In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law an innocuous hodgepodge of legislation that amended the Internal Revenue Code. Inherently boring? Yes. Yet the bill was anything but dry. Quietly tucked into a few paragraphs, the measure also created a tax exemption for beer brewed at home for personal or family use, up to 200 gallons annually.
While the U.S. beer industry was flooding the market with mass-produced light lagers, an underground community of brewing enthusiasts soon emerged -- including Charlie Papazian, co-founder of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA), and Ken Grossman, who built Sierra Nevada Brewing on the strength of his own pale ale recipe. These pioneers passionately embraced an artistic appreciation, scientific interest and do-it-yourself attitude in brewing small batches of fresh, flavorful beer at home. And by estimates from the AHA, it's a sentiment that has fueled continued growth in the pursuit, with upwards of 750,000 amateur brewers nationwide today.
"The No. 1 reason for brewing cited by our members is that they like the creative aspects of homebrewing," said the AHA's Janis Gross. "There's a satisfaction and pride in creating a well-crafted beer at home, much like cooking a gourmet meal in your own kitchen."
Whether it's a nod to our northern European heritage or simply a desire for good beer, it's not a stretch to characterize the Twin Cities as one of the nation's more vibrant homebrewing scenes. There are more than 30 registered brewing clubs in Minnesota, including the award-winning Saint Paul Homebrewers Club. Two of the country's largest homebrew retailers -- Midwest Homebrewing and Winemaking Supplies in St. Louis Park and Northern Brewer in St. Paul -- just happen to be in our own back yard. And last June, the Twin Cities played host to the annual National Homebrewers Conference.
"The Twin Cities has a fantastic homebrewing culture," said California homebrewer and author Jamil Zainasheff. "Homebrewers there are lucky in that there's really a strong base of key people and great shops that have cultivated that local passion for brewing. If you homebrew in a vacuum, 99 percent of people will eventually drop out. But when others help them, and they experience the community aspect of the hobby, people tend to stick with it."
Homebrewing has also played a critical role in driving the growth of today's craft beer industry, according to Gross, with at least 90 percent of professional brewers learning their foundational skills in the garage or kitchen. It's a symbiotic relationship responsible for more than 1,600 craft breweries operating nationwide today, with local breweries such as Surly, Lift Bridge, Flat Earth, Fulton and Harriet all founded by avid homebrewers.
But while early homebrewers made beer to suit their own tastes in response to a lack of variety, the drivers have seemingly shifted, with many getting into the hobby now because of the mainstream availability of craft offerings and numerous styles.
"Every direction you turn today, people are constantly exposed to high-quality beer," said Dave Turbenson, owner of Midwest Supplies. "It cultivates enthusiasts at all angles. And at some point, people feel compelled to want to learn how beer is actually made, and maybe even give it a try themselves."
'Homebrew nirvana': A beginner's guide
At its most basic, a beer recipe has four ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. But that's where the similarities end. There are countless ways those ingredients can be combined to make dozens of beer styles, as well as aging techniques and additions that can turn what might be a classic northern English brown ale, akin to Newcastle, into something the world has never tasted. "Many people come into the shop looking to make a specific beer," said Michael Dawson, creative director at Northern Brewer in St. Paul. "But because everyone's environment at home is different and fermentation will vary, you will actually be making a beer that's unlike any other. It's truly your very own. I think you've kind of achieved homebrewing nirvana when you embrace that house character."