Beer making might as well be as complicated as brain surgery to an outsider. One must find the right grain. Then the brewer must produce the correct amount of wort and account for the loss of steam. Then they add hops at the right intervals, filter and cool correctly, and finally add the yeast and shake, shake, shake.
The homebrewer must then be patient enough to wait two weeks to a month, depending on the size of the batch, for the beer to ferment. But after all that patient waiting, the home crafted beer can be put into a keg, loaded up with CO2, refrigerated for a few hours, and poured for friends and family to enjoy.
Homebrewing is still a timeless craft many Americans practice. In fact, according to the American Homebrewers Association, there are an estimated 1.2 million homebrewers in the United States today with 26 percent of these homebrewers brewing in the South.
Collectively, these 1.2 million beer makers, two-thirds of whom started homebrewing in 2005 or later, end up producing nearly two million barrels each year.
That’s a massive 63 million gallons overall but it only accounts for a mere one percent of the total beer production in this country annually.
Memphian Mark Patrick contributes his fair share to the homebrewing output. The 28-year-old brewer brews at home when he’s not brewing at local craft producer, Ghost River.
“I try and homebrew about once a week.” Patrick said, “I’ve got different variations so that’s how I got my experience mostly. The big thing is usually temperature. I always set a temperature, like a goal or range, and aim for that and so the higher the temperature the higher the extraction usually.”
In Memphis, the art of crafting beer at home is still prevalent today, but it is looked at as more of a hobby than a way to make a buck. And to some, this hobby seems to be losing more and more practitioners each year.
In a city where beer seems to be becoming more popular each year, it would seem homebrewers should have no problem selling their product. The culprit to their woes is actually the soaring emergence of both foreign and local craft brews in the market.
Local and domestic craft beer have been a highly sought after product in Memphis since it first started being imported and produced here.
As more people sought to get their hands on it, more varieties of craft beer began to be imported here from all over the country. More breweries such as Ghost River, Wiseacre, and High Cotton began to open and establish as the legitimate beer makers of Memphis. This, in turn, has had a profound effect on the homebrewing practice and culture of Memphians.
From 1998 to 2004, Mike Lee, 61, and Robert “Curly” Birkholz, 53, were both brewing beer at home. But when they weren’t busying themselves at the house, they hosted an hour-long radio program on WMC 790 called The Brew Line, which focused around the culture of beer and homebrewing in Memphis. It was the first time in Memphis radio history a show about local beer culture was getting air time.
Lee is the owner of Memphis Malts, one of Memphis’ premier home brewing supplies stores. Birkholz, left the city to start to tend to his own farm in Rossville, Tennessee after years of tending and managing several bars throughout Memphis.
Both men say that the massive variety of craft beer products being shipped into and produced in Memphis has slowly started a decline in the number of local homebrewers.
“There’s just less motivation to brew in house today,” Birkholz said, “Now with all these powerhouse local breweries and imported craft beers it makes no sense to brew your own beer when you’ve got countless choices at your fingertips.”
According to the Brewer’s Association in 1986, there were a total of 124 craft breweries in the United States. That number jumped to 858 in 1995 and by 2012, it rose to 2,401. In 2015, after only three years, that number nearly doubled to a whopping 4,225 operating craft breweries throughout the country. In total in 2014, the craft brewing industry contributed $55.7 billion to the U.S. economy.
This growth was seen not only on a national level, but it is also visible in Tennessee’s craft breweries.
In 2011, there were 24 craft breweries in Tennessee alone but in only four years, the state saw that number more than double to 52 total breweries. These breweries brought an estimated $753 million to the state economy.
While Patrick has been brewing at Ghost River for the past five years, he’s seen firsthand how much craft beer sales have continued to increase annually.
“It’s been on the up and up since I’ve been there.” Patrick said, “Every year we ending up brewing and selling more beer to the local businesses, bars, and restaurants and at the same time we’re also exporting more out of the city.”
When Mike Lee started noticing the rise of the craft beer consumer trend, he also began to see a change in the home brewing community.
“They started popping up everywhere.” Lee said, “It just started to make less sense to spend more money on making a five gallon batch of your own, risk the batch and waiting weeks to produce it when you could head to a store and choose from the variety. Those that really had a passion for brewing kept making their own but their was certainly a noticeable drop in the number of homebrewers.”
Buster’s Wine and Spirit store is one of the most popular wine and liquor stores in Memphis according to foursquare.com. Since going through renovations in the fall of last year, they’ve been able to take advantage of this steady rise in sales and production of craft brew by adding a growler station and improving their variety of craft beer selections with the extra space.
Luke Patrick, the 26-year-old brother of Mark, is the main beer salesman at Buster’s. The younger Patrick brother has been selling beer for the local family-run business for more than two years. He says one of the big reasons the Hammonds increased the size of the store was to be able to compete with big, craft beer selling stores in Memphis.
“Even when the store was small they (Hammond family) knew how much craft beer was selling here.” Patrick said, “They looked at Cash Saver and Whole Foods and knew they were going to need have to follow their trends to be able to fully benefit.”
After eight months, they’ve done just that. The addition of the growler station and increased variety has brought consistently higher sales for craft beer.
“Once we got the growlers, people began to flock. We have six taps and there’s always a few designated to local craft. There’s still the few who come in and get your domestic Budweisers, Coors, and Miller Lights but the majority of our beer customers are more interested in taking home craft brew.”
The craft beer industry has taken the U.S. by storm, especially in the last five years. In that time Memphis has evolved into a real beer city. A city that boasts three big time breweries and several stores designated to selling a large variety of craft beer from every part of the world.
To Birkholz, craft beer has never been a bigger part of the Memphis economy but ironically at the cost of a homebrewing community destine for further decline.
“I genuinely thought these breweries and the influx of craft beer would actually motivate more Memphians to homebrew and at first it did.” Birkholz said, “But the reality is if beer lovers have a constant variety of both local and foreign craft beer at a cheap cost and only a drive away, there will continue to be less motivation to do it yourself.”
Brewing beer continues to be a very complicated process. The brewer must still find the right grain and use the right amount of wort. They must account for the loss of steam and add hops at the correct intervals. They must cool and filter it correctly, add yeast, and shake, shake, shake.
And though there may be more reasons than ever to go to the store and pick up a variety six pack of the massive craft selection, Mike Lee remains sure that there will always be a homebrewing culture in the city of Memphis.
“There will always be people like me here.” Lee said, “Our numbers may drop and it may seem that we’re not here but there will always be locals who are as passionate about making their own beer as I am. We won’t ever go away.”