You might assume that Annie Johnson’s day job would curb her homebrewing appetite. The Seattle resident is PicoBrew’s brewmaster, designing recipes for the firm’s automated homebrewing appliances. Her duties include brewing multiple batches weekly, as well as doling out sage brewing advice to PicoBrew users. “I get to talk to the homebrewers in the community all over the world and show them things that I’ve learned along the way,” says Johnson, who started brewing in 1998 and was named 2013’s homebrewer of the year by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA).
From a.m. to p.m., her schedule foams over with beer, beer, beer. Weekends aren’t too different. Maybe she’ll judge a homebrew competition (she’s an accredited national beer judge) or collaborate with her local club, North Seattle Homebrewers, making a beer using red-hot rocks from the fire. “I brew all the time,” Johnson says. Recent batches include an oyster stout, a bubbly Champagne-inspired Belgian beer and a fresh-hop beer featuring her homegrown hops. “I probably brew … well, I’ll say the legal limit—150 gallons a year,” Johnson says, laughing.
Thirty or 40 years ago, homebrewing was a transgressive act, a revolt against fizzy yellow lager. Want to drink different? Brew it at home. A nationwide movement fermented in basements, kitchens and backyards, leading us to our current beer cornucopia. We’re now sprinting toward 6,000 breweries in America that are delivering an avalanche of flavors and choices, reviving old styles and creating thrilling new ones at a fevered clip. Why brew when you can buy whatever floats your flavorful boat? “Homebrewers really like the creativity involved,” says AHA director Gary Glass. “Just because you can go out to dinner and get a really great meal doesn’t mean you stop wanting to cook on a similar level at home.”
The Creative Front
Much of modern brewing’s rainbow swirl of scent and taste can be traced to homebrewers’ experimentalism. They toy with ingredients and techniques, taking risks five or 10 gallons at a time. Missteps are merely reasons to try again, adventures in the terra incognita of flavor, the journey as important as a delicious destination.
Anchorage, Alaska’s Brian Hall started homebrewing in summer 2003 while living in Fairbanks in a dry cabin. “That meant you didn’t have running water,” Hall says. He and a friend started with an apple ale and a raspberry wheat, warming the beer during fermentation with an aquarium heater. “The raspberry beer ended up tasting really hammy, and the apple ale almost tasted like Coors Light,” Hall says. “We called it the Bronze Bullet.”
Hall doubled down and dove headlong into the hobby, fiddling with styles like cardamom-spiced Belgian dark ales and various techniques. “It’s a perfect blend of cooking, art and science,” says Hall, who earned his master’s degree in education. His wife’s medical-school studies brought Hall and the family’s two kids to Portland, Maine, where he toted along one brew kettle and two kegs. “I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll brew a little bit,’ ” Hall recalls. He went bonkers, mixing hazy IPAs with a range of wild, sour and spontaneous ferments. When time came to return to Anchorage, “we brought back 7,000 pounds, of which one-third was beer and wooden barrels,” Hall says.
Back in Anchorage, Hall—who forages for juniper and blueberries—is brewing in earnest, his wild ales and hobby steadily growing more complex. He’s in no rush to open his dream brewpub, a wood-fired operation specializing in bread, butter and beer. Like his liquids, the project is following its own timeline, ready when he feels ready. “I like the idea of having something that takes time to create,” he says.
Chris Colby is no stranger to doing strange things with beer. He began homebrewing in 1990 at Boston University, over the years adding everything from cranberry relish to apple Jolly Ranchers and Mountain Dew to his brews. “I like coming up with new recipes and trying new techniques and exploring all the little things I can do with homebrewing,” says Colby, who lives nears Austin.
He’s won medals. Judged competitions. Served as an editor for Brew Your Own and WineMaker magazines. And written two books, Home Brew Recipe Bible and last fall’s Methods of Modern Homebrewing. “I love the freedom of homebrewing,” says Colby, who belongs to Austin’s ZEALOTS homebrew club. “If the weekend rolls around and I’m tired or something comes up, I don’t have to brew. And I can make whatever I want. I don’t have to make my kölsch for the 800th time because that’s what’s selling.”
He likes to juggle his hobbies, cooking, gardening and, when the mood strikes, brewing 20 or so batches a year. Lately, he’s been exploring Vienna lagers and German pilsners, as well as oddities such as a mead-beer-wine mash-up inspired by an ancient Sumerian poem praising beer goddess Ninkasi. His creative muse matters more than creating a brewery. “I don’t want to turn brewing from something I love into a drudgery.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Not every homebrewer is interested in taking a flavor trip. Many derive deep satisfaction from nailing stylistic guidelines as neatly as an Olympic gymnast’s landing. For San Marcos, California’s Nick Corona, the creative spark was the pungent Avery Maharaja imperial IPA. “Each sip was just liquid gold,” says Corona, a manager of a Native American casino. The next morning Corona awoke, perhaps more fuzzy-brained than normal, with a clear vision. “The first things that went through my mind were: Somebody made that beer, and I want to make a beer that good,” says Corona, who soon ordered a homebrew kit. “I wanted to give someone the experience that I was given.”
Corona found the Maharaja recipe online and set to work. “Obviously, it wasn’t that easy,” he says. “My first eight to 10 beers were IPAs. Of the first ones, I only made one that was decent.” Undaunted, he kept brewing, his breakthrough coming with a fourth-place finish for his Hefeweizen at the San Diego County Fair. “The awards go to fifth place,” Corona says. “Thank goodness I was able to see I was somewhat close. I decided I’d hold on to that recipe and continue to brew it.”
Therein lies the key to Corona’s success: repetition. He’d settle on a style, be it stout, lager, or coffee beers infused with whole beans, and polish the recipe until it was as flawless as fresh snow. Before brewing, “I research, research, research,” Corona says. “I’ll put together my calculations on a recipe and go back and recalculate and recalculate again.” Corona’s coronation came during 2016’s National Homebrew Competition, when he was named America’s homebrewer of the year. “To hear your name announced on homebrewing’s biggest stage was mind-blowing,” he says.
With wife Kandy’s blessing, he’s turned a garage bay into his brewing lair, outfitted with chest freezers and gleaming stainless steel equipment. Most beer is bottled and earmarked for competitions, feedback more essential than free-flowing taps. “I really enjoy competition brewing and I want to get absolute unbiased opinions,” Corona says.
Failure led Pittsburgh’s Malcolm Frazer to seek perfection. Frazer started brewing in 1997 while stationed with the Navy in South Carolina, at his roommate’s urging. “He was on the porch brewing and shouted up, in this thick Maine accent, ‘Hey, Malcolm, come down. We’re gonna make beer. You like beer.’ ” Not that batch. It was, in a word, atrocious. “Having made that very, very bad beer, I wanted to make a good beer.”
Frazer, who later served on a nuclear submarine, started making beer for his Navy roommates, who helped him buy equipment. “I brewed what they wanted,” says Frazer. He made IPAs and a Boston Lager clone, plus plenty of strong beers. “We were Navy guys and a little thin on the wallet,” he recalls. Post-Navy, he moved to western Pennsylvania to work in the nuclear field. He joined local homebrew club TRASH—Three Rivers Alliance of Serious Homebrewers—and subjected himself to serious feedback. “They didn’t just pile on to be jerks,” he says. “They piled on because I belonged to a club that was very, very detail-oriented.”
Torn to his foundation, Frazer started rebuilding his hobby, merging his process-oriented, science-driven military background with an artistic touch—theater and drawing were high school pastimes. He methodically attempted to master every beer style. “As soon as I did well with those in competitions, like gold, I would move on to something else,” he says.
Competition brewing requires commitment and free time. After Frazer married and had three young children, squeezing in a brew was tougher than juicing a months-old lime. He began brewing after his kids went to bed, sessions lasting till 1 or 2 a.m. “I’d come home, do the family thing and brew at night,” he says.
To save time, he started weighing ingredients and prepping equipment on a Friday or Saturday night, then he set a pre-dawn timer for the electric heater. Frazer would wake up and make coffee, chased by beer. “I loved brewing so much it was worth it,” he says. He also started sharing his passion with his kids. His son and daughters help him weigh grains, a sneaky method of teaching numbers and demystifying brewing. “They eat grains and smell hops,” he says. “I like to have that natural, not-in-your-face learning.”
Homebrew enough beer, serve it to enough friends and family, and chances are you’ll eventually hear this phrase: “You should go pro.” Opening a brewery is a dream achieved to some. But to others, it’s a dream best left deferred.
PicoBrew’s Johnson might’ve been able to parlay her 2013 win into a brewery in the Bay Area, her home at the time. Instead, the California State legislature IT specialist read about PicoBrew and dropped the company a line. Originally, PicoBrew wanted to buy her recipes, which she found funny. “They’re all free on the internet,” Johnson says. “Homebrewers, we always share. We don’t charge.”
Instead, she joined the PicoBrew team, becoming the seventh employee. Now in Seattle, she also began working at Bluebird, an ice cream shop and brewery. Johnson spent about a year on the two-barrel system, the manual labor and heavy lifting more than she could handle. “I’m 52 now and I’m feeling it,” Johnson says. She later adds of PicoBrew, “On this level, I get to do what I still love to do—brew at home—and brew at work.”
Nashville’s Chris Allen also has no intent to take the next step. After all, his amateur rig is as tricked out as a professional brewery. The technology director for a private school and coach of the robotics team, Allen has transformed half his home garage, built into a hill, into Ones & Zeros Brewing, a gleaming temple to the intersection of automation and fermentation. It contains glass-door refrigerators converted into fermentation chambers that maintain temperatures as precisely as Swiss watches. “I can hold temperature inside of the thermal well within a tenth of a degree, and ramp up or ramp down,” he says.
Over the years, he’s garnered enough gold medals at homebrew competitions to fill Fort Knox’s coffers, and he was named both the Mid-South and Tennessee homebrewer of the year in 2016 and 2017. His brewing repertoire ranges from a gose to wee heavy and raspberry lambic, each one a paradigmatic example. “I’m a total perfectionist. The beer has to be perfect to me. Competing is just a way to verify that I’m brewing to a classic style,” he says.
“So many of my friends are like, ‘When are you going to open your new brewery?’ Not tomorrow,” Allen says. For now, he’s content to share his beers with friends and his local homebrew club, fine-tuning his garage operation. “I’m trying to invent new ways to push the scope of homebrewing,” he says.
In an earlier age, homebrewing was all about filling beer’s blank spots with flavor, creating alternatives where none existed. Nowadays, brewing is in many ways more personal, powered by a propulsive thrust of ingenuity, community and meticulousness, trying to match—and maybe best—the beers available at your local store.
The surge of homebrewers going pro, however, hasn’t come without its cost. Retail sales have declined at homebrew supply shops, says AHA’s Glass, and older shops have been particularly hard hit. The story isn’t as simple as homebrewers shifting to online purchases. “Newly opened brick-and-mortar stores are outgrowing online retailers,” he says, adding that there’s big growth with over-60 brewers. Stats are great for proving points, but sometimes there’s a simpler explanation. “People think that homebrewing is fun,” Glass says. “If people didn’t think it was fun, they wouldn’t do it.”
Parts of this feature were adapted from Homebrew World: Discover the Secrets of the World’s Leading Homebrewers (Sterling Epicure), to be released in April.
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