Interview with Charlie Papazian

His voice is soft, his manner calm. In fact Charlie Papazian is amazingly mellow for someone with his schedule. Before the snow even begins to melt this spring in the mountains outside Boulder, Colorado—home of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA), which Papazian founded in 1978—he will have traveled to Brazil, Japan, Southeast Asia, South Africa, and Europe.

All in the name of beer.

Some people call Papazian, who has been crafting his own beer since 1970, the guru of homebrewing. He has written and published numerous books and articles on the subject; taught classes and given lectures on brewing at club meetings, schools, and conferences worldwide; founded and still presides over the Association of Brewers (of which the AHA is a division) and its many activities, including Zymurgy magazine and the National Homebrewers Conference and competitions; and continues to educate potential brewers in parts of the world where homebrewing has yet to gain the hobby status it now holds in the US and much of Europe.

According to Papazian, being called a guru doesn’t really bother him, but he believes it’s all in the eyes of the beholder. “I’ve never called myself that,” he says. “I am who I am. To some people, I’m a bastard; to others I’m a relaxed, homebrew-kind-of-guy.” Still others, he says, call him a “pie-ro-maniac”; besides beer and traveling, his passions include pie—apple, berry, banana cream, you name it. He even founded National Pie Day, January 23.

But no matter how people perceive him, says Papazian, “I’m just a homebrewer. I’m happy with who I am and what I brew and why I do it.”

For the fun of it

After 25 years of brewing beer and inspiring others to do the same, the reason he does it today is the same as it was in the beginning: for the fun of it. “It’s a hobby—it should be fun,” he says. “If you’re not having fun, you can still brew beer, but get yourself another hobby.”

He still brews regularly—about 20 batches of beer and mead a year—though his busy schedule sometimes gets in the way. What he brews depends on “what I have the least of in my basement stash,” he says. “Before I start brewing, I check there first and see what I’m low on.” It also depends on what ingredients strike his fancy at the time. “Homebrewing is about priorities, and I believe that each brewer’s style reflects what they are most interested in,” he says. “My priorities are experimenting with new ingredients and trying new recipes. I’m not a gadgets or yeast kind of guy—I’m more of a malt-and-hops and trying-out-new-balances kind of guy.”

In fact, he says, his homebrewing set-up is nothing sophisticated or expensive—just stainless-steel pots and plastic buckets. “I brew in my kitchen using the basic principles and systems. Except when it’s hot—then I brew on the back porch with a propane burner.”

Even so, Papazian says, he admires people like Al Andrews—a member of the Maltose Falcons in Riverside, California, who Papazian calls the first real “gadget guy”—as well as those individuals who have worked to upgrade homebrewing technology with all sorts of equipment innovations. “We have really progressed over the last 20 years in improving the quality of home brewing,” he says. “And because of these improvements, our beer continues to improve as well. In fact the better the suppliers and the supplies, the better the product gets. We can always go back to Prohibition beer, to really cheap beer, but that isn’t what we want.”

Beer on the beach

In the preface to his book The Home Brewer’s Companion, Papazian writes: “Homebrewing has been responsible for many inspirations in my life.” In addition to the AHA and Zymurgy, he says, homebrewing has inspired friendship, love, romance, and more than a few journeys. “I remember one trip I took, to Regensburg, Germany, in 1985, just because I was interested in rye beer,” he says. “Back then, the only brewer making rye beer was in Regensburg.” He also traveled to Quito, Ecuador, because someone once asked him if he knew where the oldest brewery in the world was. “Five years later, I went there,” he says. “It was built in 1530, in a monastery, and it was still operating in the late 1960s. It’s now a museum.”

These days, many of his travels are inspired by his desire to both teach and learn. Despite the homebrewing “explosion” that has occurred in the US over the last few years, “it’s not just Americans who are interested in brewing good beer,” he says. “There is this network of people all over the world who are trying to understand what’s going on in brewing these days. So I visit breweries, go to conferences, give seminars, meet other brewers and enthusiasts, judge some competitions…And I’ve found that what we can learn about other cultures can help us improve our beer and brewing here in the US.”

Occasionally, he says, he does get to hang out on the beach and simply enjoy a beer without having to talk about it or think about it. For example, during a recent visit to Southeast Asia he sampled many local beers. “In Hue, Vietnam, I drank a Hue Imperial Stout, which was really great. In Bangkok my favorite was a German helles-style beer at a brewpub that opened a few months ago. And on the beach in Southern Thailand—well, it was just a cold beer.”

Does beer make the world a better place? “Absolutely, unequivocally,” he says, laughing. “I have been all over the world and have seen that when people enjoy beer, it makes for a better atmosphere—especially when it is used responsibly, which most people do.”

All in all, whether drinking beer or brewing it, “people should make their own choices,” he says. “In fact, the neat thing about homebrewing is that it’s all about choice.” For example, he says, “There is a real art to blending certain styles of beer with certain types of food. But once in a while, you have to throw out all the philosophical stuff and say, ‘What do I really want?’ The whole thing should be approached in terms of guidelines, not rules. I don’t like rules.”

He chuckles, and his voice softens again. “But you sure can’t beat a barley wine around the fire in winter, or a mead on the beach when you’re watching the moon rise with someone special.”

Issue: June 1995