Taking my daily constitutional through the internets today I stumbled across a beer-blogger discussion questioning the impact of homebrewing on modern craft beer. It starts over at Lew Bryson's blog (respected beer writer and new star of a beer-related TV show), gets a nudge from Alan McLeod, and winds up where I found it, at awesome homebrewing/craft beer author Stan Heironymus' Appellation Beer Blog (also the co-creator of our old Number 8 kit).
Now, no one is saying that homebrewing sucks and should be discounted in the history of craft beer, which is too bad because it would make this post much easier to write, but Lew says that he feels that homebrewers tend to overstate the influence of homebrewing on craft beer.
Cultures tend to build founding or creation myths for themselves over time, as a way of defining themselves and their values. In America we've got the Declaration of Independence, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Abe Lincoln walking ten miles through the snow, fighting off two viscous jaguars along the way, to return a penny to a customer who overpaid his bill at the general store. Often the myth is more how we want to imagine things based on our current situation rather than the way things really were. And I admit, I am very familiar with and even feel ownership over the creation myth for our little subculture of homebrewing. The way that Charlie Papazian single-handedly invented homebrewing, wrote a book revealing the secret knowledge, then went on to found the AHA and the Brewer's Association, joining together the scattered craft brewers of the US in the first Great American Beer Festival, which in turn nurtured the industry into the weird demi-behemoth it is today.
So, from a historian's perspective, that little story is a gross oversimplification. But I've actually never heard any homebrewers say things like, "If it weren't for homebrewing, craft beer wouldn't exist" or "Craft brewers totally owe homebrewers because they use all of our ideas and inventions." Instead, the relationship between craft brewers and homebrewers has continued over time to be highly symbiotic and respectful. And this is something really quite unique. Here in Minneapolis Surly Brewing was started by a homebrewer (along with most of the breweries around here), and if you go tour their brewery on any weekend, or go to one of their special events like Darkness Day, you'll find that a huge proportion of their volunteers are homebrewers. Why would Surly do an AHA Wort Rally, opening up their brewery and giving away free wort to homebrewers? They feel the love. I don't see Sara Lee opening their factory to home cake enthusiasts (I didn't actually check to make sure they don't do this, so I apologize if my assumption is wrong). And additionally, I think that the vast majority of homebrewers are honored by the special attention we get from craft breweries. The Sam Adams Longshot competition, the craft breweries that show up to the AHA conference, these types of things are not expected or demanded by homebrewers, I think, but are instead met with surprise. Hey, this big guy actually cares about me, the little guy!
So the current cozy relationship between homebrewing and craft beer may be part of that historical construction of homebrewing kick-starting the craft beer industry. I think a more accurate impression, though, would be of mutual exchange between all parties - people getting introduced to great craft beer, then later becoming homebrewers is probably the most common way for folks to get started. Homebrewing sparks craft brewing sparks homebrewing and so on, and thrown into the mix are all of the overseas breweries (and overseas homebrewers) that have inspired US homebrewers and craft brewers in their efforts. So there are definitely feedback loops at work here, and the influence of one on the other is tough to pick out. It's best to say perhaps that homebrewing and craft brewing have been strongly linked together in the US - they've grown together, influenced each other, and continue today a relationship that started decades ago. That is pretty astounding and awesome, especially since neither could have reached their current lofty heights without the other.
To end, though, I'll strike a more controversial note. Here is a question that I think about often:
If you took all the beers made in the US in the last 10 years and pitted them against each other in a contest judged by a panel of the top professional brewers and BJCP judges, would the best beer be from a commercial brewery or from a homebrewer? I am convinced that the odds are in homebrewing's favor. There are a heck of a lot of homebrewers that are making beer as good or better than most craft breweries. What do you think?