Here's what the Philadelphia home brewing boom looks like

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 28, 2014

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Brothers John and Chris Donaldson bottle their nectarine wheat beer in Chris’s South Philly basement. (Photo by Randy LoBasso)

When you no longer consider yourself a beginning home brewer, that’s when you start doing weird stuff. “Like, they want to do a peanut butter-chocolate stout, or something like that,” says Jimmy McMillan, co-owner of Philly Home Brew, one recent Thursday morning.

“Or putting pretzels in their mash,” adds Nick Less, the other co-owner of the brewing supply outlet on American Street in Kensington.

“Which I’ve done,” admits McMillan.

And what does that do to the beer, exactly? He shrugs: “Gives it a pretzel flavor.”

Me, I’m a total beer-brewing virgin. I’ve come to McMillan and Less this week because all the home brew enthusiasts I’ve met in town swear by their small, unassuming shop—not just to supply everything they need, but to answer any questions they may have, no matter how newbie they sound.

Asking questions and getting the hang of the starter kit, it turns out, is Phase One of deciding to start home brewing. Phase Two, as we’ve established, is crazy experimentation. And then after you’ve gotten the orange coffee porters and the chicken stock blueberry ales out of your system, McMillan says, “that’s when you refine your brewing.”

He would know. McMillan has been brewing beer at home for the past 14 years, ultimately creating an entire life out of it. It’s not just that he and his partner sell supplies to local brewers (home enthusiasts as well as a number of breweries and brew pubs around Philadelphia). It’s also that they’re part of a real scene, including pop-up brew pubs, veteran brewers and hobbyist clubs, that’s been inspiring an untold amount of people in the area to cook up their own kitchen-brau. Untold, that is, but apparently growing.

According to statistics from the American Homebrewers Association, an industry trade organization, an estimated 1.2 million Americans are brewing their own beer today—and two-thirds of them began in 2005 or later.  That’s a lot of new home brewers. One wonders: Why?

“I liked drinking and I liked cooking,”
McMillan says simply. He came from a restaurant family, and when he began cooking food at age seven, he says, he immediately grew interested in the science behind it. So when he came of age, beer seemed like a natural progression. “Brewing is like a slow-food cook,” he says. “You can make soup in 30 minutes or so, but it takes two weeks to make beer.”

That’s something everyone who begins brewing at home needs: Time. Patience, too: While the first part of the process might take four to six hours, next comes the two-week waiting period while the yeast ferments the sugar to create the carbon dioxide.

South Philly resident Billy Edwards is well accustomed to that cycle at this point. The first thing he does when I show up at his place near Dickinson Square is crack open two English brown ales he recently brewed in his rowhouse kitchen. “That’s one of the best parts about this,” he says. “You drink while you do it.”

It’s true. We do. We also listen to a cacophony of ’90s punk ballads blaring from the Pandora station on his TV. Later, we’ll eat leftover ribs and taste the raw, unfiltered, uncarbonated black IPA we’ve just created over the course of four hours from a test tube. It’ll be a bit chunky and flat, and at one point, a plastic tube connected to Edwards’ outside hose (used to cool down the boiling wort) will explode, and I’ll wipe water—just water—off my face in relief. Two weeks later, in early June, I imagine I’ll be back to taste the fruits of our (mostly Edwards’) labor.

Edwards has now brewed everything from honey beers to stouts to India pale ales, and like lots of people, he has the guys at the Philly Home Brew Outlet to thank. At the Philly Honey Festival in Bartram’s Garden last year, he watched them demonstrate how to make honey beer—and decided right then and there to head to the store, buy some equipment and get started.

He promptly made a mess in his kitchen, including sugary spills and an exploded thermometer. “There was red splatter everywhere,” he says. “Luckily, they don’t put mercury in it anymore.” I ask him if that batch needed to be thrown out. “No, [the glass] didn’t actually get in the pot,” he laughs. “We still drank it, and there hasn’t been any permanent damage.”

Accidents notwithstanding, he says, his girlfriend has been a supporter of his new hobby. A public school teacher who makes her own yogurt and cheese, she could relate to the DIY-kitchen impulse. (Plus, of course: beer.)

Edwards is emblematic of the home brewing trend nationwide. The hobby is dominated by white males; the average home brewer is 40 years old (60 percent are between 30-49; Edwards is 31), married or in a domestic partnership, has a college degree, and is likely to live in a household that makes more than $75,000 per year.

Shops like the Home Brew Outlet—one of several Philly retailers, including Center City’s Home Sweet Homebrew and Mt. Airy’s Malt House Limited—have seen that enthusiasm on their bottom line. According to a 2013 survey released by the American Homebrewers Association, gross revenue for beer-making kits and supplies increased by 26 percent between 2012 and 2013. Eighty percent of shops showed an increase in sales of beginner kits—on average, a 23 percent increase—and are generally seeing beer ingredients outpace those of wine. “The success of a local shop will ensure a thriving community of homebrewers,” said Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, in a statement released with last year’s survey.

You can talk to ten different brewers and they’ll have ten different ways for brewing and reasons for brewing. Many of those who brew have a tendency to talk like both scientists and history buffs—but will plainly admit they only know the science and the history around, well, beer.

Journalists and analysts around the country have hypothesized the surge in home brewing has a lot to do with the growing popularity of craft beer—as, probably, does the broader continuing demand for locally sourced food and organic ingredients.

“I think people were tired of the same beer from the same people,” says Joe McAteer, president of the Philadelphia Homebrew Club, which meets monthly at the Homebrew Outlet in Kensington. “It was all lager—which, in the summer, I’m as apt as anyone to quaff down a pint of Pabst. That said, the tastes of people have gone back a few decades to pre-Prohibition. We love the local experience of going to our local farm or dairy or cheesery—so why not a brewery?”

At the turn of the 20th century, McAteer notes, there were over 50 breweries in Philadelphia. Today, there are fewer than ten—but that number has been growing. “We are a wonderful beer town with unbelievable craft beer bars. People are willing to try new things and are genuinely interested in these new breweries.”

That interest has led to an obvious decline in the demand for what numerous interviewees for this story referred to casually as “shit beers”: mass-produced light lagers.

MolsonCoors, for instance, the seventh-largest beer brewer in the world, saw both their domestic and wholesale revenues decrease by about 2 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. “We have a lot of bar owners who are enamored with craft beers,” Pete Coors, owner of the company, told the Denver Post’s beer blog last year. “They are beginning to take off the premium light handles and putting bottles behind the bar instead and replacing the handles with craft beer handles.”

While home brewers like Billy Edwards don’t necessarily have visions of opening up their own brew pubs—well, some do. For South Philadelphian Chris Donaldson, his love of craft beers—stouts, in particular—led him to begin a new life.

Having graduated from Temple with a mass media and broadcasting degree in 2005, Donaldson had worked his way up to an office manager job at a local criminal-background-check company, and had even helped the company open two new out-of-state branches. By the time he was 30, though, it just wasn’t satisfying him anymore.

“I think my story is similar to a lot of people from our generation: I graduated with a degree and got a job,” he says. “I had a passion for beer but hadn’t educated myself about it. I wanted to learn more, and then my brother came to me with an idea: He wanted to create a noir stout using plums.”

Donaldson’s brother, John, is a distiller at La Colombe’s rum distillery in Port Richmond and had been brewing for about two years at that point. They began brewing together at John’s Center City apartment before deciding this was something they wanted to bring to the next level. So Donaldson called his friend Robert Amar, owner of Underdogs, a small hot dog restaurant in Center City.

“I really like the way he runs that place,” says Donaldson, whose name sits among those posted in honor on Underdogs’ wall for having successfully eaten every variety of dog the joint serves. “He’s like an idol of mine; he had a vision for it, and he did it. He has the same sort of culture and climate of the place that I would run.”

Amar was blunt with his friend: If Donaldson really wanted to work with beer the rest of his life, he’d have to get his hands dirty and learn—work in the industry in whatever capacity he could as he continued honing his basement brew.

Though some friends and family worried about his job security, Donaldson quit his office gig to look for a career in beer. He originally figured he’d work in the biz for three years, and by the end of that time, he and John would open their brewpub. It’s been a year since that decision, though, and now he thinks that timeframe probably isn’t a realistic goal. Things take time—even the most basic things, like finding your first part-time job in the industry.

“I kept going door-to-door to different places,” he says: “Bottle shops, breweries, anywhere I could go. You just have to make yourself vulnerable and say you’re willing to put it all on the line.” Within a couple months, he landed a job giving tours at Yards; today, he also has a more regular job at The Greeks Next Door, a bottle shop on Haverford Avenue in Narberth.

When I hang out with Donaldson and his brother at his house near Oregon Avenue, they’re completing the arduous task of bottling a nectarine-infused wheat beer that’s been aging for two weeks in a basement closet. It’s neon and thick. Much of the nectarine and yeast residue is filtered out, then emptied into a small, plastic garbage can under a table. They transfer the stew from a glass container to a plastic bucket, and—as a soundtrack of Pretty Girls Make Graves fills the homey workspace—we watch with patience as the liquid worms through a plastic tube into bottle after bottle. We’re all hoping small chunks of fruit don’t get caught and delay the process.

That’s exactly what happens. But just for a minute or so. In the end, the three gallons of brew adds up to about two cases of beer, which will be ready in a couple weeks. During that time, Chris will get ready for the Greeks’ Philly Beer Week event and continue his tours at Yards.

“Craft beer is a big part of human history and a huge part of human civilization,” he says. “One of the best parts about giving tours is preaching that gospel of beer and getting people more of that mindset—to appreciate what you’re drinking and how it’s brewed.” 

Home Brew Happenings at Philly Beer Week
Here are a few worth checking out:

Learn Something! A Little Knowledge... Sun., June 1. Free. 12pm-4pm. Home Sweet Home Brew. 2008 Sansom St.

Mash Bash! Sun., June 1. $5-$10. 1pm-6pm. Underground Arts. 1200 Callowhill St.

7th Annual Extreme Homebrew Challenge. Mon., June 2. $25. 7pm-10pm. Jose Pistola’s. 263 S. 15th St.

Free Intro To Homebrewing Lesson. Tues., June 3; Wed., June 4; Thurs., June 5. Free. 1pm-4pm. Philly Homebrew Outlet. 1447 N. American St.

Memphis Taproom Hot Dog and Homebrew Extravaganza. Sat., June 7. $35. 12pm-4pm. Memphis Taproom, 2331 East Cumberland St.

The Bean Brew Challenge (with ReAnimator Coffee and the Philly Homebrew Club). Sat., June 7. $30. 11:30am. Sancho Pistola's. 19 W. Girard Ave.

Made in Philadelphia Sample Day.
Sun., June 8. Free. 12pm-4pm. Philly Homebrew Outlet. 1447 N. American St.

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