The scuttlebutt in the home brewing industry these days holds that
the hobby is in decline. Reports of homebrew shop closings abound,
and original manufacturers and suppliers lament the loss of growth
-- or even actual declines -- in sales. Although these observations
have some basis in fact, it is an exaggeration to leap to the conclusion
that home brewing is near the brink.
On the surface, it is true that some homebrew shops are closing.
What is also true is that in the past three years an incredible number
of new businesses entered the market to cash in on this fast-growing
industry. In many cases, the new start-ups overestimated the growth
or size of the market they were entering. A community that used to
support one thriving homebrew supply store soon had three. When one
closes in 1998, however, people infer gloom and doom for a declining
industry. Not true.
The same is true for the manufacturers and wholesalers. They may
indeed be seeing a lessening of growth or even actual declines, and
for the same reasons as the homebrew retailers. Not only do new manufacturers
and distributors enter the market, but new distribution channels further
shrink the slices of the pie. Home brewers often find creative ways
to find and buy cheap ingredients through breweries, for example,
and a certain amount of business is siphoned off through cut-rate,
The retail-at-wholesale issue bears specific mention because it undermines
the vitality of its suppliers. No company selling to the general public
at wholesale (or near wholesale) prices can make the profit margin
needed to operate a viable business. More important, these fly-by-night
distributors threaten the livelihood of bona fide homebrew retailers,
whose retail prices reflect the costs of overhead, personal attention,
and accessibility (consider the last time you had to run out for hops
or yeast on short notice).
In fact, home brewing is thriving. As Deb Jolda reports on page 15
of this issue, the Southern California brewfest provides ample evidence
of not only the interest but also the brewing skill and organizational
acumen of today's home brewers. Other similar homebrew events are
springing up around the country: The Masters Championship of Amateur
Brewing came to life this year as a new national competition concept,
and the HBD Palexperiment, reported on page 40 of this issue, brought
home brewers together from around the country for an innovative national
So the truth about home brewing is that a dedicated core of home
brewers continues to push the limits of the hobby while the suppliers'
side is seeing many adjustments ("market corrections") that
result directly from growth, increased competition, and gray market
activities. Clearly, this scenario is not one of imminent demise.
Those of us closest to the community, however, still have reason
for concern. Any volunteer association will lose members simply through
attrition. For countless reasons, each year some home brewers let
their brewing hobby languish. The growth we've seen in home brewing
over the past 20 years reflects the net increase in brewers, which
means the influx of new brewers has outpaced the loss of brewers to
attrition. The concern today is really that the hobby is failing to
attract new members at a rate that exceeds losses through natural
Why are we not renewing our ranks? The answer is simple -- lack of
awareness in mainstream society. Clearly home brewers can make beer
as good or better than anything brewed commercially. Clearly home
brewers, even paying full price for ingredients and supplies, can
brew beer much more cheaply than anything they can buy in the store.
And clearly home brewers have fun.
I firmly believe that tens of thousands of people would take up home
brewing with gusto if they only knew they could. Most simply lack
the awareness that they can produce their own stellar beer and that
it can easy and fun. If we will show them, they will brew.
Currently, no national publicity campaign exists to promote the existence
of home brewing to the general public. For this reason BrewingTechniques
is advocating with the Home Wine & Beer Trade Association to organize
such an effort in the near future. Merely taking our hobby out from
hiding will swell its ranks as people learn how satisfying brewing
their own beer can be.
Home brewers are the original innovators of craft beer in North America.
They and the industry that services them deserves our wholehearted