The Close and Important Relationship between Craft Breweries and Home Brewers
by Steve Russell
Since this is my first article for this blog, I thought I would provide a very brief introduction about my journey into craft beer. The name and style of my first craft beer is long forgotten. Nevertheless, it was love at first sip. In late 1989, I moved from DFW to Seattle where I eventually discovered a wonderful alternative to what I call corporate beer. When I moved to Seattle my beverage of choice was wine but I always had beer in the garage fridge; usually one brewed with snow melt. One Saturday morning after I had been in Seattle for a couple of months, my neighbor suggested we go to a pub for lunch and a brew or three – hey a hamburger and a couple of beers is always a good Saturday afternoon. Imagine my surprise when I walked through the door and discovered fifty different beers on tap. Heck, I didn’t know fifty different beers existed. In 1991, I attended my first beer festival and my love affair with craft beer was solidified forever. Now on to the important stuff…
Many, if not most, craft brewers began brewing beer in their garage or backyard producing five or ten gallon batches of homebrew. As the quality of their home brewed beer improved, the brewer’s dreams grew until the next craft brewery was started. However, the history of this movement particularly in North Texas, is quite recent as illustrated by the following timeline:
- 1978 – President Carter signed legislation legalizing home brewing in the United States.
- 1983 – The Texas Legislature passed a bill legalizing home brewing in Texas
- 1994 – The first craft brewery in Texas, Saint Arnold, opens (I know that Spoetzl fans might not appreciate that statement and I’m not going to entertain a debate on the subject, but I stand by the comment)
- 2004 – Rahr & Sons opens in Fort Worth
- 2008 – Franconia opens in McKinney
- 2011 – Deep Ellum Brewery opens in Dallas
In other words, with the exception of Rahr & Sons, the craft beer industry in North Texas is less than ten years old. That means that the home brewers that became commercial brewers are still close, in time, to their old passionate hobby. Actually, many of these people still make home brew for various reasons. Sometimes it’s a test batch or developmental batch for a new beer the brewery wants to add to their line-up, but often it’s because they still enjoy the hobby or they want a beer at home that their brewery isn’t going to make in the foreseeable future.
The awesome result of this hobby/commercial brewer cross-over is that many craft breweries actively support the home brew hobby. Here are just a few examples and since I live in Denton, most of the examples will be Denton centric because of my extensive first-hand knowledge and experience.
I’ll start with Audacity, a brewery that no longer exists, but the people and attitudes are still around and just maybe, sometime in the not too distant future…well, who knows but we can hope. Doug Smith, the head brewer and one of the owners of Audacity was a huge supporter of the Denton County Homebrewers Guild. He provided meeting space for the club’s monthly meetings and space for the club to brew a batch of beer each month to demonstrate the process to anyone interested. It was sad Audacity had to close but Doug was very supportive until the final day.
Rabbit Hole Brewery created an event for home brewers last spring that was really fun. When their seasonal saison, Wonderlust, finished fermentation they harvested the yeast and put it in a number of twelve ounce beer bottles. The yeast was then offered to any homebrewer that wanted it with the condition it had to be used to brew a saison and each yeast recipient had to bring three bottles to a judging event at a time and location to be determined. I don’t remember exactly how many home brewers took advantage of the opportunity but it was more than 20 and all the saisons were really good. Rabbit Hole is also a strong supporter of the homebrew competition, The Blue Bonnet Brew Off, held in March and the Best Little Brew Fest in Texas that will be in October this year.
Denton County Brewing Company stepped up when Audacity ceased operations and now hosts the Denton County Homebrewers Guild for their monthly brew day. The monthly event is already attracting a number of people that want a better understanding of how beer is made and are considering getting into home brewing as a hobby.
The Bearded Monk is not a brewery but a bottle shop and growler bar that only sells craft beer. Actually, they also have a selection of wines, but the only beers they have in cans, bottles, or on draft is craft beer. The Bearded Monk now hosts the monthly meeting of the Denton County Homebrewers Guild demonstrating that they’re very much aware of the relationship between homebrewers and the craft beer industry.
La Cumbre is a brewery in Albuquerque. La Cumbre makes a beer named Elevated IPA that won the Gold Medal at the 2011 Great American Beer Fest. They also provided the recipe for the Elevated IPA to “Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine” in 2016 and it was published in the March 2016 issue. As one would expect, if you like really big, hoppy IPAs with an IBU around 100, this is a pretty darn good beer. Unfortunately, it’s not distributed in Texas but I’m in Albuquerque at least once a year and have visited the brewery many times. This past July I was there when they were canning (16 oz. cans) their Elevated and got six cans right off the line – now that’s fresh. While talking to one of the brewers, I asked why they would make the recipe of one of their top beers available to the public. His answer was very interesting. He indicated that a home brewer couldn’t really make a beer that tasted exactly like his because they don’t have the same water or equipment so it was always going to be noticeably different. However, he added that home brewers love to experiment and try to make clones or copies of commercial beer and he was happy to do what he could to help them enjoy their hobby.
I’m not going to mention any names here, but I know one of the partners of a top brewery in Dallas. Many of their beers are his recipes. At lunch one day, I asked him what it was like being a commercial brewer. His response was that he wasn’t a commercial brewer; he was just a home brewer that happened to be associated with a commercial brewery. To me, a very telling comment about the relationship between home brewers and craft breweries.
This is just a small sample and just the ones I’m personally aware of… I know there are many, many more. Why? Because, homebrewers love craft beer and craft breweries. Craft brewers, often having been home brewers in the past, love home brewers. Home brewers frequently talk to craft brewers for advice and thoughts about either beer in general or the beer the home brewer is currently making. I’ve never experienced a craft brewer unwilling to talk about brewing beer. The relationship and synergy between the two closely related groups provides strength and support to the continued growth of craft brewing.