WENATCHEE — Shake a bottle of beer before you open it. You know what’ll happen.
Trapped inside the amber enclosure, the liquid transforms into energy — a force that’s eager to make a splash the second the cap comes off.
That’s a lot like the Wenatchee Valley’s home beer-brewing scene.
The zeal to put the “craft” back into brewing has been around the valley for decades, behind the scenes, in kitchens and backyards, in small batches.
And then, bam!
A change in state law and growing momentum has finally blown the cap off the bottle.
Brewmaster Joe Nestor opened Wenatchee’s first brewery, Columbia Valley Brewing, in April. That was following by Saddle Rock Pub & Brewery, which is open and expects to start brewing its own by summer.
Icicle Brewing opened in Leavenworth only weeks before Nestor’s place.
Stan’s Merry Mart started selling homebrew supplies in 2010, the same year the Wenatchee Homebrew Club got started. The club has grown to more than 100 members.
The Wenatchee club joins Leavenworth’s 30-member Bare-Knuckled Brewers club, which was founded in 2006 by Dean Priebe, now the brewmaster at Icicle Brewing.
The energy that surrounds home brewing is infectious. The “welcome mat” is large. The pretension, zero.
“It’s a challenge. There’s some science involved. It’s very social, and you get to drink your results,” says Mark Shipman, technical advisor of the Wenatchee club. He began brewing after his
son gave him a home-brew kit as a gift. That was about 40 batches ago.
“We’d all have to have liver transplants if we drank all of our own beer, so our friends love it,” Shipman said. A friend gives me the empties, and I give him the full ones.”
Membership is overwhelmingly male, but a few women are on the Wenatchee club’s mailing list. Women do help their husbands and boyfriends brew. Club meetings are open to everyone.
“Brewers are a pretty laid-back and welcoming group. We like people,” says Will Young, “clerk” of the Leavenworth club. He’s been brewing since 1996. “We have people show up who have yet to brew their first batch. It’s not as daunting and intimidating as people may think.”
And beer making is like a link to the past.
“Brewing is a way to tap into something that our asestors did from ancient times, even to Egypt and Sumaria,” he said. “Even our founding fathers brewed, and it’s possible to recreate George Washington’s or Ben Franklin’s ales, as they’ve found some of their notes and recipes. Pretty cool.”
“Home brewing can be as simple as buying some syrup and fermenting it, but the club can give people the confidence to jump in and do it,” says Chadd Fitzpatrick, a longtime home brewer, founder of the Wenatchee club and co-owner of Wenatchee’s new Saddle Rock Pub & Brewery. “About the first six months, every time I brewed, I sent an email out to come and watch me.”
Why the buzz?
Why the home brewing explosion and why now?
“We’ve penetrated the public consciousness for better beer,” says Alan Moen, one of the region’s craft brewing pioneers and publisher of regional industry mag, Northwest Brewing News. “It’s been kind of a slow growth. But now it’s accelerating, and one of the reasons for it is the incredible boom in the craft brew industry.”
The craft beer industry grew 12 percent by retail dollars in 2010, while the country’s mass-production beer market contracted 1 percent, according to the national Brewers Association.
Unlike the beer of huge national brewers like Anheuser-Busch, “craft beer” is brewed in small batches using high-quality, and often creative ingredients.
Washington is now home to more than 150 craft brewers, many of them very small — “nano” in industry speak — and 35 homebrew clubs.
With more than 1,700 craft breweries nationwide, the U.S. has surpassed Germany as the world leader.
Moen was president of Seattle’s oldest brew club when he moved to Cashmere in 1991. He gathered together some of the “motley collection of home brewers” he found here who didn’t have a place to meet and formed the now defunct, “Red, White & Brew Society,” a club that disbanded when he moved to Entiat in 1999.
He also started a home brew competition at the Chelan County Fair that gave local home brewers a needed source of feedback, but hasn’t happened every year.
“My goal when I moved to this part of the state was to encourage homebrew competitions everywhere,” he said. “The (home-brewed) beers were all over the map in terms of quality,” he said.
“Competition puts those beers out there on the table before people who don’t know them and can judge them impartially.”
He added, “Those who learned from their mistakes and sought out people who could give them good advice on their beer, moved on and became craft brewers and sparked the development of the whole business.”
He attributes the local home-brewing boom to a host of factors:
The emerging “buy local” culture. “Fresh beer is so much better than anything shipped and handled,” he says. “Beer is best consumed where it’s made.”
Beer making doesn’t require expensive equipment. Home-brew kits sell for as little as $40. A quality set up of cooking kettles, glass fermenting vessels and equipment can be purchased for around $200, not including ingredients.
Local sources for ingredients and supplies and a huge amont of how-to info online. Stan’s homebrew aisle had reduced the need for brewers to drive to Seattle brew shops or buy online.
Existence of local breweries. The new local breweries can also be sources of hops, ingredients, and advice to home brewers.
Washington is a natural for brewers. Yakima produces 77 percent of the country’s hops, a key ingredient. Malting barley grows well here, and the water quality is excellent.
The arrival of competitions. Local and regional contests have helped brewers hone their craft. Local sights are now set on Seattle in June, when The Northwest will host the National Homebrewer’s Conference for the first time in 15 years.
Change in state law. Homebrewing became a federally sanctioned activity in 1978 for the first time since Prohibition, but Washington State law didn’t allow home brewers to leave home with more than one gallon of beer and, even then, only to enter competitions. A state rule change in 2009 upped the transportable amount of home brew to 20 gallons and allowed brewers to share it — but not sell it — at parties, tastings and other gatherings.
No going back Moen says the local movement toward high-quality beer is here to stay.
“It’s like there was a wall of beer out there that was bland and boring and stripped down of flavor,” he said. “That wall has forever fallen, and we’re not going back.”
Many of today’s home brewers have set lofty goals, that include commercial brewing and critical acclaim. But most view it as an excuse to get together with like-minded people and talk about something they love.
“People can come to a club meeting and forget their worries and kick back and enjoy themselves,” Saddle Rock’s Fitzpatrick says. “The camaraderie is a big reason to brew. I’ve made lifelong friends.”
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