THIS IS a great week to be a beer geek in Philadelphia.
Yeah, I know, we’re still licking our wounds after Philly Beer Week earlier this month. But starting today, the city hosts the geekiest of beer lovers: People who not only know that the IPA you’re sipping was dry-hopped with Simcoe hops, they likely know the farm where those hops were grown, their cohumulone content and whether they were tossed into the conditioning tank by a left- or right-handed brewer.
OK, I’m kidding about that last part. But there are no more knowledgeable beer enthusiasts than the people who make their own beer.
And at least 3,400 of them are in the city for the three-day American Homebrewing Association’s annual conference. They’ll be attending seminars including “Alternatives to Wood Aging Techniques” and “Geeking Out Your Cellar.” Nearly 1,000 of their brews will undergo a final round of judging in the organization’s annual awards competition.
With mad skills that are pushing the boundaries of the beer we drink, these do-it-yourselfers are riding the peak of their hobby. The industry posted an estimated 26 percent growth in the past year, which means that amateur beer is growing at a faster rate than sales of professionally made craft beer.
How hot is homebrewing? This year’s conference nearly doubled the previous attendance record. Tickets sold out in under 20 hours last February.
That’s partly because these annual meet-ups typically have been held in the West. This is the AHA’s first visit to the East since 2005.
But it’s also a sign that, even as the shelves at your local beer store are fully stocked with hundreds of varieties, a growing number of people simply want to try their own hand at the world’s second-oldest profession. There are an estimated 1.5 million homebrewers in America, according to Gary Glass, the organization’s director.
I grabbed Glass on the phone for six quick questions:
1. What’s driving the hobby?
“Mainly it’s the growth in craft brewing,” Glass said. “The first step for anyone getting involved in homebrewing is they have to be a fan of craft beer. Once that happens, they’re introduced to homebrewing somehow – a friend, someone else in the hobby.
“Knowing you can make beer at home is a big step.”
2. Who’s doing all this homebrewing?
“Before, it used to be people in their 30s and 40s. Today, close to half of those buying beginner kits are under the age of 30. The growth coincides with when the first millennials reached legal drinking age. Millennials seem more inclined to drink craft beer, but also homebrewing for them is a means of self-expression, and that’s something that particular generation looks for.
“It’s also a hobby that you can share with your friends. There are now more than 1,400 homebrew clubs in the United States. Being part of a community is a major motivating factor.
“Plus, if it tastes good, your friends think you’re really cool.”
3. How can amateurs manage to make beer as well as the pros?
“A lot of it has to do with the quality of ingredients. It’s much higher than before, and access to ingredients is much higher. Plus they have access to information on the Internet. That allows people getting involved in hobby to succeed right away. Their first batch comes out good and they’re hooked.”
4. Specifically, how have ingredients improved?
“When I got started homebrewing in the early ‘90s, liquid yeast was just starting to come out into the marketplace. We used dried yeast, and there’s nothing wrong with dried yeast. But back then, you ran into contamination issues sometimes. Plus, there was a limited number of yeast strains.
“Now there’s just a huge variety of strains-pure cultures that you can get fresh at your local homebrew shop. One of the largest stores now has 100 different yeast varieties.
“The same goes with hops and malts. You have all these new varieties that have been developed for craft brewers, so they’re available for homebrewers, too.”
5. Mississippi and Alabama just legalized homebrewing, so it’s now legal in all 50 states. What took so long?
“In both those states, there is a strong contingent of people who think consumption of alcohol is morally bad. Any alcohol legislation is difficult to get passed there because the constituents think any liberalization of alcohol laws is immoral.
“Some people also associated homebrewing with moonshining, so we had that to overcome as well.”
6. What’s next for the AHA? A reality-TV show?
“Believe it or not, we were actually contacted by some producers about doing one. That hasn’t moved forward, though.”