I’m lucky. As the Associate Publisher of Brew Your Own I get to be around beer and brewing more than the average human. Last year at the Craft Brewer’s Conference in Portland, Oregon I caught up with a commercial brewer I have known for years. He had recently judged a homebrew competition in which I had entered a beer. We talked about the gamut of styles and varying quality of the beers his panel had judged. We even discovered that he had anonymously judged my beer after I mentioned I had entered a black California common fermented and primed with rye whiskey barrel-aged maple syrup. He remembered the beer, gave me his honest opinion, and offered suggestions for improving the recipe for the next iteration. During that conversation he said, “Of course if you make a terrible homebrew, it doesn't matter. And if you make a spectacular homebrew, it doesn't matter.” That stuck with me. Does homebrew matter?
Later, as I reflected on the conference, it occurred to me that homebrew mattered quite a bit to the flourishing craft brew industry. Homebrewing nurtured the traditions and styles that have come to be the foundation of craft brewing. I wager that at least three-quarters of the trade show hall would have their arms raised if we asked all of the craft brewers if they got their start as homebrewers.
So does homebrewing only matter if it is a stepping stone on the journey to becoming a professional brewer? Of course not. Most homebrewers don't have aspirations of turning their hobby into a business. Sure, we take pride in the suggestion we should go pro after someone enjoys our latest creation, but there is a big difference between creating 5 gallons (19 L) of flavorful beer and brewing it consistently large scale. That line of thinking brought me right back to my initial question. Does homebrew matter if it’s just a hobby?
That got me wondering about other hobbies. Does grilling the perfect rack of ribs on the backyard grill matter? Does building model railroads matter? Does baseball card or stamp collecting matter? Why do we have hobbies? What do they mean to us as humans? I was in the midst of this existential crisis, about ready to sell my brew kit and head to a Trappist monastery when it came clear to me. Homebrewing matters because we love it. We love the primal bready smell of the yeast starter. We love selecting our ingredients and formulating our recipes. We love the mash and hitting our target gravity. We love the fragrance of hops when we first tear open the foil bag. We love drinking our hydrometer samples and speculating about the beer to come. We love seeing the first ring of kräusen in the carboy as fermentation commences. We love the lingo. We love batch sparging, first wort hopping, and cold crashing. We love the camaraderie of talking about the science and the art of brewing with fellow homebrewers. Homebrew matters because it activates us as creators. It gives us a chance to say, “I made that.” Homebrew matters because as we learn about the ingredients, processes, and techniques that create this spectacular beverage we also learn about ourselves and our passions. It turns out that homebrew, or any hobby really, opens our lives to new experiences and friendships. So next time I talk with that commercial brewer friend of mine I won't hesitate to contradict his sentiment that homebrewing doesn't matter, but in the meantime please excuse me – I just hit my mash temperature and am about to dough in on my next homebrew adventure!