Which came first, homebrewing or craft brewing?
The best answer may be that they're twins – not quite identical, certainly more than fraternal – arriving ever so close together, with craft beer growing a little faster than homebrewing, yet homebrewing never existing much more than a whisper away.
And like any close family tie, especially among twins, one preternaturally knows what the other's thinking and doing.
More practically, it's safe to say, homebrewing helped launch the craft brewing industry, and virtually on a daily basis it creates new commercial brewers, while the taste for craft beer helps attract people to the hobby of brewing at home.
"It's kind of a cyclical thing," says Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, the national organization founded 35 years ago to promote the homebrewing hobby. "The two communities, professional and amateur craft brewers, are part of one larger community. In the United States, we have breweries that produce a wider range of styles than anywhere else in the world, and it is a direct reflection of the homebrewing community that we have in this country. No other country has a homebrewing community that is as well-developed as we have here."
As for that chicken-or-the-egg question, Gary says: "Back in the (late) 1970s, when the very first craft breweries started to open in this country, it was homebrewers who were opening (them). But there had to be some kind of initial exposure to something more than the American light lager that was ubiquitous in the country at the time. In a lot of cases, it was exposure to beer that was made maybe overseas – Germany, or Belgium or England – whether on vacation or traveling for work, or stationed in the military. People got exposure to those beers and came back and couldn't have them here, so they started brewing their own. That was kind of the start, but there's still that need of exposure to craft beer, flavorful beer, before you make that leap into homebrewing. They both feed upon each other: As homebrewing has grown, more of those homebrewers have opened craft breweries, more people are exposed to craft beer and then become part of that pool of people who can become homebrewers."
Beginning Thursday, homebrewers will take center stage in Philadelphia's craft beer scene, when the 2013 National Homebrewers Conference kicks off with speakers (Tom Peters of Monks Cafe is the keynote speaker), seminars and the crowning of this year's National Homebrew Competition winner.
The three-day run marks the conference's return to the Mid-Atlantic region for the first time in eight years. The event has quadrupled in size since that Baltimore gathering; interest in the hobby has surged since then, and correspondingly, homebrewing supply shops have done well. Brewing supplies have even begun staking out shelf space at stores like Whole Foods.
"It's phenomenal growth right now," says Gary, who earlier this month took some time to talk about homebrewing's popularity, the upcoming conference and the hand-in-hand relationship homebrewing continues to enjoy with commercial craft brewing.
BSL: Homebrewing, as a hobby, has clearly staked out some comfortable space and an identity that's cut loose from being an esoteric pursuit. It's much more plugged into the culture now, and enjoys a wave of popularity alongside craft beer in general. What has that meant for the American Homebrewers Association?
GG: Since 2005, we've averaged 20 percent annual growth in membership, and we were seeing similar numbers at retail. We just did our survey of homebrew supply shops for the 2012 year, and we found that, overall, shops that sell homebrew supplies grew by 26 percent in gross revenue. Those shops that are focused on primarily selling homebrew supplies grew by 29 percent.
BSL: That leads to this question, last year the AHA announced a milestone, passing the 30,000 mark in membership. That was truly a big moment, wasn't it?
GG: It was a very big moment. I started with the American Homebrewers Association in 2000, and we had a little over 9,000 members at the time. It kind of went between 9,000 and 10,000 from then and until 2005, five years of being pretty flat, and previous to that it had dropped. So, ever since 2005, to see this tremendous growth – consistently growing at around 20 percent – it's just amazing. In any other kind of business, you would think that would be unsustainable in such a period of time, in eight years that kind of growth.
BSL: And that's just people who have signed up with an organization, a head count you can audit. What are the best estimates for the overall number of people who have become homebrewers?
GG: It's definitely over a million people now in the United States. My best guess would be somewhere around like a million and a half, 1.6 million, somewhere in that area. But that really is a difficult number to pin down.
BSL: Are you able to get a snapshot of demographics in homebrewing, how age groups are represented in the hobby?
GG: It's one of the questions we survey retailers with, what's the demographic of people buying beginner kits. What we found a couple of years ago was that almost half of the shops were seeing the biggest sales going to people under the age of 30. It's kind of creeped back into that 30 to 39 range being the most common age group buying beginner kits. But it has been in that 20 to 30 in the past several years. Before 2005 or so, it would have been more in the 30 to 40 range. That was about the time Generation Y was becoming of legal drinking age. I think that Generation Y is really fueling a lot of the growth that we're seeing in the hobby now.
BSL: Aside from craft beer's rising profile, what has contributed to homebrewing's surging popularity, or helped sustain it as a hobby?
GG: The single biggest change that has brought about this growth is access to information. Before, there were a couple of books that people (had available) to read. But now, the availability of information online ... it's really helped homebrewers succeed from the get-go, be able to make great beer from the start, which really hooks them into the hobby. People are succeeding with the hobby at an earlier stage than previously.
BSL: Let's talk a little bit about the National Homebrewers Conference, which is in Philadelphia this year. With the spike in interest in homebrewering, that has certainly posed some challenges for organizing the annual national gathering, hasn't it?
GG: We plan these conferences years in advance. I signed a contract for Philadelphia after our 2010 conference in Minneapolis, and then the 2011 conference had a 50 percent jump in attendance. I hadn't really anticipated that kind of growth. When I signed a contract for Philadelphia, I wasn't anticipating what we ended up with, which is, we'll have somewhere around 3,400 attendees in Philadelphia because we were able to expand our space available for this conference. We were very fortunate in Philadelphia that the hotel we're at is attached to the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
BSL: When was the last time the conference was on the East Coast, in this area and what was attendance like?
GG: It was Baltimore in 2005. We had about 850 attendees, and that was our biggest conference to that time. Last year, we had about 1,800; we sold out that conference in two days. That was in the Seattle, Washington, area. This year it took 20 hours to sell out, almost double the capacity.
BSL: So, again, this is a tricky task, finding a place to stage the conference, then gearing up for it ...
GG: That is the big challenge going forward. Finding those venues that are affordable for the attendees, recognizing that the attendees are hobbyists when most conventions are for business people who have their businesses paying their way. But with this conference, the attendees are paying their own way. It's important to us that to make sure it's accessible to as many members as possible, so we can try and keep the price down. Finding the venues that can house 3,000 to 4,000 or more attendees that are at that affordable level, that's the big challenge.
BSL: And sponsors, vendor participation, that has grown as well?
GG: I think it's 64 exhibitors this year. We used to have just a handful of exhibitors not too long ago. Last year, we had 40-something exhibitors, and this year we just ran out of space. There were more businesses interest in exhibiting than we actually had space for. It was vastly more than what it's been just in the last few years.
BSL: Philadelphia is known within and outside the region as a great place for craft beer and Belgian beer styles. When you're planning the conference, do you aim for places where you can feature the local beer culture?
GG: Yeah. We try to find a location that's accessible to members, but that's also a desirable destination ... (Philadelphia) is one of the best beer cities in the country; one of the first cities to have a citywide beer week was Philadelphia. It's definitely a very well-established beer scene and is continuing to evolve.
BSL: Part of the homebrewing culture is necessity driving invention, creating things you don't have but want or need to help you brew better ...
GG: Yeah, absolutely. For a lot of the homebrewers out there, myself included, a big part of their love of the hobby is you do kind of create your own equipment, build a brew stand or little innovations to make your brewery better. I have no doubt at all that I spend more time and money tinkering with my equipment than I do actually brewing on it. That's part of my own personal interest in the hobby, and certainly a lot of other homebrewers are like that, and then come up with that great idea. They (may) have the capacity to start making it commercially and making it available to other homebrewers. For example, Blichmann Engineering ... John Blichmann was an engineer, made tractors for a living, and just started creating gadgets for his own brewing purposes, and realized other people might be interested in those things. He eventually had a company, and it became a full-time business. He's got employees, and high-end, stainless steel top-quality equipment now available to homebrewers.
BSL: And some nano-brewers as well.
BSL: You noted how access to information, especially online, has played a big part in the growth of homebrewing. And your organization responded with some changes to its own website.
GG: For a long time, beertown.org was the official website. Back then it was the Association of Brewers, which included the Institute for Brewing Studies and the American Homebrewers Association, the Brewers Publications ... I think it was 2009 when we launched the new websites and broke the AHA portion of Beertown out and made that into HomebrewersAssociation.org, and created CraftBeer.com as the consumer facing website we use to promote all craft beer.
The response was tremendous. It really allowed us to focus those particular groups. I would say the AHA has done a much better job of serving our members as well homebrewers under HomebrewersAssociation.org than ever could have under Beertown. We have 40-something-thousand people on the AHA forum, which I couldn't have fathomed when we launched the new website. Previous to that we had an email forum, which was just for members. We made a conscious decision to make it open to all homebrewers, and I think we've seen, as a result, that was a very wise decision. It allows us to provide that information (via) that forum to every homebrewer out there.
BSL: One can easily say that inside almost every homebrewer is a brewer yearing to go pro. A lot do, and a lot turn seek formal training. Do you have any statistics on perhaps how many people have pursued formal brewing programs because of the AHA?
GG: That is an interesting question, and I don't have the answer for that. I do know a lot of those programs like Siebel Institute, American Brewers Guild, U.C. Davis are certainly involved with the American Homebrewers Association. They're exhibitors at our conference, advertisers in our magazines. They certainly see we are funneling people into their schools. Interestingly, there have been several universities that have started brewing programs of late ... Colorado State in Fort Collins does a business of beer program for people looking to start a brewery. There are brewing programs just getting underway in Auburn University in Alabama. (Alabama) just legalized homebrewing, and they've got a program to train people to be professional brewers.
BSL: Speaking of professional brewers from homebrewer stock, can you talk a little about that long-established and continuing trend?
GG: We're seeing explosive growth in homebrewers who are taking that next step and starting their own brewery. The Brewers Association has over a thousand breweries in planning; we just surpassed 2,000 total breweries in the country in 2012. Growth in the hobby is translating into growth in the number of people who are taking that next step and opening their own breweries.