Zymurgy, the magazine “for the home brewer and beer lover,” conducts a poll of its members and subscribers every year to determine the best beer and the best brewery in the USA.
I’m not sure the election is run in a particularly rigorous way and perhaps it’s possible to vote early and vote often; nevertheless, the results are remarkably consistent: The same beers and breweries tend to fill the list of winners year after year.
Pliny the Elder, a double India pale ale (IPA) made by Vinnie Cilurzo and his talented team of brewers at Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa, won in the Best Beer category. That is quite extraordinary really because this beer, of the many thousands out there, has now won Best Beer for five years in a row; it’s even more remarkable because the beer is available only in California, Oregon, Colorado and Philadelphia.
Stone Brewing Company of Escondido was voted the Best Brewery in the USA; that is the brewery whose portfolio of beers received the most votes overall.
Now, what interested me about this contest was not so much the results but the comments of the winning brewery owners.
Vinnie Cilurzo said: “Getting the home brewers’ vote is important because that is how I started.”
Greg Koch, the charismatic owner of Stone Brewing Company said: “Considering that our brewery was born from a passion for home brewing, there’s no higher sign of respect that we could be given than this accolade.”
Almost every brewer in the Craft Brewing category (some 2,500 small companies taken together) probably would have made similar comments because the homebrew hobby has been the engine and launching pad for many, many successful breweries. A prime example is the career of Ken Grossman, who owns the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, arguably the most beautiful brewery on the planet: Ken was an avid home brewer who began his professional engagement in brewing as a proprietor of a home-brew supplies store.
Home brewing continues to spark and drive the craft industry and the hobby itself has grown immensely since the earliest days.
What brought this to mind was a piece by Boyd Farrow in Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines, headlined “The Sipping Point” (you can Google it to read the whole thing); the story is about Chibuku-Shake-Shake. This is a Zambian beer made in the style of traditional African home brews that are typically made from sorghum (or sometimes maize).
Chibuku-Shake-Shake is simply a commercialized version of such beers as are many craft brews in this country. The commercializers of this beer are none other than SAB-Miller, who in this country, under the Miller-Coors banner, brings us Miller Highlife and Miller Lite among many other products. So here again we have home brewing driving a commercial enterprise.
In Tanzania I saw the further development of this idea at a small SAB-Miller brewery in Arusha; I wrote about this a year ago. The new product, called Eagle, was a clear-beer version of sorghum beer; it provided the consumer with the traditional sorghum flavor plus the sophisticated and up-market panache of clear beer that Africans prefer, if they can afford it. Importantly, the beer also used local materials. Eagle beer was such a success that it now comprises half the beer made by the brewery. Home brew goes commercial.
Traditional sorghum beer is cloudy and lumpy (hence shake-shake) and is sold in milk cartons with a little hole in the top to let out the gas that results from continued fermentation in the package; the beers are low in alcohol if drunk fresh but, by storing the product for a few days, the beer becomes much more alcoholic and sour and flavorful; a little dribble of foam emerges from the hole signaling the extent of fermentation.
Some home brewers speak of beers in almost religious terms: commenting about a beer called Odell St.Lupulin (lupulin refers to hops), one said, “It’s the beer that changed my life.” Commercial brewers in the craft industry wisely and properly accord home brewers high respect. After all, the hobby is not only the mother lode of the craft industry but home brewers probably make up much of the cohort that drinks such beers and they heartily promote it among their friends.
Vinnie Cilurzo comments: “(Home brewers) make beer; they are brewers and they know what is good. It’s incredibly flattering that they love (Pliny the Elder) like that.”
Greg Koch goes on: “What a great honor it is to be recognized by our brothers and sisters in the home-brewing community.”
The home-brewing hobby has come a long way since the early days of when a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon syrup, a few pounds of sugar and Fleischman’s dried bakers’ yeast from Safeway made beer.
Since then, home brewing has been made legal in every state and home brewers have moved on to much more sophisticated practices.
They are also much more demanding for information: In a recent course I taught that was originally designed for brewers at large corporations some 80 percent of the attendees were home brewers!
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com