Can homebrewers predict the future? So asked Dr. Bart Watson, Brewers Association Chief Economist. Watson describes homebrewers as “thought leaders,” and so it seems that many styles, processes, and ideas that spring forth in the brewhouse are driven by homebrewers. Watson’s thesis is centered on data from the National Homebrewers Competition and the IRI Group, while this piece’s focus will be on observational instances of homebrewing in our own region, nationally, and at several breweries both big and small.
The narrative of homebrewing in America is one of bootstrapping and ingenuity. In this way its story mirrors the growth of creative breweries in the past 50 years. A pivotal moment in the story is Fritz Maytag’s 51% purchase of Anchor Steam, (they say theirs is “America’s first and oldest craft brewery”) in 1965. Homebrewing had neither the respect nor the legal standing that it does now. Still, a robust history grew from a derogatory term and that term, homebrewing, is now largely considered a noble pursuit. Whatever you believe, there is no arguing homebrew’s current place in Washington, DC: in the basement, in the yard, and in the White House kitchen.
Out of DC’s ten breweries, only one has an employee homebrew competition, but that does not mean other breweries’ employees aren’t homebrewing or that other breweries around the country don’t have similar contests (17 brewers are listed on the BA’s website, ten are operating one and seven are in planning).
Locally, breweries very much are getting in on the action of spurring local homebrewing. DC Brau’s (where, full disclosure, I’m a tour guide and historian) first Iron Chef-styled homebrew competition (with basil as a secret ingredient) had six entries from eight employees. This year’s competition had 10 entries from 15 employees featuring citrus as the secret ingredient (really more of a category), which left employees more room for interpretation.
The inaugural contest winner was Rob Shortley with his “Lucifer’s Garden Gose,” which was brewed with tomato, basil, and black truffle sea salt. This year’s winner was Ryan Brady with his pale ale which was brewed with whole cone hops, tangerines, and oranges. Brady told DCBeer that he used whole cone Idaho 7 hops, a newly developed hop, which coincidentally came from a hop farm representative that was visiting the brewery when Ryan was brewing. He then used orange and tangerine peels to steep in the beer after fermentation finished.
As of this writing, Brau has no plans to make a truffle sea salt gose-style ale or a tangerine and orange pale ale, BUT it is interesting to notice that fruited gose-style beers and fruited pale ales have gained a great deal of popularity recently. Take for example the popularity of grapefruit IPA or blood orange gose-style sour ales. It is not so much that the breweries are ripping off homebrewers or vice versa, it is more a case of brewing minds thinking alike.
Atlas’s contest isn’t employee-focused but public-focused. They are putting on their second homebrew contest, and a winner will be crowned on Friday, April 15. Homebrewers are encouraged to enter their version of the District Common and Atlas Brew Works’ Brewer Sam Puffenbarger will chair the judging panel of industry professionals (which included DCBeer’s editor Bill DeBaun last year). The grand prize winner who concocts the best edition of the District Common will earn the opportunity to assist with the brewing of a batch of their model beer.
Outside of our regional and smaller local breweries, there is a very big brewery who also hosts two employee contests. In 2015, MillerCoors hosted its second annual Chicago employee competition, and their craft and import division, Tenth and Blake, hosted its fourth annual competition. 11 teams entered the MillerCoors Homebrewing Contest.
Lisa Zimmer, Beer Culture & Community Specialist at MillerCoors, was on the winning team who brewed “Raspberry Beret,” a Black Ale brewed with Raspberry Tea which clocked in at 7.7%. The popular vote went to “Moscow Mule,” a Ginger Saison. Scores are combined between the pro judging panel and the popular vote to get the overall winner. Winners get to brew their beer again to be served at Brewers Unleashed, an event held at MillerCoors Headquarters in Chicago.
Up in the Bronx, the namesake The Bronx Brewery conducted their first employee Home Brew competition, which Marketing Coordinator Andrew Steigbigel asserts they’ll be making an annual event.
The competition had a total of nine entries and the winner of the first inaugural Bronx Brewery Home Brew Competition was “Hop Skippity,” a dry hopped West Coast IPA brewed by two members of the sales team. In addition to pride and the admiration of their colleagues, the brewery served 10 barrels of the winner’s recipe, made on their production system.
So, can homebrewers predict the future? After a thorough review of data in his article, the Brewers Association’s Chief Economist, Dr. Bart Watson, concludes that the data is “suggesting homebrewers have a good sense of what the larger market of beer lovers is interested in and what professional brewers will soon be brewing more of,” and we would have to agree with this conclusion from a narrative standpoint as well. While homebrewers’ ideas for recipes and flavor profiles may not be directly pitched to brewers or brewery owners, they are at least ideas that are often prevalent long before they come into commercial production. The common narrative for beer writers and American beer historians is that homebrewers help shape the robust commercial beer landscape we see in front of us today, and it is one that seems difficult to disagree with at this time.