Thirty or so men and a handful of women have set up shop in a parking lot, ready to drink away a sunny Saturday. There’s no sporting event to tailgate, but the tables full of beer bottles and jury-rigged coolers running a series of kegs — jockey boxes in the crew’s nomenclature — would make any college-football fan drool.
The mild-mannered posse are members of the Minnesota Home Brewers Association. They have gathered outside a St. Louis Park homebrew supply shop for the fifth annual Home Brew Fest.
“This is a chance for all levels to bring in a homebrew,” MHBA treasurer Gera Exire LaTour said of the competition. “We have people who just started brewing and just started becoming a member of the club, and people who have been doing it for 20-some years.”
As Minnesota breweries have proliferated, a pocket community of amateur beer makers also has thrived. The state is home to 57 homebrew clubs registered with the American Homebrewers Association, which holds its annual rally on Saturday alongside a Big Brew Day event at Lucid Brewing in Minnetonka.
For Big Brew Day, Lucid welcomes up to 50 pre-registered homebrewers to brew in its parking lot from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and hosts seminars and demonstrations starting at 10 a.m. The event precedes the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s weeklong 10,000 Minutes of Minnesota Craft Beer, with dozens of statewide festivities running May 5-11.
Home-brew clubs range in size from the MHBA, boasting more than 220 members, to smaller cliques with such punny names as Mötley Brüe and Prairie Homebrewing Companions. While some clubs have more formal meetings and agendas, like the Nordeast Brewers Alliance, which focuses on beer education, others are more freewheeling.
“The socializing is the main ingredient to me,” said MHBA vice president John Longballa. “It’s nice to make beer and sit at home and drink it. But it’s a lot nicer to share it and tell some jokes and swap some stories.” While sharing homebrews in public is a legal no-no, the relevant state law is seldom enforced.
Longballa, a 22-year member who purportedly makes a mean wild rice lager, said homebrewing is experiencing its third spike since the late 1980s. It might be the hobby du jour for woolly twenty-somethings, but when Longballa started, DIY brewing was almost a necessity. “At that point there weren’t the myriad craft beers that you could obtain now,” he said. “So if you wanted an Oktoberfest, you had to make it. If you wanted a porter, you had to make it.”
American Homebrewers Association membership has more than quadrupled since 2005, thanks partly to millennials. New MHBA member Caleb Levar attended his first club event last Saturday, but the 26-year-old St. Paul man already has five years of fermenting under his belt. “I actually brewed my first batch so it was ready for my 21st birthday,” he said. “It was crap, but you learn.”
Since then Levar’s sour beers have gotten favorable marks at the Upper Mississippi Mash-Out — one of the nation’s largest homebrew competitions to be based in the Twin Cities.
Homebrew contests like the Mash-Out are often judged by beer geeks ordained by the Beer Judge Certification Program. Mash-Out co-founder Steve Piatz, the nation’s second-highest ranked beer judge, said the beer judge exam dates are booked solid for the next two years. “Three years ago we were probably giving 300-some BJCP exams a year. Last year we gave like 1,100,” said Piatz. “That’s just all we could handle.”
Years ago homebrew had a reputation for being subpar, cautiously ingested to avoid hurt feelings. But brewers and beer judges say the overall quality has improved as information and better ingredients have become more readily available online and at supply shops such as Northern Brewer and Midwest Supplies. They also point to clubs and competitions as places for swapping tips and providing critical feedback.
“Little by little you get better with each brew,” said Tyler Bye of the Nordeast Brewers Alliance. “It gets to the point where you’re hooked and it’s more a borderline obsession than a hobby.”