Homebrew: Craft beer before craft beer was cool

Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

The mustachioed 20-something sips away at his IPA of the week as he peers around the bar. All around him, people drink beers of all styles, colors and creeds. “Craft beer” is the buzz term of the 2010s thanks to a beer-drinking public that has increasingly demanded more and more from its beer than a 12-ounce, ice-cold bottle of “Corporate Light” can muster.

But good beer has been around for centuries. And it’s been around Louisville since the city was settled in the late 1700s and even after the fall of commercial brewing here in 1978. Home brewers kept the boilers burning in small batches during Prohibition, and they kept them burning even when light beers became the American fancy and the boilers at Falls City were turned off. At that point, the only beer Louisvillians — and most Americans — had available to drink was what many beer enthusiasts now call “corporate swill.”

So it was that a group of brewing enthusiasts came together in 1989, before the first microbrewery would open in Louisville, to form the Louisville Area Grain & Extract Research Society, or LAGERS. The founding members were making “craft beer” back when it was still just called “beer.” In other words, they were making craft beer before craft beer was cool.

Bob Capshew was a founding member of LAGERS, and he’d been brewing at home for several years prior, having been a member of homebrew clubs in Houston (The Foam Rangers) and Salt Lake City, a club which he and wife Maureen illegally founded in their living room. The name? ZZ Hops. He would come to Louisville in the late 1980s with a mind to brew, but no homebrew club existed then.

He attended an American Homebrew Association meeting at the now defunct Oldenburg Brewery near Cincinnati and met some homebrewers from Louisville, which is how the kernel of LAGERS was formed. He began talking with brewers such as Eileen Martin (who brewed for Silo Microbrewery and Browning’s), David Pierce (Silo, Bluegrass Brewing Company and New Albanian), Deneen Hooper (a past LAGERS president), Brian Kolb (Silo) and Rick Buckman, among others.

“We just started talking,” Capshew said.

Pierce had been brewing for a number of years after learning the craft from his father while using a book called “The Beginner’s Home Brew Book,” by Lee Coe, which was published in 1972.

“It was your typical, you know, three-pound-can-of-malt-and-10-pounds-of-sugar homebrew recipes,” Pierce said in a 2014 interview. “But Lee got into some different styles. Back then there were no styles of swill.”

Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

The small group had been meeting at a restaurant in Portland called Toll Bridge Inn, but Pierce was one of several interested in forming an official homebrew organization. Capshew sent out a notice to the homebrewers he knew, and so it was that Robin Garr (long before he was LEO’s food writer) wrote a blurb in The Courier-Journal’s Scene magazine inviting brewers to meet and potentially form a club.

A restaurant owner named Martin Twist saw the ad as well and offered the group a meeting and brewing space. It was at Charley’s Restaurant, located at Sixth and Main Street (today it is Los Aztecas), that the LAGERS began regularly meeting and brewing. One of the beers brewed was even sold to customers, as Charley’s had a brewing license.

“You don’t hear much mention of [Charley’s] because we only brewed about 15 gallons of beer,” Pierce said. But among the homebrews LAGERS created was that small batch that was sold on draft at the restaurant for a short time.

The beer that was brewed, Pierce said, was basically a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale clone that he, Capshew and a brewer named Herb Roderick made; Pierce had found a recipe in a Compuserve beer forum, cultivated some yeast from a bottle of Sierra Nevada, and the LAGERS created the beer. Oddly, he said, it was sold under the name “Charley’s Cream Ale.”

Not long after, another homebrew club formed in New Albany, Indiana, called Fermenters of Special Southern Indiana Libations Society (FOSSILS) and it would make its home at what is now New Albanian Brewing Co. The club started with just seven members primarily as a beer appreciation group, but grew to as many as 200 members and crossed over with the LAGERS group. FOSSILS still meets at New Albanian and will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a cookout in September. Capshew was and is an active member, along with Roger Baylor, co-founder of New Albanian and, as it was known then, Rich O’s Public House.

“We have about a half dozen folks who are still members that were original members 25 years ago,” current FOSSILS president Richard Rush said. “I’ve got to imagine that 25 years ago when those guys were getting started it was hard to go somewhere and get anything but Budweiser or Bud Light. They were definitely ahead of the curve; Bob has probably forgotten more about homebrewing than most people know about it.”

WHAT’S IN A HOMEBREW CLUB?

Homebrew clubs don’t just sit around and brew (and drink) beer. Sure, that’s part of it, and sharing one’s fermented concoctions is a big part of the fun, because brewers can then exchange secrets, tips, ingredients and general knowledge.

But it’s also about camaraderie, education, competition and charity. LAGERS is a supporter of the Kentucky Humane Society, and has raised more than $6,000 through recent fundraisers such as Yappy Hour at Apocalypse Brew Works, which is owned by LAGERS members Leah Dienes, Bill Krauth and Paul Grignon.

Current LAGERS president Christopher Owen said the members get together roughly twice a month, once for a regular monthly meeting and usually once for some sort of event, be it a fundraiser, a holiday party or a competition. He said the membership now is around 120, and he expects it to grow. He said there are roughly 1.2 million homebrewers in the United States now, and noted that there are 45,000 members in the American Homebrewers Association, a number that is increasing by 10 to 15 percent each year.

“It’s definitely still growing,” Owen said. “A lot of people are starting their own commercial breweries, but people have been coming into the hobby just as quickly. Homebrewing is very strong.”

Owen, who has been brewing since 2010, took over as president three years ago. He said every meeting features some sort of education — along with good beer.

“Whether it’s a tasting, an experiment, a comparison or a basic how-to,” he said, LAGERS members can expect to learn something at a meeting. “Everything else we do is pretty well balanced between learning to brew for competition, or brewing in a competition to get your own beer served somewhere around town.”

Yes, that’s one of the great features of a homebrew club like LAGERS; the club often does competitions in cooperation with local breweries (it is doing one currently with Bluegrass Brewing Company), with the winner getting to work with the commercial brewer to create a large batch of his or her beer that will be sold on draft. It’s like an amateur writer getting an article published or an aspiring singer getting her song on the radio.

“You get experience brewing on professional systems,” Owen said. “I think we’ve done five of those now. Basically, the idea was … the winner got to go to a brewery and brew with the professional brewer to brew their recipe. When we had the tapping event, the proceeds from that day went to charity.

“But it’s bragging rights. You get to tell your friends and family, ‘My beer is being served on tap in three or four restaurants in the city; get it while it’s around, there’s just one batch.’ It’s fun, plus it’s good exposure for the club.”

LAGERS also fosters brewers who want to compete at the Kentucky State Fair’s homebrew competition. The group is also heavily involved as organizers and judges. Owen said there were around 500 entries last year from across the state and southern Indiana. LAGERS also recently participated in a national competition that featured 3,800 brewers and 8,000 total beers judged.

In fact, LAGERS boasts five nationally certified beer judges in its ranks, including Owen and Dienes, and offers classes to train members to become judges. In fact, perhaps one of the most prominent beer judges in the world lives near Louisville in Pekin, Indiana, Dibs Harting, a member of FOSSILS, who was one of the early members of the Beer Judge Certification Program. He, Dienes and brewer/beer historian Conrad Selle recently collaborated on the style guidelines for Kentucky Common, a beer that was invented in Louisville in the 1800s and which is now an internationally recognized beer style.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about a homebrew club is the personalities — brewers are a balance of scientist and artist, which usually makes them interesting and sometimes quirky people — not to mention a lot of fun. The FOSSILS and LAGERS used to hold an annual picnic on the property Capshew and his wife Maureen own, and they were the stuff of legend. The Capshews later built a “barn” on the property which is basically a private bar that includes a walk-in cooler and a production space for not just beer but cider, wine and other products. It is often a gathering place for area brewers.

And the soft-spoken Dienes is not only a nationally-certified judge and co-owner of Apocalypse Brew Works, but she also is a multiple-award homebrew winner both at the state and national level, taking best of show at the Kentucky State Fair in 2003 and 2010, and earning a medal in the national homebrew competition in 2010 as well. She recalls her first LAGERS meeting, which she attended with her father in the early 1990s, with humor. She was in her 20s and had recently moved back to Louisville from Boston.

“We walked in and there was a whole room full of people,” Dienes said. “Here are these crazy women, Eileen and Deneen, with jars of pickles and smoking cigars. They were sharing beer and smoking cigars, and I thought, ‘What kind of people are these?’”

Owen has an answer to that question: “A lot of times, it’s a do-it-yourself crowd. People like crafting with their own hands; they like experimenting with whatever ingredients they’re into in at the moment. You take pride in your own beer and make it the way you want it.”

And while local homebrewing and, to an extent, LAGERS, was born of a lack of good beer, the massive availability of such beer today hasn’t turned off homebrewers. If previously the Pierces and Capshews of the world brewed out of a desire for something other than Bud Light, now it’s a deeper commitment to craft. As Owen noted, it’s a DIY mindset.

“I would consider myself a foodie,” FOSSILS president Rush said. “I love to go to new restaurants and I love to cook. The fact is that in Louisville we’re blessed with an abundance of awesome restaurants, and I enjoy patronizing them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy cooking at home.”

Similarly, he said, “There’s no shortage of places where I can go find very unique beers. But that doesn’t change the fact I still want to make my own.”

THE ADVANCES OF HOMEBREWING

It doesn’t hurt that homebrewers these days have many more options than when LAGERS and FOSSILS began. Ingredients in the 1980s and 1990s weren’t easy to come by, so creativity was limited. As beer’s popularity grew in the 1990s and into the 2000s, however, that began to change.

“Our homebrew wasn’t that great at the time, but it got better and better,” Capshew said, recalling the early days of LAGERS and FOSSILS. “It was nothing compared to what people are doing nowadays. There were maybe three or four types of hops. We did the best we could.”

And that’s an important point. Owen pointed out that the economics of brewing dictate that homebrewers can have more fun than commercial brewers these days, and that’s a big factor in keeping the homebrewing craft growing. For one thing, it’s cheaper to make your own beer as a homebrewer, in part because you don’t have to brand or share profits with a distributor or retailer.

But ingredients are a key, too. Owen points out that there are dozens of malting companies around the world that will sell their products to homebrewers directly. If you’re a commercial brewery, you’re buying large amounts of grains because you are making big batches, because buying in quantity saves money, and profit is necessary to stay alive. But the homebrewer can often buy in single-batch quantities.

“We have a wider range of styles we can play with because we buy smaller scale,” Owen said. “There’s a lot of flexibility; you can really dial into styles. We’re buying malts from Patagonia now that have a really interesting flavor; you can’t always s get that at the local beer store. [Commercial breweries are] bound by a lot more market forces than we are.”

He likened it to making wine — since grapes are basically the sole ingredient in making wine, it’s extremely important where the grapes are grown and what the soil is like. It’s the same for grains and hops. That offers an advantage to homebrewers when it comes to experimentation and creativity.

“At the same time, you can go down to Liquor Barn and they have 2,000 beers,” Owen said. “So it’s good all around.”

Bill Krauth. Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

Bill Krauth. Photo courtesy of LAGERS.

But even commercial brewers have to start somewhere, and that is typically at home. That’s why most breweries are operated by former (or current) homebrewers. Some join clubs, but some simply learn the craft on their own. However, the art of brewing translates from home to brewery differently than one might think. To open a commercial brewery, the homebrewer must keep in mind the palate of the public and the price of the aforementioned specialized malts and hops.

And so it is that when a homebrewer opens a brewery, he or she begins chasing a different drinker. It becomes a necessity to sell beer, not just impress friends and family. If a brewery wants to expand, it is necessary to find a way into the limited number of taps around their home city, and that means going through a distributor that is contractually bound to other established breweries.

Apocalypse’s Krauth started off with a brewing kit in the early 1990s and his interest grew from there.

“I think everybody starts off with a kit,” he said. “Looking back on it, it probably tasted like shit, but everybody else said it tasted good.”

But at the time, even the commercial breweries didn’t have the same standards to live up to, he said. There were fewer varieties in the U.S., fewer expectations. Commercial brewing and homebrewing alike are advancing because of heightened expectations. And moving from the homebrew realm into commercial brewing necessitates sacrifice. Why?

“Because of the customers demanding better quality beers,” Krauth said. “Homebrewers are broadening the horizons in the craft industry. In the commercial world, there’s no such thing as a good and a bad beer. They consider everything, if it’s sellable and marketable, as a good beer. If you can’t market it and sell it, it’s a bad beer. On the homebrew side, everything has to meet the BJCP style guidelines. And if it doesn’t meet the style guidelines, it’s a bad beer.”

That’s not to say commercial beer is homogenized because of these constraints. There’s plenty of experimentation going on, from barrel-aging to ingredients to usage of exotic hops. If Apocalypse can make watermelon beer and peanut butter beer, it’s clear brewing is not lacking creativity. And just take a look at the beer list at Against the Grain Brewery & Smokehouse on any given day — there’s certainly no shortage of creativity going on there.

In addition to more ingredients, the availability of information now versus the late 1980s when LAGERS and FOSSILS began is important. It gives homebrewers options and empowers them with knowledge. It offers aspirations of commercial brewing. Of course, the BJCP guidelines are ever present, but perhaps unnecessarily so in the pro ranks. Dienes is a multiple award winner, but most of the beers she brews for Apocalypse are accessible, sessionable (lower alcohol content) beers.

“The bottom line is does it taste good when you drink it?” she said.

The LAGERS slogan is, “We brew it, we drink it, we talk about it.” These are people who take beer seriously, and yet don’t. They do it because they love it.

“We love all parts of beer,” Owen said. “It’s a fun group of like-minded individuals and craft beer lovers.”

This post was originally published by LEO Weekly.

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