Rooted: Commercial Brewers and Their Homebrewing Partners | Craft Beer & Brewing

Rooted: Commercial Brewers and Their Homebrewing Partners

The symbiosis between pro brewers and homebrewers runs deep—both rely on the other to continue to grow and survive. Instead of viewing the homebrewer as competition, pro brewers are happy to lend a helping hand in several ways.

Josh Weikert 2 years ago

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Question: When was the last time you saw a big-box soda company with a “locked-in-a-vault” recipe host an event where you get to come to the factory, ask questions about how it’s made, walk out with the ingredients to make it, a copy of the recipe, and advice on how to produce an identical version of it?

Answer: Never.

You might assume that homebrewers and commercial brewers would be natural enemies. After all, homebrewers produce the very thing commercial brewers want to sell to them, and many homebrewers give their beer to friends and family, further undermining the craft market. Homebrewers even have the gall to attempt to “clone” commercial beers.

The reality, however, is precisely the opposite. Homebrewers enjoy robust support from professional brewers for at least one simple reason: many pro brewers developed their love of brewing in garages—not in a commercial brewery. Any number of famous names in brewing began their careers on a propane floor burner: Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head (Milton, Delaware), Greg Koch at Stone Brewing (Escondido, California), Jamil Zainasheff at Heretic (Fairfield, California), and thousands of others who remember standing on the other side of the tap handles.

These “failed homebrewers” (as I like to call them) maintain their affinity for homebrewers because homebrewers are their best customers and biggest advocates. Strange as it might sound, we homebrewers end up buying a lot of beer, and we’re also a very loyal crowd who believe in the importance of local, small, and community-oriented businesses. The partnership between pro and homebrewers is deep and broad, and many pros enthusiastically share their knowledge, ingredients, and community support.

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Access

One of the most visible ways pro brewers engage with homebrewers is by offering themselves and their breweries to homebrewers. Several offer open-house programs that invite the public to assist in the brewing and packaging process. Others participate in “meet-the-brewer” events, either at their own breweries or at locations that serve and sell their products. Some are even crazy enough to give away or publish their recipes to homebrewers.

The open-house and “brewer-for-a-day” programs are a dream come true for homebrewers. Many aspire to operate their own brewery one day, and these programs provide a venue to build familiarity with the everyday practice of professional brewing. Programs like these also provide homebrewers access to some of the biggest and shiniest toys in the brewing world. The benefit to the brewery is free labor—and who doesn’t want more of that? More importantly, though, is the level of identification that these homebrewers develop with the brewery. You can bet they’ll be telling their friends to buy the beer, since “I helped make it!”

Homebrewers might be, conversely, surprised at how modest the operations of brands with global reputations are: I distinctly remember taking a private tour of Allagash in Portland, Maine, and viewing their pilot system (a 10-gallon rig covered in a sheet and rolled underneath a staircase for safekeeping) in a small room where employees were hand-labeling an upcoming barrel release.

In that same vein, “meet-the-brewer” events provide an opportunity for homebrewers to pick the brain of someone whose livelihood depends on brewing well. Not only can homebrewers benefit from hearing the thought processes of the pros—their inspirations, their worries, their goals—but they also get to seek out answers, tips, and tricks of a technical nature. Brewing is part art and part science, and pros have a strong incentive to get both right. The alternative is gallons nd gallons of beer flowing down the drains, so these programs are an invaluable resource. Many pro brewers will even travel to local homebrew club meetings in addition to hosting large groups in their own breweries.

And then there’s the craziest thing these gals and guys do: they literally give homebrewers their recipes. Breweries cooperate with brewing publications and broadcasts to provide clone recipes for their beers. BrewDog in Scotland gives away their back catalog of more than 200 recipes and guidance on how to brew them in exchange for nothing more than your e-mail address. Ballast Point’s Homework Series provides the recipe and process directly on the label and also on their website. And quite a few brewers will reply directly to homebrewers who email questions. The connection that pro brewers have with homebrewers is substantive and valuable, but it’s also personal.

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Fueling the Machine

Pro brewers will tell homebrewers how to brew what they brew and show them how to do it, but they also help them get hold of the ingredients needed to make beer. The days when it was difficult to procure good brewing supplies are mercifully in the past, and homebrewers have access to most of the same ingredients that pro brewers use. But while we homebrewers can source them, we still pay a premium for buying them in much smaller amounts.

However, if a homebrewer can supply the water, there’s a good chance that a brewery can help him/her get everything else. This commitment to providing homebrewers with ingredients can go to borderline-ridiculous lengths. For example, 3 Star Brewing Company in Washington, D.C., opened a homebrew shop in its brewery.

Most homebrewers work in 5-gallon or 10-gallon batches—some even smaller, and a few somewhat larger—but none of us produce even a fraction of what a relatively small commercial system produces (even brewpubs usually brew at the 3-barrel or larger level, or about 90 gallons, minimum). One common service that breweries provide to homebrewers is wort sharing: a brewery produces a beer, minus any of the cold-side ingredients (yeast, dry hops, some fining agents), and homebrewers can pick up a share and take it the rest of the way at home. Frequently, these wort shares are tied to intra-club or regional competitions, but just as often they’re simply a way to encourage homebrewers to brew, especially when the brewery asks for nothing more in return than for homebrewers to bring their beer back for a tasting event. The homebrewer gets a batch of wort, saving him/her some ingredient money, and the brewery gets lots of beer enthusiasts back to their taproom. Everybody wins.

Breweries are also often willing to leverage their relationships with vendors on behalf of local homebrewers. Grains and hops are much less expensive when bought in bulk, and the cost savings in buying grains by the sack or hops by the pound is often as much as 80 percent. Since the breweries work regularly with maltsters, it can be a relatively simple matter to include a few sacks that are earmarked for homebrewers in a brewery’s next order. In similar fashion, breweries typically contract for a specific mass of hops in specific varieties at a bulk price. However, a brewery doesn’t always end up using its full order—in that scenario, some offer leftover hops to homebrewers, either in one-ounce or one-pound increments that are usable at a homebrew scale, but at bulk prices. These group buys and remainder sales give homebrewers access to professional-quality ingredients at industry prices.

Have you ever offered someone something that, if they refused you, you’d simply throw away? Brewers have—except, instead of a stale-as-hell half-slice of pizza, it’s the most essential ingredient in brewing: yeast. Breweries often end up dumping a significant amount of valuable, viable yeast. Instead of doing that, some breweries allow homebrewers to come by and collect slugs of yeast for their own use, either to directly inoculate a new batch of wort or to wash and bank it for use at a later date. This allows homebrewers to emulate their favorite beers by using the exact yeast strains (some of which are unique and/or proprietary), and it saves them money as well.

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In the same fashion, breweries that are no longer using high-cost items such as whiskey or wine barrels often sell them cheap or donate them to homebrewers. Barrels lose some of their flavor potency with each successive batch, and so a brewery may no longer be able to use theirs for a specific recipe or formulation—but it’s still a potentially great alternative fermentation vessel to a homebrewer looking for less of the barrel’s original flavor.

And this isn’t a one-way street: breweries have been known ask homebrewers to return the favor and help them produce ingredients for their beers. One of the more intriguing programs was instituted in 2012 by Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Virginia, when they offered, at no cost, 1,000 hops rhizomes to local gardeners. In exchange for a portion of the growers’ harvest each year—which would be used to make a wet-hopped “community” IPA—the growers would get to keep the remainder of the harvest for their own use and see their names on the beer’s label. Hardywood Park provided the rhizomes and some guidance to help grow them, and the community provided the “acreage” for a hops harvest—which is looking like an even better idea than it did in 2012, what with hops shortages returning and hops prices on the rise.

Community Support

Finally, we see support of homebrewing as a community by professional brewers. While not every brewery will allow access to its brewers and recipes, and some find it inconvenient to assist homebrewers in securing ingredients, nearly all the craft breweries in America today are willing to support the homebrewing community in a myriad of ways. They might help with something as simple as donating prizes for homebrewing competitions or as elaborate as merging their talents with homebrewers’ via the creation of Pro-Am beers.

Many breweries are hosts to homebrewing clubs. The brewery provides meeting space and a venue for larger events (competitions, socials) and maybe a discount on purchases. In exchange, it gains an audience that’s guaranteed to show up one night a month (often a night that isn’t busy anyway), good PR, and a population that will undoubtedly provide honest feedback on the brewery’s beers.

Breweries also host homebrewing competitions organized by the clubs: putting a dozen tables and 100 judges in your taproom, all sniffing, sipping, and scribbling away, is surprisingly easy. The pro brewers might even sit on the Best of Show panel and select a beer to brew up to commercial size as a way to honor an excellent homebrew. Such “homebrew recipe release” events are usually very well attended and show that the brewery hasn’t lost touch with its homebrewing roots. And let’s not forget that homebrewers can afford to experiment with ingredients, flavors, and methods that a pro brewer can’t financially risk, which means that the pro brewery gets to use the competition as its own private laboratory.

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Formal partnerships are common as well. The American Homebrewers Association (the AHA, itself part of the professionally populated Brewers Association) sponsors the AHA Member Deals program that pro brewers can use to attract homebrewers as patrons. Enticements include all-day-long happy hour pricing, percentage discounts on beer, free glassware giveaways, and more. The AHA also holds membership rallies at local breweries to raise awareness for homebrewing as a hobby as well as recruit new members. And whether in cooperation with AHA or on their own, breweries commonly host Big Brew Day events where multiple homebrewers set up their systems in a common area of the brewery to brew the same style of beer. Sometimes the batches are combined and added to a barrel, or alternatively, each brewer may ferment his or her own batch for later comparison. These activities all serve to bring brewers—professional and amateur—together to celebrate the art of brewing.

More Than Just Customers

What all of these partnerships, enterprises, and activities demonstrate is that craft breweries tend to think of homebrewers as more than just customers. Don’t get me wrong: they want your money, too. But that’s certainly not all they want. Selling you beer is simply a by-product of sharing an appreciation for that beer. So while we can look at the commercial benefits and motives for breweries to court homebrewers, there are at least two things that stand out.

First—and it has to be said—homebrewers (including this one) can be a bit much to deal with. I don’t think pro brewers would put up with us just for the sake of the till. As with so much else in craft brewing, the financial considerations are not the primary ones. When Samuel Adams hosts the LongShot American Homebrew Competition every year, they do it at no cost to the entrants. When breweries give over space for a homebrew club to meet or arrange the purchase of a mixed pallet of grain or give away wort that they could otherwise ferment and sell, they’re adding cost and complexity to their lives for no apparent financial benefit. When local breweries donate beer, grain, and gift certificates as homebrew competition prizes, they don’t do it because it will increase their sales. No, breweries do these things because they remember that they were the beneficiaries of others’ generosity when they were homebrewers.

And that leads to the second point: a number of professional brewers are still a part of the homebrewing community. Several continue to homebrew, judge at homebrew competitions, and maintain their connections to the homebrew clubs that nurtured their development. They hire many of their new employees from the ranks of homebrewers. They derive inspiration and ideas from brewers who are brewing for themselves. These are things that their other customers simply cannot provide.

The professional brewer and the home brewer have a special relationship, to their mutual benefit. That might not be unique to the brewing industry—but in a hard-nosed, capitalist, competitive environment, it’s definitely something to be admired and protected.

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Pro Brewer Resources for Homebrewers

We love the pro brewers who have generously shared their brewing recipes and know-how with the rest of us. Below are some of our favorites.

Avery Brewing (Boulder, Colorado)

Rather than squirrel away homebrew recipes for their beers under a separate header or download, Avery puts those recipes front and center on the main page for each of their beers. Not all recipes are available, but don’t start complaining until you’ve brewed through their entire dictators series (The Czar, The Kaiser, Maharaja), Old Jubilation, White Rascal, Joe’s Pils, and more.

Ballast Point Brewery (San Diego, California)

Ballast Point offers recipes for beer, wine, mead, and cider on their website, along with brew supplies and extensive how-to-brew information for extract recipes. Their instructions walk brewers through sanitizing, brewing, bottling, taking hydrometer readings, and more.

Recipes on the site include all-grain and extract recipes for several basic beer styles, as well as a few of their own recipes from their Homework Series. The Homework series includes ingredients and detailed brewing instructions for their Session Saison, Robust Porter, Hoppy Belgian-Style Pale Ale, Pumpkin Ale, English-Style IPA, Belgian-Style Double IPA, and Hoppy Red Ale.

BrewDog (Ellon, Scotland)

The brewers from BrewDog haven’t forgotten where they started and are happy to share their extensive back catalog in exchange for your email address. The downloadable PDF file includes a wealth of how-to-brew information to get you started. From there, you can brew more than 200 of their all-grain beer recipes, each of which includes everything you could want to know about the beer (the only thing missing is a taste test!).

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Jester King (Austin, Texas)

Jester King loves homebrewers and happily shares a few of its most-requested recipes. You will need to have some brewing know-how to get started—the recipes show percentages for ingredients, which you can tailor to the batch size you’re working with. Instructions for the boil, original gravity, and other need-to-know notes for each recipe have been included.

Recipes on the site are for all-grain brewing only and include Black Metal Imperial Stout, Commercial Suicide Dark Mild, and Wytchmaker Rye IPA.

Madtree Brewing Company (Cincinnati, Ohio)

Madtree shares recipes for all the beers on their site (including their limited seasonals and collaborations). While you won’t find detailed how-to-brew instructions, if you’re already pretty familiar with brewing all-grain recipes, you should be good to go. Their instructions show when each ingredient should be added, and in addition to the 5-gallon batch instructions, they’ve converted the ingredients to percentages so you can tailor to the size of your batch.

Ranger Creek Brewing & Distilling (San Antonio, Texas)

Ranger Creek is proud of its homebrew heritage and supports the community by sharing six of its recipes. Those who are comfortable with all-grain brewing should be able to jump right in. The recipes include ingredients, boil instructions, and gravity readings.

Recipes include their OPA, La Bestia Aimable, Uno Oak-Aged Rye OPA, Mission Trail Ale, Mesquite Smoked Porter, and Saison Oscura.

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Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® (Fort Collins, Colorado)

To help you find the recipes that professional brewers have shared with us, we’ve created the handy link above. Our archives include fantastic recipes from top breweries such as Ska Brewing, Tree House Brewing, Neshaminy Creek Brewing Co., Perennial Artisan Ales, Jack’s Abby, Funkwerks, La Cumbre, The Rare Barrel, and more.

Experience the world’s best online learning resource for brewers with Craft Beer &Brewing Magazines®’s online classes! Sign up for one today!

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: MATT GRAVES

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