Home brewing is back, but it is blending culinary arts, chemistry and engineering
A hush fell over the crowded room as Brian Cox took center stage, baseball cap flipped backward on his bald pate, and launched into a dissertation on the relative merits of wet and dry yeast varieties in making beer.
By the numbers
Estimated number of home-brewers in the United States
Average age of American home-brewer
Percentage of home-brewers with a college degree or some form of higher education
Percentage of nation's home-brewers who are in the South
Number of barrels of beer produced by home-brewers each year
Source: American Homebrewers Association
Armed with a beaker, statistics and a deep reservoir of brewing knowledge, Cox held forth on fermentation as his rapt audience sipped the end products of this process from snifter glasses. Preaching the importance of detail, he urged strict attention to timing and precise measurements when preparing one's yeast, the key component in converting sugars to alcohol.
"Can't you just throw the whole packet in?" someone in the crowd asked.
Cox winced. "If you underpitch it, you are going to get poor attenuation and poor fermentation," he said, his voice rising a bit. "You are not going to get the beer profile you want."
Such is the passion of today's home-brewer, whose skill-set is a mash-up marriage of the culinary arts, chemistry and engineering.
If your image of home-brewers is that of a bunch of bearded guys in fleece and flannel swilling frothy side-projects concocted in garages and basements, well, you're only partly right. Today's breed of brewer often has a sophisticated palate and a brewing system to match, along with unprecedented access to recipes, ingredients and beer knowledge.
After hobby beer-making went a bit flat in the mid-1990s, home brewing has made a big comeback nationally in recent years thanks in part to the rapid growth of the craft beer industry and more Americans being exposed to a greater variety of brands and styles.
An estimated 1.2 million Americans brew their own suds, and about two-thirds of those folks began brewing in 2005 or later, according to the Boulder, Co.-based American Homebrewers Association.
"It's grown 20 percent per year since 2005," said association Direction Gary Glass, who has been brewing since 1992. "And we are seeing that growth all over the country."
At least three home-brewing clubs are active in the Charleston area, the oldest of which is Low Country Libations, around for about 16 years. Cox, the yeast man, is the club's vice president and gave his talk at its monthly meeting, which was held at Freehouse Brewery in North Charleston and attracted more than 50 zymurgists, several of whom compete in local and regional brewing competitions.
The area's first home-brew supply shop in more than a decade, Yeast - Everything Homebrew, drew a packed house to its opening this month in Belle Station Boulevard in Mount Pleasant.
Another shop, Beer Engineer Supply, expects to open soon on Montague Avenue in North Charleston. And two more shops are rumored to be in the works, including one in the West Ashley area.
"The time is right for this," said Peter Kinslow, who worked for 25 years in the information technology field before an unexpected layoff led him to open Yeast - Everything Homebrew. "Home brewing is just exploding right now."
His customers are folks like John Mutter, a software developer who leads the Dunes West Brew Club, which includes doctors, business owners and executives among its members. They gather monthly to brew, grill steaks and consume their previous month's creation. This weekend, they plan to drink a stout and brew a honey bee ale.
"It's fun," he said. "I mean, what doesn't sound cool about brewing your own beer?"
Brewing has been around for thousands of years, since man first started messing around with domesticated grain. The ancient Egyptians and Sumerians are said to have produced their own suds and the latter even had a brewing deity, the goddess Ninkasi.
American home brewing has had its peaks and valleys over the years, with its road to resurgence dating back to around 1978, when former President Jimmy Carter signed legislation that lifted a lingering Prohibition-era ban on home brewing and legalized the hobby at the federal level.
In the 1980s and 1990s, many home-brewers were driven by a desire to have quality beer they couldn't find in their local markets. South Carolina's longstanding 5 percent alcohol-by-weight limit on beer also meant higher-octane craft beers couldn't be sold within the state's borders.
That spurred folks like Brent Brewer into action. He had spent his early years in Germany while his dad was stationed there in the Air Force, and he was surprised when he couldn't find the same big-flavored brews when he moved back to the United States in 1993. "There just wasn't a lot of good beer on the market here," he said.
Brewer became one of the early members of Low Country Libations, joining around 1998. The group met monthly at South End Brewery & Smokehouse to trade recipes and techniques, finding new ways to craft the elusive beers they craved.
The local movement had a bit of a setback when the two area home-brew supply stores went out of business more than a decade ago, forcing brewers to drive to Columbia for their beer fixings or pay stiff shipping fees, at times, to fill their orders online.
Coast Brewing in North Charleston sold some supplies for a spell to help out, and nearby Holy City Brewing had a small shop where brewers could get grain, hops and yeast if they needed some in a pinch. Holy City co-owner Sean Nemitz said the brewery was "really just doing it on a community level, and not for any real profit."
Bottles beverage mart in Mount Pleasant also began to offer some supplies at the request of customers about two years ago, starting with about 4 feet of shelf space devoted to home-brew goods. The resulting demand caused them add another 28 feet of shelf space and quadruple their inventory, co-owner Scott Peace said.
"The home-brewers are a really passionate group, and they're very knowledgeable," he said. "It's a lot like cooking. If you love to cook, you love to put together recipes, create something and show what you can do. It's the same with home-brewers."
Kevin Drinkwater, a full time mechanical engineer and owner of Beer Engineer Supply, agreed. He's a self-professed beer geek who started doing fermentation trials in his closet when he was 10 years old. He lives to see what new flavors he can cook up.
"It is a lot like fine cooking, but with microbiology and engineering mixed in," he said.
Glass, of the American Homebrewers Association, said his organization's membership slipped in the late 1990s and early 2000s, likely because the craft beer industry exploded and the market was suddenly brimming with good brews to sample. People no longer had to brew their own to find exotic styles, and the Pop the Cap campaign that brought high-gravity beer to South Carolina in 2007 opened local markets to a wide variety of offerings.
That exposure to quality quaffing, however, has inspired a new generation of brewers with somewhat different motivations for making their own beer, Glass said. Many younger brewers see the hobby as a form of artistic expression, often drawing from local ingredients and flavors in locavore fashion. The Internet also has made it easier than ever to find recipes, instructional videos and other educational tools to further their craft, he said.
While some home-brewing rigs can run into the thousands of dollars, starter kits can be found for $150 or less.
"It's easier than many people think," he said. "And the palate the home-brewer has to work with in creating new flavors is much greater than it ever was before."
Consider the flavors tasted at the recent Low Country Libations meeting at Freehouse Brewery: Smoked Baltic Porter, Bourbon Barrel Porter, Pecan Maple Syrup Brown Porter, Irish Red, Vienna Lager, Munich Helles, Rye India Pale Ale, wheat IPA, Wee Heavy and a traditional mead.
Arthur Lucas, owner of Freehouse Brewing, started as a home-brewer himself and jumps at the chance to help the cause. After all, he said, these folks are driving innovation and experimenting with styles that commercial breweries couldn't do cost effectively.
"They are the front lines of the innovative, interesting and weird types of beer being made out there," he said.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.