Last summer I wrote an article for SJBC Why We Brew Part I which focused on the history of home brewing. I had intended Part II to be about home brewers themselves, the joy they derive from the craft as well as about some of the homebrew clubs in South Jersey and beyond. (I also intended it to come out sooner, but life happens…at least it isn’t 9+ years between book 5 and 6, GRRM!).
But then, the world changed.News reports became filled with daily results of how many infected, how many deaths, reminding me (and perhaps others who were around) of the nightly casualty scorecard during the Vietnam War. Raise your hand if you ever thought you would have to wear a mask and gloves to go out of your house…or not be able to hug your kids…or not be able to visit a taproom, or brew beer with your friends.
Social Distancing – A Challenge
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”
~ Not Charles Darwin
A great quote, often attributed to The Origin of the Species author, but not him. His letters are actually kind of boring, a lot of fractions and talk about trees, but nonetheless, a great quote.
We, as humans are nothing if not adaptable, and that adaptability has been tested during this pandemic. Home brewers (as well as brewers and beer lovers in general) are very social, so just by definition the term “social distancing” creates a challenge.
Matt Talbot is the President of Barley Legal Homebrewers. Barley Legal was established over 10 years ago and has given rise to several professional South Jersey brewers. Here is what Matt had to say about the social aspect of home brewing:
“Back in 2011, I’d been brewing for about 6 months and I met Rich Palmay who was working at Keg and Barrel. He recommended I check out Barley Legal home brew club.I thought it would be a few guys sitting around sharing some beers and tips on home brewing. What I found was quite a diverse community of very smart, funny, sharing people who have become a major part of my social life.I could never have predicted that the simple hobby of making beer at home would have such a broad and positive impact on my life!”
For me, it is always a pleasure to meet with my Ocean County Home Brewers as well as our brewery owners every month, sharing some beers and talking about new ideas or project. Obviously that is not possible in our current situation, so our home brew club friends have stepped up to keep that community alive.
“I think the home brewing community has really embraced these challenging times as well as possible. Unfortunately, we won’t be gathering as usual, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t remaining connected.In fact, we have been able to remain in touch with an even larger group of local home brewers thanks to technology.“
~ Eric Schmehl – Vice President Brew Jersey Home Brew Club; Owner, Fermented Food and Beverage Supply Shop
In Ocean County we have embraced that technology as well. The guest speaker at our first virtual meeting was Dave Carpenter, Editor in Chief of Zymurgy Magazine, a publication of the American Homebrewers Association.
The organization of 46,000 home brewers has also been heavily impacted by COVID-19, as its parent organization, Brewers Association, has announced that 23% of their workforce has been laid off.
We have always had a good relationship with our friends in Monmouth County to the north, Brew Jersey (Atlantic County) to the south and the Cape May Brewers Guild, however, the use of virtual meetings has expanded our community even more.
“Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of virtual club meetings (via Zoom) that have been attended by a number of different clubs including Brew Jersey, Pale Ales, Barley Legal, Ocean County, Monmouth County, Music City Brewers (Nashville, TN) and possibly others.We’ve even managed to have some guests that would otherwise been unable to attend our meetings including Randy Mosher (author of Radical Brewing and Tasting Beer) and Chris White (CEO of White Labs)”, Schmehl told us.
Are More People Homebrewing?
According to news outlets, Northern Brewer, one of the largest homebrew and wine suppliers in the US, reports homebrew sales have grown 40-50% since the beginning of the pandemic.
That may be true, as personally I have brewed more in the last 2 months than I probably have the previous year. Weekends being freed up by not being able to go anywhere (including breweries and wineries) have definitely given me time to pursue my brewing passion.
I put this question to our OCHBA club members and Jason Goldstein, founder of Icarus Brewing, asked “Does it count as homebrewing if we’ve made the brewery our home?” Considering a number of our club members work at Icarus that may be a valid point. I’m sure members from many other clubs as well as some professional brewers would ask the same question.
Homebrew Supply Shops
Getting supplies from a “Big Box” supply outlet like Northern Brewer may be good in a pinch, but to me nothing is better than speaking to a fellow home brewer and brewery supply store owner to get the real details.
“The quarantine has created a resurgence in home brewing”, says Guy Corrado, owner of Eastern Homebrew in Egg Harbor Township. “I’ve been very busy with new brewers and old ones coming back to get reacquainted.”
Keg and Barrel Homebrew Supplies has been a mainstay in Berlin for many years and moved into a new larger location last year. Owner Scott Hyndman has developed a new online sales strategy that kicked off earlier this year so the timing was fortunate for the business.
“Coincidentally, we actually started an on line store in February, before the COVID -19 restrictions and that has really helped us during the crisis.” Scott says he is seeing a lot of old friends in the store and orders have increased. “People are spending more time at home, giving them more time to brew.”
Eric from Fermented states, “From a homebrew shop perspective, we’ve actually been busier than normal. The hobby of homebrewing and general DIY fermentation seems to have gotten a nice boost with folks looking for new hobbies or re-igniting old passions. Given the current unavailability of certain items in grocery stores (like bread yeast), we think now is an excellent time to get a sourdough starter; learning ancient techniques like bread making and preserving food through fermentation can help create a sense of food security.”
I hate to use the word silver lining in our current situation and I won’t, but one of the better things coming out of this crisis is the sense of community, compassion, and partnership I have seen amongst our brewers.I know my home brewing partnerships have expanded by (virtually) meeting Matt from Barley Legal as well as Marc from the Mercer County based Pale Ales, who actually hosted the first virtual meeting of this pandemic.
Perhaps these relationships would have developed anyway, but everyone being in the same situations, partnering and sharing ideas has helped bring us together. The first Virtual AHA Big Brew Day was on May 2, 2020 and it was a thrill to be connected electronically with over 4,000 brewers worldwide who all have a passion for this craft.
Perhaps someone would have come up with Brian Kieffer’s Brewery Madness bracket, which created a lot of fun (and perhaps not so fun) bantering, amongst the breweries and their fans. But it brought attention to craft beer and the brewing industry and maybe spawned a new era of cooperation and friendship.
Perhaps, even without this crisis, Rob Callaghan from Tuckahoe would have come up with the idea of Brewery Strong, an organization designed not only to help the community during COVID–19 but beyond. An organization that doesn’t say South Jersey Beer or North Jersey Beer, but everyone together for one cause.
Why do we brew?
Maybe it’s the science…counting yeast cells, discussing what ph optima of alpha amylase is vs. beta amylase, etc. (yes real words!). Maybe it’s the creativity, being able to build a recipe, to make something unique. Maybe it’s the history, being part of an art that is 4,000 years old.
Did I answer the questions, “Why do We Brew?” Probably not, because there may be as many answers as there are brewers.
So next time you are able to visit one of our great South Jersey breweries, (or North Jersey, or Central, or anywhere else!) ask the brewer, because she (or he) probably started as a home brewer.
Look forward to seeing you all there. Cheers!