
Now, that’s no invitation for you freeloaders to show up on my front stoop with a mug in your hand. You mooches can go make your own beer – it’s about as easy as barbecuing on a Weber grill, and it’ll cost you only about 15 bucks a case.
Like many home brewers, I got started in the early ’80s, back when the only decent beer you could find was an import or a dusty case of Schmidt’s Prior Double Dark. My man Jimmy Carter helped solve that problem in 1979 when he signed a federal law permitting households to brew 200 gallons a year. Why the feds would ever allow anyone to brew the equivalent of a six-pack a day is beyond me; possibly they never figured us beer-drinkers would push ourselves away from the bar long enough to make something we couldn’t chug for another month.
But making beer is quite easy. Plus, you can drink beer while you do it.
There are just four basic ingredients: water (Schuylkill punch out of the tap is fine), grain (usually malted barley), hops (for aroma and bitterness to cut the sweetness from the malt) and yeast.
When you boil the water, malt and hops, it fills your house with a dizzying sweet smell that’ll have your dog dancing and your neighbors singing. Cook it for about as long as it takes to smoke a good-size cigar, let the mix cool, toss in the yeast and watch it bubble. That’s fermentation, folks – a truly wondrous process that converts sugar into alcohol and turns your friends into drunken idiots.
Home brewing, you see, is a sacred event at the Sixpack household – a tribute to the gods, a celebration of nature’s essential elements, undisputed evidence of the evolution of man from knuckle-dragging ape to master of his domain.
And, more than that, home brewing is at the very root of America’s beer revolution. Simply put, without home brewing, there would be no microbrewing industry.
I ran this theory past George Hummel, the guy who owns Center City’s Home Sweet Homebrew with his wife, Nancy Rigburg. Over a bottle of his smoky, very tasty homemade Scotch ale, he observed: “Once you drink your own, it occurs to you that fresh beer is better than stale beer.”
It wasn’t long, Hummel says, before home-brew fans demanded better beer. The megabreweries weren’t making it, so home brewers opened their own joints.
I can’t think of any other industry that was created solely by consumers who tired of a mainstream product and invented their own, better brand. It’s as if motorists, sick of driving ugly, inefficient gas hogs, opened factories to produce their own sporty coupes.
Check out your own favorite micro, and I’ll bet it’s run by a homebrewer. Sierra Nevada, Pete’s Wicked – their founders got started brewing five-gallon batches on their kitchen stoves. Locally, most city brewers learned their craft at home. Eric Savage and Victor Novak at Dock Street, and William Reed at Samuel Adams were customers, Hummel says. Jon Bovit, the co-owner of Yards in Manayunk proudly adds, “I bought my first kit at Home Sweet Homebrew in the late ’80s.” He and his partner, Tom Kehoe, are using the same recipe they developed when they were college students.
Thankfully, most craft brewers have not forgotten their homebrewing roots. Boston Beer Co., for instance, is distributing three beers under the Long Shot label that were brewed from the winning recipes in the World Homebrew Contest. Most micros gladly share their recipes with do-it-yourselfers looking to re-create their favorite beer, and some even offer free supplies of their own hops, the plant that provides the distinctive “spice.”
Unfortunately, the expansion of micros has slowed the growth in home brewing. Beer-drinkers now can find quality brew almost anywhere, so why bother to make your own?
That’s the kind of question you’d never ask if you’ve ever poured a perfect ale that you made yourself. Rich, refreshing and honest. Modern man doesn’t get many chances to confirm that he is, indeed, meister of his domain.
Sixpack on tap
- Anderson Valley Highrollers Wheat (Boone, Calif.), Jake & Oliver’s House of Brews, 22 S. 3rd St.
- Samuel Adams India Pale Ale (Philadelphia), Samuel Adams Brew House, 1516 Sansom St.
- La Trappe Dubbel (Belgium), Bridgid’s, 726 N. 24th St.
- Flying Fish Extra Pale Ale (Cherry Hill, N.J.), Khyber Pass Pub, 54 S. 2nd St.
- Dock Street Imperial Stout (Philadelphia), Dock Street Brewing Co., 2 Logan Square.
- Gulden Draak (Belgium) barleywine-style ale, Copa Too! 263 S. 15th St.