Beer-loving do-it-yourselfers owe a debt of gratitude to President Jimmy Carter. It was Carter who legalized homebrewing in 1978, a year after his boozing big brother Billy unveiled his Billy Beer line of brew. Suddenly, anybody with some hops, barley, yeast, a stove, a pot and a few other basic pieces of equipment could brew their own beer from the comfort of their homes.
Homebrewing eventually gave way to the microbrewery craze, as enterprising homebrewers figured they could cash in on the relative ease and limited costs of brewing beer. By the late 1980s, microbreweries were everywhere. But less than a decade later, the beer bubble had burst, and microbreweries began to disappear.
"The bean counters took notice of the high profit margin, and suddenly a bunch of accountants got into brewing," says Jason Teeter, who works at Homebrewing Adventures, a Charlotte homebrew supply store. "Once the craftsmen and artisans got squeezed out, the industry suffered." (Charlotte still has one microbrewery, Rock Bottom.)
While the microbrewery industry may have gone flat, the art of homebrewing in Charlotte is stronger than ever, as evidenced by Carolina BrewMasters, a Charlotte-based club with a membership that has more than tripled in the last few years. The club is co-hosting the upcoming Oktoberfest in NoDa, which is being touted as the largest beer festival in Charlotte history.
The Carolina BrewMasters club was established in 1987 just as the microbrewery craze started. It has grown from a handful of enthusiasts to about 125 members from across the Charlotte region. "Over the years the quality of ingredients and the sophistication of equipment have become so much better, and the hobby has really increased," said Bill Lynch, president of Carolina BrewMasters. "It allows you to brew damn near commercial-grade beers."
Lynch, 53, got into homebrewing about 15 years ago when he lived New Jersey. He and some of his beer-drinking buddies bought a bunch of equipment from a homebrew shop that was going out of business. They consulted a couple of how-to books and were soon toasting each other with homemade hooch. Lynch says a lot his fellow homebrewers are "gadget heads"; in addition to having a fondness for the frothy stuff, they enjoy piecing together all the brewing components. Lynch does most of his brewing on his home deck using comparatively crude equipment. He says he prefers to keep things simple: "I just enjoy the challenge of coming up with new recipes, and I've gotten pretty competitive."
He regularly enters contests, including the recent Blue Ridge Brew Off in Asheville, where Lynch won first place for his Scottish Strong Ale and Heather Ale, and third place for his Imperial IPA and Coffee Stout. He estimates he brews about 25 batches of beer each year, which comes out to around 50 cases. "If it's any good I'll submit it in competitions; if not, I'll just drink it."
"It's an all-consuming hobby," says Todd Bowman, 33, the BrewMasters' previous president. He was a senior at Davidson College when he first got into homebrewing. "Me and my roommates bought the most basic kit you could get and did everything wrong, but we thought it was the coolest thing in the world," says Bowman. "For me, it's a creative and intellectual outlet. There's a whole artistic component to it. It's like painting a canvas."
Bowman joined Carolina BrewMasters in 2001, and was elected president the following year. "At the time we were not a very active club," he says. "The average meeting was about 15 people. It was more of a beer-tasting group, so I set about to change all that."
He put more emphasis on brewing and increased the club's role in Oktoberfest, which has grown from about 1,000 attendees over the past few years to more than 4,000 in 2004. Although Bowman stepped down as head BrewMaster last year, he's still an avid brewer and has equipment scattered all over his house.
Given that the BrewMasters are is essentially a group of beer drinkers, do any members ever change their affiliation to AA? "There's a big misconception that homebrewers are a bunch of alcoholics who just want cheap hooch," says Teeter, 32, who also is a BrewMaster. "Most homebrewers I know are very responsible drinkers. They don't get drunk very often, they just really love beer."
Bowman says that while people are certainly going to cut lose during Oktoberfest, at the group's monthly meetings the members are "militant" about not overindulging. Everyone uses a 6-ounce tasting glass or smaller. "We believe drinking is an important part of the social fabric of any community, but we're also some of the most cautious people in the world when it comes to things like drinking and driving," Bowman says.
"We're definitely not just a bunch of guys who sit around and get drunk," he adds. "If you wanted to do that it'd be a lot easier and cheaper to buy a six-pack at the convenience store instead of making your own."
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