Publisher: Sterling Epicure
Publication Date: Nov. 2011
If shopping, food and nightlife aren’t enough to attract visitors to New York, there’s one more thing that might: excellent craft beer. In mid-December, Sen. Charles Schumer and New York State’s 60,000-person microbrewery industry launched an “I Love NY Beer” campaign. The goal? To bring to breweries the same kind of cachet (and cash) that the state’s wineries have enjoyed for years.
But for me, this whole craft beer thing is old news. Every couple of months, I become a tour guide. I don’t take foreigners to the Statue of Liberty or Times Square. That’s not my bag. I’m a journalist and a beer lover, not necessarily in that order.
Thus, I lead a homebrewers tour in Brooklyn. I escort suds fans to apartments and lofts, where we sample brewmasters’ liquid bounty. Offerings run from the expected (inky stouts, citric IPAs) to the unexpected (Earl Grey tea–infused pale ales, peanut butter porters), with the commonality being the beer’s quality: “I never expected homebrew to taste this good,” two or three attendees will utter each tour. I’ll smile, watching misconceptions burst like beer bubbles.
At its core, homebrewing is beer making’s minor leagues, where liquid chefs perfect techniques and recipes before turning pro. When done properly, a pint of homebrew can be just as satisfying as anything poured at a corner saloon. In fact, that homebrew might be poured at the corner saloon. “I judge homebrew contests, and in every competition I find half a dozen beers that make me think, ‘that could be a professional beer,’” said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association.
The legalities surrounding selling homebrewed beer are as clear as Bud Light. You just can’t do it. When President Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing in the late 1970s, he allowed folks to brew up to 100 gallons of beer a year. Many brewers slosh over the threshold, but it’s unlikely that cops will come a-knocking. That would only happen if homebrewers sold their tipples. “There’s a defining line between amateurs and professionals: Are they selling their beer and paying their taxes?” Gatza says.
Vending beer means hacking through a tangled web of regulations wrapped around the three-tier system, in which breweries sell to distributors, which then peddle to stores and bars. Taxes are collected at every step. Plus, there’s the cost of acquiring a federal permit from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. It’s a pain in the butt to sell a pal a growler.
However, no law prohibits a brewery from producing a semi-pro’s recipe. In New York City, homebrewers have a professional outlet at numerous local breweries. Last year, Kelso of Brooklyn partnered with Whole Foods to run the Local Homebrew Hero competition, in which winning brewer Chris Weik concocted his saison (a Belgian-style farmhouse ale) at Kelso.
At the New York City Homebrewers Guild’s annual Homebrew Alley competition on Jan. 29, 2012, the winner of the Brewmaster’s Choice award will have his suds crafted at a local brewery, such as Chelsea Brewing Company or perhaps Pittsfield, Massachusetts’ Wandering Star. And if you’re currently craving a taste of this amateur-professional divide, head to one of the numerous Manhattan locations of Heartland Brewery. There, taps are currently dispensing Peter Cowles’ Sir Blackheart, a dark and hoppy IPA that won Heartland’s August competition.
Don’t dawdle: When Sir Blackheart is gone, you won’t be able to sip another pint — till Cowles goes pro, that is.
Joshua M. Bernstein is a Brooklyn-based beer, spirits, food, travel and bicycling journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide.