Beer Camaraderie Starts With Brew Clubs

Alcohol is meant to be shared.  That is a mantra that St. Germain Cellars adopted from the beginning of starting this company in 2014. I recall back in the 80s, meeting a man sitting on a stool, chatting with the proprietor of a hole in the wall brewing supply store. He was long haired and hippie looking, and he asked me if I wanted to taste an all-grain, home-brewed Porter. I had brewed my own Porter before but not an all-grain Porter. I remember him being so proud of his brew so I said yes, I would like try his beer. That turned out to be the best Porter I had ever tried to this day. He soon became the brewmaster of one of the first craft breweries in California's Santa Clara Valley. 

Why am I relating this story to you? It illustrates my first premise that alcohol, good alcohol, is meant to be shared, especially with people you like, that share the same passion for drinking something made by hand. A pro brewer or a homebrewer is so proud of his handcrafted brewing creation that he gives it away. A brewing club brings together the pro and the home brewer alike, allowing them to share their beer with one another and learn from each other.

Craft breweries also help other craft breweries. This statement is repeated time and time again by brewers and entrepreneurs that talk about how they got their brewery started. If a brewery is short on supplies another brewery is ready to step right in and help that brewery. If help is needed to fix a flavor problem with a batch of beer, just call another brewery and they will be right there to help out. If  there is an equipment problem-call another brewery and they will be glad to help out. They are in competition but not with each other as you would think, but instead with non craft breweries.

The practice of breweries helping out other breweries also starts down at a much lower level.

This happens with the homebrewer and his brewing buddies and with a brew club. The same circumstances of helping and sharing, start with a homebrewer and other home brewers just as craft breweries help other craft breweries. This is especially true with a brew club. This is works because many people can be helped at the same time during a presentation or club demonstration, or a club member steps up to become a mentor. Many brewers, club members or not enjoy and benefit from brewing with another brewer. Nearly every time brewing is shared-something new is learned about brewing beer no matter how many years of experience a brewer may have.

Brewing clubs generally have brewing competitions. Some competitions are one-on-one brewing of the same style while other competitions feature many beers of all styles among as many members that enter beer. Remember that beer brewers are very proud of their creation so getting entries is not usually a problem. If a batch of beer is not completely successful he generally will not share the beer. The biggest values to take away from beer competition is learning to take criticism about your beer, and learning to judge beers by specific BJCP guidelines. BJCP stands for Beer Judge Certification Program. BJCP defines and outlines the properties of the different beer brewing styles. A portion of beer judging requires tasting and identifying off flavors in beers. Participating in the judging portion of a beer competition can be quite daunting at first but the benefit and knowledge is value added to brewing experience. BJCP is quite complex so I won't get into the details but I would liken it to skills of a Wine Sommelier. Both certifications have many levels of certification and require extensive education.

Judging beer at a brew club merely gives an introduction into BJCP.  Each brew club may have members that have taken tests and are Beer Judge Certified. Certification consists of both a written and tasting test.

The club usually gets discounts on supplies and equipment, and sometimes discounts at breweries and brewpubs. Anything that is needed can be obtained in a pinch from another home brewer who is most likely a member of the club. Many clubs also pool equipment or have club equipment that has larger brew capacities than the average homebrewer. Some brew clubs have a shared common area for brewing and have taps available on a pay as you drink basis. Clubs have both public and private brew days. Brew clubs have members who work for or are associated with one of the local breweries. Knowing and meeting with all the pro brewers in town offer an access for incite and knowledge of different aspects of beer brewing.  In some cases a brewery may be the sponsor of the brew club. Brew clubs sometimes have libraries of books that can be checked out and recipes are shared, many recipes. Books on the art of brewing are also shared among other members.

A successful brew club breeds potential beer businesses. One logical outcome might be a brewing supply store, started by one or more club members or the club. Of course the most obvious of course would be to start a brewery. This could be a traditional brewing business or it could be a cooperative-initially started by the investment of some club members or or investment members who like to drink good beer and be a part of a brewery. An interesting variation on the brewing supply store is a brew on premises. A brew on premises consists of a brewing supply store combined an actual brewery portion.  This would allow a brewer that doesn't quite have the space or equipment -to brew their own beer, for a fee.

What is brew on premises?  So far I have heard recently of a brew supply store in New York City called Bitters and Esters, providing this service. I do remember first hearing of this novel idea 20 years ago in San Jose, California but I don't know if it is still in business today. A simple Google search finds 2 in New Jersey and 1 in Baltimore, Maryland, and one in Portland, Oregon, but there are many more. The service provides 100% of all the supplies and equipment and includes advice and instructions if requested or needed. Costs are roughly $150-$250 for a 5 gallon batch. The brew-on-premises service provides the cleaning up. It is expensive but this is a good way to get into brewing if you don't have any space, like someone living in New York or San Francisco.

A brewing cooperative is an interesting concept. It starts out by selling shares to members. Each member has one share and one vote to elect a board of directors. Members get a credit based on what is spent in the co-op. The Board makes the decisions on how the brewery is run, what and how much to brew. Investing members must be a resident of that state that the co-op is located. Details of this San Jose Cooperative Brewery and Pub can be found on the Microbrwr Podcast. Black Star Co Operative in Austin, Texas may have been one of the first brewing co operatives in America.

Jim St. Germain

Jim St. Germain is president of St. Germain Cellars and the resident hops enthusiast. When he isn't evangelizing IPAs (75+ IBUs!), he enjoys a nice glass of pinot noir or good whiskey, neat.