Last updated 6/10/01
I have been an avid, though only intermittently fanatical, homebrewer since around 1987. I have not however brewed recently. Perhaps I will again someday. Brewing can be a wonderful experience, bringing together history, tradition, art, science, craft, taste. In 1996, I was foolish enough to accept an offer to brew for a living. I was head brewer for The Blue Coyote, a now defunct Lansing, Michigan brewpub that had potential but was, like all things and people the owner came in contact with, used and thrown away. To say the least, the "management" and I had very different ideas about what consituted dedication to beer and customer. I left with, and remain in possession of, a less than favorable opinion of the brewing world (outside of homebrewing that is).
Homebrewing is great fun. It's a lot like cooking. You can just throw things together, start stirring, end with fermentation, and wind up with a flavorful, satisfying splendor of taste. Along the way, your house is filled with a warm aroma that makes you feel cozier in your own home than usual. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the chemistry and technology and culture that goes along with what it is you're putting together can only make you better at it.
For years now, I have enjoyed brewing for myself and friends, occasionally entering a beer into a competition for the feedback. The best feedback however is from fellow brewers with whom one shares the product of your own imagination and hands. I will very likely go into greater detail about brewing here, later. But for now, try out some of these links:
Other countries have wonderfully long brewing traditions. England, Germany, Belgium (the country with the most breweries per capita in the world!), and the Flanders region of France. Here in the US, we used to have an interesting history, lost it and are poised to regain it.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were thousands of breweries in the US. You would stop off on your way home and get meat at the butcher's, bread at the baker's and beer at the local brewery. Of course, all the brewing traditions were brought here, like most everything else, by immigrants. Well, during the early part of the 20th century, the US went crazy, and in a wave of teatotal-ism and anti-German sentiment, passed Prohibition. Out went all the family owned breweries.
After Prohibition was repealed, the only breweries to emerge and prosper were the big ones. You know, the guys who make what has become the "Wonderbread" equivalent of beer. Beer, even after Prohibition, used to taste like something. The main style that seemed to become popular in the US was the Pilsner style, originally from the town of Plzen, Czechoslovakia, and later adopted by the Germans, who in turn brought the tradition here.
However, these post-Prohibition megabreweries figured that if you put less and less into the beer, over time you could change people's tastes. You can look at old recipes from even the big guys from the last few decades and just watch the specific gravities go down and the use of corn and rice (which add no flavor to speak of, no body, nothing but fermentable sugars) go up. So put less flavor in the beer, fewer quality ingredients. Do that long enough, for enough generations, and what you get is people who have no concept of what beer used to be, what it can be. They think that Bud, Coors, and Miller make beer. If I want bottled water, I will pay for a quality mineral water, thank you very much.
Ah, but then homebrewing was legalized (thanks go to Jimmy Carter), and homebrewers realized that, even with the not so great ingredients available to them, they could still, if they knew how, make much more flavorful beer than the Big Three (I suppose that is not saying much). Not to mention they could make more than the one watered-down pseudo Pilsner that the US was so fond of. A demand increased for better ingredients, and for real beer. Imports (and I don't mean Canadian and Mexican, I mean beers with a tradition, a history and a flavor) began to increase. Finally, some folks decided they should try making a living out of brewing beer. The boom in microbreweries and brewpubs began.
It is still on. The growth rate of this industry is incredible. Good for the US, good for beer lovers. However, with growth comes the potential for money. With the potential for money, come some very nasty people.
Years ago, the people who started up these micros and pubs were brewers who loved and respected beer. They were interested in spreading the knowledge and appreciation of a tradition lost and found. Nowadays, from my own experience, I see many individuals and companies that have no interest in the quality of beer getting into the industry. There is a potential for money, and that is what they are interested in. They don't even care to learn about beer so that they can at least educate themselves to provide a quality product.
I know. I worked for someone like this myself. After seriously thinking about starting my own micro for a couple of years, I had finally given up on the idea. Just at that moment, I was offered the job of Head Brewer in a brewpub (which shall remain nameless) here in Michigan. I thought it would be an opportunity to at least get some experience in the field with which I could later enter the industry on my own. I learned the hard way that there are owners who hire brewers like they hire waiters. They have no respect for the product and its traditions.
Here's a brain puzzler. It costs you 18 cents to make a pint of beer and you sell it for $3.50. Not bad. Now, imagine, instead of making a good beer, you can spend 23 cents and make a great, possibly even world-class, beer and still sell it for $3.50. (Or, you can be daring and sell it for $3.75). Would you? I know I would. Why don't these guys?
There are some people out there that care about their beer. They strive for a quality product, education of the masses, etc., all during the running of a difficult business. I know. I've met some of them. (One example is the team of Matt and Rene Greff, owners of Arbor Brewing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Great beer from great people.) Please support them. They'll look at you drinking their beer and they see a loyal customer with the intelligence to choose quality, flavor, tradition.
Please don't support the guys who, when they look at you drinking their beer,
see dollar signs. All we can do is hope that, through our
selective support, the guys who survive the inevitable shake out
in the industry are the ones who have knowledge and respect for
beer and its aficionados.
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