Homebrewing: Hobby or hustle
Has home brewing become simply a means to an end?
Thursday 01 August 2019
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Let’s get one thing straight: the best reason to brew your own beer is for the love of crafting and learning. It's a chance to weave malt and hops and yeast together in unique combinations. I've often thought that homebrewers must appear mad to anyone who doesn't 'get it', as it's basically a case of spending the majority of a Saturday cleaning, monitoring temperatures and note-taking. Why do all that work when you could be putting your feet up? But other homebrewers understand that the chance of pure escapism into experimentation and creativity makes up for all that. And as for drinking the spoils, the fruits of our labour with friends a few weeks later? There is almost no occasion more satisfying.
For some homebrewers, there’s more on the agenda than just stocking the fridge. The microbrewery boom in the UK over the last decade or so has blown the doors into the beer industry wide open. Forget the stereotype of a brewery owner as a middle-aged man with a freehold premise in the countryside. Tiny railway arch city brewpubs run by small teams brewing great beer with second-hand equipment has put the concept of being a brewer squarely within the realms of reality for ambitious young beer-lovers in recent years. I call out the ‘young’ beer lovers in particular for a reason. These 'Generation Y' folk are the ones who are most doggedly determined to forge an income from doing the things they love for a living. Research conducted by Department26 last year shows that young people in particular care more about working on something they feel passionate about than any other factor, including money. But when we consider the high volume of people who are passionate about cracking open a cool bottle of something tasty, where does that leave us? And what are the consequences?
“The blossoming of the current UK homebrewing community was an inevitable ramification of the explosive arrival of craft beer & microbreweries onto the scene”, says Simon Pipola, Founder & Director of BrewCon. “The hobby itself has evolved massively also, with high end all-in-one brewing systems like the Grainfather & Hopcat become much more popular and a tendency towards all-grain brewing over extract as people strive to emulate the multiple amazing modern beers on the market.” So not only are more people getting into brewing, but more of them are taking the quality of their output seriously. “More and more people are showing a real interest in not just the taste of their beers but in the people making them, their processes and ingredients they use. This has led to a surge of people taking up amateur brewing”.
It’s hard to take a brewery tour these days without being shown around the mash tuns by a thirty-something, who will proudly exclaim that they started off brewing in their garage several years before turning their passion into a moneymaker. If it feels like this is fast becoming a trope, there’s a good reason for that. Statistics show that the country has been jumping on the brewing bandwagon in unprecedented numbers. Back in 2017, The Guardian reported that the number of UK breweries had risen 65% since 2011, and that this surge meant that the UK had more breweries per capita than any other nation. With this monumental growth of recent years in mind, it is perhaps a little concerning that a key finding in this year's SIBA British Craft Beer report was that young people are drinking smaller volumes of higher quality beer. So with drinkers becoming pickier and the range of options increasing, the market is more crowded and more competitive than ever.
Homebrewing blogger Paul Crowther (otherwise known as The Mad Brewer) is among those who would ultimately like to make a full-time vocation of his passion to brew. “I think making a career of the hobby is at the forefront for me. Less for commercial success but to do what I love for a living.” Paul goes on to tell me that his current plan is to open a homebrew shop. This got me thinking about the retailers already in this space. I wanted to know if and how sales patterns have changed in the last decade, in the wake of the microbrewery boom. Surely a fresh batch of aspirational home brewers has to be good for business?
Claire Russell, owner of Home Brewtique, told me that she has noticed an uptick in interest in homebrewing as a result of the creativity in the beer industry. HomeBrewtique provide equipment and ingredient kits for all-grain brewing on a small scale. Claire says that she intended to make brewing more readily available to people who didn’t have the space to store 40 pints, or the time to dedicate to making large volumes. Driving Claire in her mission was the desire to make brewing more accessible for those who don't fit the age-old stereotype of what a homebrewer should look like. “Once only something done by old men in their garden sheds, the homebrewer of today is interested in being able to re-create the interesting beers they have been trying from the multitude of microbreweries.”
The breaking down of boundaries in homebrewing has been much needed, as the pastime is still largely dominated by the usual suspects. A 2017 global survey conducted by Brülosophy revealed that a staggering 99% of respondents were male, and more than 40% had a background in the sciences. I wanted to find out whether the UK is ahead of this curve in terms of diversity or not. Kat Sewell, author of the 'Have I got brews for you' blog, shared her experiences of being a member of the Water Into Beer homebrew club in southeast London. “There's still only 2 women in my group but the group has grown massively within the last year and our age range is very wide, from early 20s up to 70”.
As more people become motivated to convert their hobbies to paid vocations, how many people are still getting into brewing ‘just for fun’, with no monetary or career-driven agenda? Kat told me that in terms of her local homebrew club, it’s a mixed bag. “We've had a couple of homebrewers go on to open their own brewery and we've had a few go on to work for breweries”. I’m not surprised to hear this; after all, southeast London has been one of the hottest spots in the country on the brewing job boards over the last decade. “Most of us though are happy to have it as a hobby” Kat continues. “Our group is very experimental. Some of the things they do would just be a bit mad if it was on a professional scale.” This resonates with much of what I find profoundly attractive about homebrewing. The practical benefits are clear; mistakes are relatively inexpensive, and are a way to learn, hone, and get better. The stakes are not the same as when there’s a premise, a landlord and a host of utility bills and licencing laws to worry about.
It might be natural for many of us to see a thing which brings joy as an opportunity to get a leg-up into a career in a sought-after industry. “The craft beer market is definitely saturated at the moment” Simon of BREW CON observes. “Whilst two years ago a solid knowledge of brewing may have sufficed, breweries today expect some sort of qualifications, be it a degree or general brewing certificate from Brew Lab or IBD. Homebrewers tend to be quite acute beer nerds (and proud of it) so are very aware of market trends”.
Perhaps the act of chasing a career changes the nature of the passion, by creating a sense of urgency, competition and need for success, which for some people could begin to overwrite that which they had first fallen in love with. Paul summed this up aptly. “I talked to a commercial brewer who had got into [the industry] through homebrewing recently and he says he didn’t get time to homebrew anymore... that’s the worry for me; losing the hobby if it becomes my job”.
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