The concept of a homebrew club is difficult to describe to the uninitiated. Like country club members, homebrewers appreciate periods of leisure with life's finer things, though no homebrew club I've encountered would be so exclusive. Actually, the cadre of members in most clubs traces the memory of packs of neighborhood kids gathering in backyard treehouses or forts with the intent of finding new ways to create makeshift bottle rockets, build larger snow fortresses, or raid unguarded swimming pools to fill the void of idle time.
The meeting places for clubs across the country vary, but most are able to find an accommodating tavern or park gazebo for one evening a month. Bottles, growlers, kegs & draft boxes are set on eight foot tables with fresh tasting glasses, and soon the site transforms into jovial cruise ship on a three hour tour celebrating craft beer invention. It sets sail with young & old to the center of an amber-colored lake, not to return until all aboard have forgotten their daytime identities and toils. When the time comes to disembark the members' minds are laden with ideas for grand recipes, pinnacles of piecemeal equipment innovations, and soon-to-be mini excursions during upcoming weekends in various garages. Some bring their significant others who either share their hobbyist pursuits, or just know how to follow a trail to additional delicious homebrew. The solo members get to brush off the auspices of spouses' rolled eyes or distaste for beer; theirs' is the greatest joy, a short monthly nirvana of idea & drink. Consider the Iowa Homebrewers Union, or IBU for short. Established in the middle of the country the IBU boasts over 80 paying members and is a recognized club by the American Homebrewers Association. Your average American either appreciates Iowa as a producer of goods or attempts to gaze beyond the landscape and shuttle through the state while flying over or driving to states elsewhere - pity to the later! Iowans are innovators of equipment & processes, and with a lot of good beer being delivered by distributors as craft beer trucks across the state via I-80, the homebrewers of Iowa live in a modern gallery of fine craft beer art. Their state is a place to drink worldly masterpieces & carve out their own recipes using ingredients from their land as their tools. We at Northern Brewer know of dozens of homebrew clubs, each with dozens of members. We offer a 5% discount to AHA-recognized clubs by mention of member affiliation through the order comments at checkout. We're proud to have supplied goods to lubricate plenty of club meetings with standard recipe kit creations or large scale club brews in which members each contribute many pounds of ingredients for lucratively special brews. Most clubs are set within a community or metro area, but few are like the IBU - the club covers brewers across all of Iowa: in cities, villages, on plains, beside lakes, rivers, in valleys and atop driftless bluffs. A club that knows no singular Main Street was an irresistible idea I had to experience. So after I'd spent a bombastic weekend among winter craft beer events & countless tap rooms around Milwaukee, I steered my course towards low-key Des Moines to unwind & acquaint myself with the lesser-known craft beer of the central midwest at the IBU's monthly meeting. The meeting place is El Bait Shop, a slab of a building on the south side of downtown Des Moines. Actually, within the building is a yin & yang of beer: El Bait Shop holds down the west end with over a hundred craft beers on tap, the High Life Lounge is on the east corner and is a shag-carpeted mecca of macrobrewed lager with vintage color TVs playing downconverted HD satellite sports channels. Go west & you can get an Agave Wheat Ale to wash down tasty shrimp tacos. Go east and do your grandfather proud with a meatloaf sandwich in one hand and a Pabst Blue Ribbon in the other. Needless to say, the IBU digs El Bait Shop, but the choice of pubs dissolves the snobbery some perceive imminently in a craft beer bar. The folks that are the club's consist vary in personality & walk of life in combinations as great as the on-tap beer selection. Their personalities are sly, storied & welcomely easygoing like the choice of twin pubs.
Meetings take place on the third Monday of each month. To begin February, the club has business to be discussed - registration for a BJCP certification class, homegrown club hops to be spoken for, charitable donations to be arranged, and a club-only competition fast approaching with laid back anticipation. Keanan, the club's president, assembles 40-50 homebrew faithful in an ample corner of the pub. The members stand in front of him with an introductory pint and old business leads into new business. Interest in a sabbatical to this year's NHC in remote Seattle is decidedly low, but a few members raise hands to convey interest in sending their Iowa brews west for the national convention's yearly homebrew competition. Their club-only competition is looked forward to with greater appeal. As I stand aside the head table sipping a club member's Milk Stout, I can taste IBU members' understandable appeal of keeping travels between the Missouri & Mississippi Rivers. Ten minutes in & the majority of club business has been settled. Beyond the head table & the congregation of thirsty members is the club draft box & beer table. Four of the five taps are dispensing 5 gallon kegs from members. Five growlers of various volumes, styles & glass opacity also make up the beer for general melee time. The minutes of business & upcoming events get presented as conversation material for the anticipated latter mainstay of the meeting. During the one to two hours of general melee the homebrew flows and I get immersed within the crowd discussing recipes, northwest pale hops gone scarce, where to find small machine motors to drive barley crushers, and et cetera other hazy topics. Methinks I will never hear a more appealing phrase to describe club beer tasting than general melee. Through the night I sip an Iowa-brewed NB Rye Stout, meet two club members gone pro (see the link below), preach the word of Real Ale behind the pump handle pulpit of our Pullman Beer Engine on display and watch a Civilian Brewing Division Growler shatter on the floorboards before consoling its owner with a gratis replacement on his next online order. Such was sort of the glow I had hoped to step into on an otherwise overcast soggy Iowa evening - making friendly acquaintances via homebrew. I'm always delightfully surprised as to where the business of homebrewing takes me, but I rarely get to see as much honest & glad camaraderie from strangers that quickly become friendly fellow homebrewers in person. The people of the IBU set a high bar for the quality of folk in a homebrew club. They've got both the goods of the land around them and a 24/7 interstate pipeline to convey America's craft beer for their own interpretation. I've tasted the result of both, and can gladly point you in the direction of some great homebrewers with the capability to reinforce or reinvent the standards of the world's finest fermented beverages.
Cheers to the IBU & El Bait Shop! As for you other homebrewers & clubs out there, the coming year may find NB around your club's friendly digs. Keep an eye out via this blog, Facebook & Twitter for details on future events - we're looking out for all of you! -Steve Scott