Every foodie worth her coral pink Himalayan sea salt will tell you that merely dining at restaurants that serve organic, fair trade, hand-gathered-and-butchered fare on locally sourced wooden tables with recycled tablecloths dyed with beet juice just isn’t enough. Shopping at the farmer’s market? That’s for crybabies. No, the true farm-to-table ideologues must forage their own food and embark on their own set of hardy food-related crafts (beekeeping, starting a snail farm in their bathtub, knitting sweaters made with wool from llamas they raised, etc.) to be able to hold their heads high on Instagram.
So it’s no surprise that the same thing is happening in the beer world. It’s no longer enough to stake out breweries with empty growlers hours before their on-site limited releases. In a counterintuitive development, the same craft brewers who depend on the devotion of beer geeks for their bottom line are taking steps to help them figure out how to make their own version of their favorite beers at home.
There are already 1.2 million people brewing their own beer at home, according to the American Homebrewers Association. While beginner kits abound, many first-time brewers want to skip the generic training wheel beers and go for an offbeat brew they know and love.
Lauded craft brewers like Rogue, Evil Twin, BrewDog and Stillwater are all creating kits that appeal to the knowledgeable beer connoisseur. Why would they want to threaten their bottom line, one might ask?
“The world we live in has changed radically and the way people share information and make things together has changed, too,” Brian “Stillwater” Stumke, founder of Stillwater Artisanal Ales tells VinePair. “If I wanted to know how to do it in high school, I had to look it up in a book or an encyclopedia. Everything had its place and companies were a lot more protective about their information. But now that we’ve all been using the internet for about 20 years, our perspective on researching, sharing information, and what qualifies as proprietary information has completely changed.” He has a point. Tech titan, Tesla founder, and billionaire Elon Musk may have put the nail in intellectual property’s coffin way back in 2014 by releasing all Tesla patents to the public in what seemed like a bid to open-source and democratize the process of invention.
But doesn’t Stumke want to pay his mortgage? Yes. But he argues that giving homebrewers the keys to his beer kingdom doesn’t threaten the palace. “It would be like Calvin Klein giving people the pattern the company uses to make a best-selling blue shirt,” Stumke says. “Yes, they’ll have the tools to recreate it, and hopefully they will. But it will be taken out of the context it was previously enjoyed in. There won’t be the label, it won’t be part of the set it usually comes with, etc. You can use my recipe to produce an identical brew, but the experience of it will be so different, it is essentially a completely different product.”
Stumke himself got into the beer kit game in a classic post-paper way. Stephen Valand and his partner in life and love, Erica Shea, own the Brooklyn Brew Shop. They founded it in 2009 at the Brooklyn Flea with the goal of making brewing beer as easy and straightforward as cooking. One day, the couple found themselves in Baltimore, hanging out in Stumke’s epic pub, Of Love & Regret. (Stumke wears many hats; before becoming a brewer, he was a world-famous DJ). They liked what they found there, and did what we all do when we like something: They took to the internet.
“We just started tweeting at him about it,” Stephen explains, laughing. “We traveled all the way to Baltimore to talk to him on Twitter.”
Before the night was over, Valand, Shea, and Stumke had made an e-deal to create a beer kit together. And not just any beer. “I decided if I was going to make a beer kit, I was going to do a beer kit that no one had ever done before,” Stumke explains. “I wanted to show people how they could make a world-class beer in their own kitchen.”
Stumke and Valand decided to go for the gose. Stillwater’s Gose Gone Wild is the most popular gose on RateBeer and probably the most popular and beloved beer in Stillwater’s much-ballyhooed lineup. “No one has ever created a sour ale that beginners can tackle,” Valand explains.
There’s a reason for that, of course. The beer is an old-fashioned, obscure German style requiring skills, ingredients, and brewing methods first-timers aren’t going to have.
“It took us a while to break down the science part and make it totally straightforward for anyone to do at home,” Valand says. They got around steps like wild fermentation with an unexpected hack: using a lactobaccillus tab. It’s the same strain that makes yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, and pickles. In addition to the genius lacto tab, the kit has everything a first-timer needs, including grain, thermometer, fermenter, tubing, racking cane and tip, plus other bells and whistles.
“Brian gave us his entire recipe, which was an amazing leap of trust and a huge gift for the consumer,” Valand says. “Aside from a few minor hacks that we discussed, everything people do at home is identical to what he does in the brewery, just on a much smaller scale. When I made it for him to try he couldn’t believe it because it really did taste identical. That was hugely gratifying.”
As a RateBeer obsessive who feels genuine anxiety when selecting a new pricey beer to sample, I decided to give beer brewing a spin. Now, while I have been known to pickle a harvest or two of excess cukes from the farmer’s market, I’m no Sandor Katz. And in my house, because I have four-year-old twins, everything I do, from changing a roll of toilet paper to painting the living room, turns into a profoundly trying family affair full of questions, hygiene challenges, and copious amounts of wet paper towels. (The deep-breathing and visualization techniques I learned in Lamaze class and never thought I’d have to apply to real-life post birthin’ are no longer a coping mechanism but a way of life.) Making beer was no different.
Hygiene issues aside, the process was about as difficult with my helpers as baking fancy homemade bread, and required as much patience. The boon – as with all kitchen projects – is that creating something culinary you know you’re going to love with people you love is always more rewarding that just grabbing it at a store. The hardest part now? Waiting for it to ferment.
Aside from the rush of knowing you’re making one of your favorite beers at home yourself, getting consumers closer to the process of brewing will surely only help consumers connect on a more essential level with beer, which, in turn, will help the producers and the farmers who grow the grain and hops.
Will home brewing become a financially remunerative, inevitable extension of the food revolution? TBD. In the meantime (and while I wait for the gose), I’m grabbing the Evil Twin Bikini Kit.