Tips for a Successful Homebrew Club

Brewing beer is fun whether you like to brew alone or with friends. Getting involved with a dedicated group of homebrewers, however, can have some real advantages beyond better beer. For starters, it’s a good excuse to have a set time each month for getting together with like-minded people and geeking out about beer. Meetings are also a great opportunity to taste and evaluate beers — your own, those of fellow club members as well as commercial beers. Clubs can also be a great way to share in the cost of ingredients or equipment if you want to order in bulk. They are also an opportunity to try out some roles and responsibilities that you might not have in your everyday life; perhaps you’ve never organized an event, or you’ve never served on a board of directors — a homebrew club gives you the chance to try on a different hat . . . all under the guise of brewing beer.
To get some expert advice, I turned to the folks who would know about club life the best — homebrewers who are active in a homebrew club. I picked my favorite tips and explored each one with more detail. If you’re ready to start or join a club, or you want to see your club grow or try new things, don’t skip these tips!

Starting A Club

Getting a homebrew club together isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s not hard to get together once or twice with a few like-minded friends, but to be successful in the long run you need to decide on a direction and mission, communicate your message and meeting time as much as possible and be welcoming and be consistent about when and where you meet.

• Michael Berrios, Skippack, Pennsylvania: “I just started the Plymouth Pride Brew Club in January. My biggest advice is consistency! Have your meetings in the same place at the same time each month. There were times where I would sit there by myself just waiting to see if anyone would come — we now have 16 members!”

Think about that new restaurant that came to town a few years ago and never took off — what ever happened to that place? You went in once and it was great, but the next two times you stopped by it was closed — so you never went back. The same is true for your homebrew club. It takes time for people to get into a routine or schedule, so at first you may — like Michael — be the only person at some of the the meetings. Make the best of it and bring some good homebrew and a copy of a good beer magazine to keep you occupied, or choose a meeting place you don’t mind hanging out at. . . like a local brewpub. If you wait it out for a few weeks or months, eventually people will catch on to your established meeting time and make it a part of their homebrew routine.

• Steve Travis, Half Moon Bay, California: “We started a brew club five months ago and now have just over 20 active members. We have several modes of communication, from group forums on Google, to the Facebook page and Facebook group. We work to keep people engaged between meetings. This is the key to keeping people interested.”

Make it easy for people to get basic information and find out what’s going on with your homebrew club. If they have to search for you, they won’t come to meetings. It’s inexpensive to create a basic website these days thanks to platforms like WordPress and Blogger, and a website is an easy way to get your message out there to both members and anyone interested in joining the club. Second, establish pages for your club on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. (wherever your members prefer to hang out) and keep them active — be sure to login at least a few times a week to see if anyone has tried to contact you for more information about joining. Finally, establish an email contact list and keep it active and fresh. Be sure to get contact information from any new members as they join. You can make a monthly email newsletter as simple as a group-wide email from your personal account, or you can try using a web-based html newsletter platform, such as Constant Contact, iContact, Bravemailer, etc. (some are paid, some are free, depending on your budget).

• Chris Bourdages, Ajax, Ontario: “As founder and President of the Durham Homebrewers Club here in Ontario, Canada, with 29 consecutive monthly meetings under our belt and 150+ members, I can tell you that
the best thing you can do to start a club is to set a solid foundation to base the club — meaning you need to inform the members about the club’s specific operational mandate.”

Make sure you have a clear message in mind when you establish a homebrew club. Are you getting together just to brew? Will there be a learning component? Narrow down your mission and make it known to everyone who is interested in joining. Make it specific, but keep it approachable. This will ensure that everyone in the club understands what the goals are from the get go. For example, The Knights of the Brown Bottle in Arlington, Texas posted their mission on their website: “The mission of The Club is to promote public awareness and appreciation of the quality and variety of homebrewed beer through education, research, and the collection and dissemination of information; to serve as a forum for the technological and cross-cultural aspects of the art of brewing; and to encourage personal responsibility when using beer or other alcohol-containing beverage.”

• Greg Bell, Bristow, Virginia: “The first thing we did was find a place we could meet consistently. Ask questions and be aware of the laws and regulations surrounding the place you decide to meet.”

It’s not a bad idea when you’re starting up a club to have meetings in your garage or at your house once a month, but a lot can change over the course of a year; your work hours might change, your wife or husband might get sick of having a bunch of homebrewers invade their space after a few meetings, or you might move away and leave the group without a gathering spot. Keep the bigger picture in mind when choosing a meeting space and try to find a home base that is neutral for all current and potential members. A natural choice (as I mentioned earlier) is a local brewpub. Other good spots are local restaurants (with good beer lists and space for a group, of course), or local community centers with meeting space. Be sure to always approach your potential host for permission before descending on your meeting space — many places might not allow guests to bring homebrew or beer onto their premises for insurance purposes. They might also have other groups committed to the space and time. You could also rotate meetings amongst club members once you have a core group of committed attendees. Just be sure that if you have a rotating schedule that you post the schedule ahead of time and make sure everyone knows when and where you will be meeting. It only takes showing up at the wrong place once or twice to turn off a new member.

Maintaining A Club

In the beginning, a homebrew club may just be as simple as getting together with a few friends each month and talking about homebrewing informally. As your group grows, however, it’s important to develop a structure plan events and meeting themes to keep people interested. Make sure everyone feels welcome and a part of the club and you will see your group continue to meet up year after year.

“Have fun educational events that help build up knowledge and skills in the club. We have a BJCP study group to help people become judges or improve their rank. We have a club style challenge and a club cone challenge once a year where members all brew a certain style/clone recipe for a mini competition between members. Also, club brews are great for learning new techniques, helping newer brewers become familiar with the brewing process and engaging with other club members.”

Once you get over the novelty of hanging out with homebrewers talking about beer, the enthusiasm for meeting up every month can die down unless you provide a schedule of brewing projects, trips, competitions and learning opportunities. If you keep things interesting, you’ll have members for life. For regular (non-event) meetings, invite guest speakers to come talk to the group, such as local pro brewers, maltsters or yeast professionals. Also, try some group activities such as a “big” brew, or have everyone brew the same recipe then bring in the results to taste. Take field trips to breweries and beer-related events. And consider creating your own homebrew competition if there isn’t one in your area already.

• Bruce Buerger: “One thing I’ve seen when talking with people is – a lot of people try to take on the whole thing by themselves or one to two people. Shape it as an opportunity to do something differently than they would in their professional lives. For example, I wasn’t setting up any LLC, non-profit organizations, I’ve never been a treasurer, I never taught classes – these are all new leadership opportunities people can embrace. If you shape the opportunities as positive (rather than a burden), you’re going to get more people wanting to try getting involved. Look at it as an opportunity to make things happen.”

Don’t look at homebrew club responsibilities as a burden — focus on the positive. Bruce Buerger, who shared the last tip and who led a seminar at the National Homebrewers Conference on improving club events and attracting new leaders, explained that negative momentum is very tough to overcome. “One thing I’ve seen when talking with people is a lot of them try to take on the whole thing by themselves, or with just one to two people,” he said of club organizing. This can lead to burnout and make it sound as though everything they do is work. Remember to spread the responsibilities around, that you’re a part of the club to have fun, and that there’s always going to be homebrew!

• Dave Allen: “Fiduciary transparency. What expenses will dues cover? What additional expenses can be expected? What are the costs and benefits of special projects? No one likes unexpected or unpleasant surprises.”

Be very up front about the costs and use of dues, if you choose to collect them. For many people, the money spent on homebrewing is carved out of tight budgets and the choices you make for spending dues can alienate a member if they feel like they don’t have a say in how their money is spent. Always have any financial information related to dues available to all your members. And also try to have a system in place for membership scholarships for potential members who might not be able to afford dues or participation in more expensive events.

Expanding A Club

Homebrewers often cycle in and out of the hobby, or they move away, take different jobs with conflicting hours or encounter family commitments — all of which can cause your homebrew club ranks to dwindle if you’re not actively recruiting and welcoming new members. Homebrew clubs can also get stale without ideas and input from new members. Stay committed to welcoming anyone new and to getting your club’s name out there, even after you’ve established a core group of homebrewers — you never know who will be the next club president.

• Bruce Buerger: “We get involved with the community quite a bit. It raises our profile. We do competitions in the area and try to get in good with the local breweries in town. We will partner with them and run competition in parallel with an event of theirs; we get their word out, they get ours out. We also work with local homebrew shops and refer people to them. Do Big Brewday at your local homebrew shop; that way the staff doesn’t have to pay for someone to brew. Also, help out with changing legislation in your state. We did that with Wisconsin law a year ago. All those things kind of add up to say ‘hey, here we are.’”

Visit any thriving beer scene in any part of the US (and around the world), and odds are you’ll find a homebrew club or two (or more) behind the scenes. Homebrew clubs organize homebrew competitions in conjunction with the local beer festivals. They pour beer at your city’s beer week or volunteer to help set up and break down events. Identify those roles in your community and get your club members excited to be a part of the scene — and ask everyone to wear a club-logo tee shirt whenever they participate in an event. Every positive experience with a member of your homebrew club is an endorsement for joining the club ranks.

• Matthew Berthiaume: “As the President of the Forest City Brewers, I believe the point of a homebrew club should ultimately be about education of the craft. We support nearby festivals and local events with bus trips and group presence. Run sensory analysis classes. And it never hurts to have someone to call and come help you run a couple batches through the system or do an all-out group brew.”

In addition to helping out at festivals and beer weeks, homebrewers can find new club members through teaching and making themselves available to brewers with less experience. Many of the men and women who staff local homebrew shops are in a homebrew club, or teach homebrewing classes. If you know enough to brew that you can teach someone else, volunteer your services to your local shop owner, or organize a class at your local community college or community center. If you don’t want to teach, try just reaching out to the newer brewers in your group and offering an extra set of hands for their next brew day.

• Jake Woldstad: “Beware of becoming too clique-ish within your club. It’s great to visit with your friends, but make sure you welcome new people checking out your club for the first time. If they don’t feel welcome, they won’t come back.”

This is a tough one, because people tend to flock to those who joined the club around the same time, or those with similar brewing skill levels. A new member who comes to a few meetings and doesn’t feel like he or she is a part of the group, however, will stop coming. Don’t be the mean girls at the exclusive table in the lunchroom – make a point of noticing any new members when they come to meetings and introduce yourself. When they come back again, encourage them to talk about their brews and enter them into competition and give them feedback and pointers about the homebrews they bring in to taste. And be fair in your feedback — don’t lie if the beer isn’t good, but be constructive rather than negative. Also, encourage new members to take on volunteering roles within the group, such as lining up a guest speaker, organizing a brewery tour or taking on an officer position.

Get Clubbing

In addition to those ten tips, I have one more bonus tip of my own to share for anyone interested in a homebrew club: contact other homebrew clubs for advice. As the former editor for BYO, I’ve talked to lots and lots of homebrew club members and I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t been more than willing to help me out with information. If you are thinking about starting up a local club, get in touch with some of the clubs in your state or region for advice on what works and what doesn’t work (see the sidebar on page xx for finding local or regional clubs). You might save a lot of time and effort (possibly even state laws) by avoiding the same mistakes they made when they formed their club. If you are already in an established club and want to try running a competition or other event, there are many clubs who run competitions every year who can share some tips for success.

Issue: October 2013