Over the past few years, there’s been a craft beer renaissance in the United States. It seems as though a new brewery is popping up in every town and there are so many tastes and flavors available from new breweries, craft beer is as abundant as the people chugging it down on weekends.
Craft beer is also become a hobby among the average American man. According to the American Homebrewers Association, there are an estimated 1.2 million people making craft beer in their own homes. The average homebrewers are men in their 40s and these men are creating over 2 million barrels of beer each year. With those thousands of barrels comes, obviously, countless mistakes.
Jess Lebow has been around beer most, if not all, of his life. After selling and distributing beer for heavyweights like Budweiser and Redhook for years, Lebow is an authority on all things hops and barley. His new book, The United States Of Craft Beer: A Guide to the Best Craft Breweries Across America, chronicles his state-by-state exploration of the best breweries in each state.
I asked Jess about the future of craft beer, his favorite stops on his book journey and the biggest mistakes homebrewers makes when crafting their first ale or IPA and getting their feet wet in the process of making craft beer.
What are the 3-4 biggest mistakes people make when trying to make their own craft beer?
These days, when people bring me their homebrew, they’re only ever sharing their very best efforts. I’ve tasted some amazing small-batch homebrewed beers. So to be honest, I can’t speak very intelligently about what mistakes other brewers are making. As far as I can tell, everyone makes better beer than me.
I can, however, tell you about the mistakes I’ve made myself.
First and foremost, the biggest early mistake I made was with not cleaning my bottles and brewing equipment well enough. Especially when reusing bottles, it’s very easy to get tainted beer from gunk that’s been festering in the bottom of an old beer bottle that didn’t get properly sanitized. I’m all for sour beer, but not when it’s made by mistake.
Very early on I made the mistake of trying to increase the ABV of a batch of beer by adding too much sugar to the wort (instead of making an all malt beer). This, when done properly, can be a valid technique. But I got greedy and the resulting beer was so over carbonated that as soon as I would pull the cap off a bottle, the entire beer would erupt toward the ceiling. To be fair, the beer I licked off my face tasted good. I just couldn’t get it to stay in a glass.
And, of course, I’ve become preoccupied a time or two while brewing. I swear I just turned my eyes away from my batch for a second, but when I turned around a scalding hot bubbling wave of malt, water, and hops came surging out of my brew pot over the stove and across the kitchen floor. I have been lucky to have never been burned too badly by a boil over, but man, what a mess. I’ve never had to clean up anything stickier.
If you had to choose only a few places to visit in your book, which would they be?
Now, this is a completely unfair question. It was a struggle to just limit myself to the handful of breweries that were included in each state. It was an even bigger struggle to anoint a personal “best” in each state. I lost sleep over it. No kidding.
So, I’m going to dodge your question—sort of.
Instead, how about this: If you are looking for bang for your buck—meaning you have only a limited amount of time, and want to hit as many great breweries as possible—then I would recommend doing a tour in one of the following states: California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New York, or Washington (state). There is more good beer in these states than a person could drink in a lifetime.
On a personal note, I would like to spend more time doing brewery tours in New York. Having grown up and lived most of my life on the West Coast, I haven’t had as much exposure to the New York breweries as I would like.
Care to predict a couple things about the future of craft beer?
You know, back before the Revolutionary War, there were over 2000 breweries in America. This, primarily, was because the bottle cap and the infrastructure to move beer hadn’t been invented. People had to buy their beer at their local pub. If they wanted to take it home to drink, they would put it in a pail with a lid on it—called a growler (it’s evolved significantly since then).
But due to the Temperance movement (boo, hiss), and Prohibition, that number dwindled down to almost zero. It’s just been within the past few years that we have finally reached, and then exceeded the number of breweries in America that we had before we were technically an official country. At last count there are now well over 3000 breweries in America, and growing every day. I think, in the next few years, we’re going to see further growth. People are going to continue to enjoy drinking fresh, locally produced beer, and the brewers are going to become even more emboldened to try new, interesting things. I think we’re just on the cusp of a new age of beer drinking, and I for one am ecstatic about the prospects.
Also, with the progress we have seen in beer canning technology over the past few years (particularly the lining they use to avoid the metal changing the taste of your beer), I think you are going to see more and more brewers putting their beer in cans rather than bottles. It’s already happening, and it just makes sense. Aluminum is easier to recycle than glass. The packaging is lighter and easier to ship and store. Cans get cold faster than bottles. And light can’t penetrate the metal like it can glass, making it impervious to light degradation. Fresher, colder, easier, and tastes just as good. It’s a no brainer.