Forty years ago, when Charlie Papazian founded the American Homebrewers Association, the idea of a homebrewer in every neighborhood and a brewery in every town seemed unreal.
Now, it’s essentially reality with more than 6,000 breweries in America — thanks, in large part, to Papazian.
He founded the homebrewers association in 1978, launched the Great American Beer Festival in 1982 and a year later created the organization that would become the Brewers Association. His book, “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing,” has sold more than 1.3 million copies.
“We would not be where we are today without Charlie Papazian,” said Bob Pease, the CEO and president of the Brewers Association, the Boulder-based organization that represents the craft beer industry.
On Wednesday, his 70th birthday, Papazian officially retired. “All good things kind of have to conclude at some point,” he said.
In an interview with The Colorado Sun on his penultimate day, Papazian reflected on the past, present and future of beer. Here are excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
On what legacy he leaves behind …
I think that the spirit with which I founded the organization has survived, in that there continues to be collaboration between people who compete with each other — collaboration between brewers in the industry, which really wasn’t normal before craft came along. It’s always been a positive message, and I feel pretty good that that’s going to continue.
On the impact of his work …
The one thing I never anticipated was the kind of impact that the book, and this whole craft beer and craft brewing movement, has had in people’s lives.
In those days, when I sometimes drank too much of my homebrew, I would have visions and dreams. I’ve been known to have said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a homebrewer in every neighborhood and a brewery in every town?’ And it’s come close to that.
Breweries and brewers — what they started back in the late 70s and early 80s has now become a movement. And it’s spilled over from the brewing world to the food world — the idea of local, sustainable, community, collaborative, customer-friendly, family friendly, farm to table. We were preaching all that kind of thing back in the ‘80s, and no one would really listen very much.
On the biggest change in the beer industry …
Beer knowledge has certainly become accessible to anybody. And beer drinkers have embraced that information and have come to enjoy the diversity and choices that are out. And that simply did not exist before the late ‘70s. Simply, people didn’t know what hops were. They didn’t know what yeast was. They didn’t know anything. They just bought this beer that was marketed on television.
I think the beer world has changed dramatically in that there is an ever-growing number of beer drinkers who really appreciate knowing a little bit about what they are enjoying. It’s enabled brewers to go where brewers haven’t ventured for a century or two.
On the moments he will remember most …
I really appreciate all the times that people said, “Thank you, Charlie, for changing my life.” It’s not like that’s what I live for, but it just so happens that I’ve changed a lot of people’s lives. And in a heartfelt way I can say, “You’re welcome.” I can’t ask much more from life than that.
On the first beer he will drink in retirement …
I still make homebrew. I made a batch last weekend, and I have about five beers on tap. I’m still doing 5-gallon batches. I’ll probably have one of my homebrews. You can’t get any fresher than that.
On the challenges ahead for the beer industry …
People were saying that we reached saturation in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and that it couldn’t possibly grow any more and people are going to get at each other’s throats.
But craft brewers, and what they believe in, is why they have succeeded. They are resilient and persistent, and they are very positive and they communicate with their customers — and all that is a really good foundation. I don’t think it’s going to crumble. That’s what beer drinkers enjoy.
Contrary to our world today, when people drink beer, they want to enjoy it and they don’t want to revisit dog fights and bickering and political differences.
I think there will be challenges. But I think the resilience has proven to be pretty darn strong. Yes, the beer environment and the number of breweries are changing the landscape. But there is room for all kinds of business models.
On the future of beer …
It’s impossible to know. Because 10 years ago, we would have never predicted the stuff that’s happening now and the beers that people have popularized. I mean, geez, light beers with fruit in it that’s salty? It’s like the Gatorade of beer. That’s a new thing. And then there’s barrel-aged this and wine-barrel-aged that.
But I think there’s going to be a trend toward more balance and drinkable beers that are 5½ percent ABV or less for what we call “sessionable experiences.” And people will appreciate that more and more, rather than the era of extreme super-alcoholic beers that we went through 20 years ago and the fruity spice-flavored beers.
On whether he prefers hazy IPAs or traditional styles …
I’ve come across some hazy IPAs I like. But generally, I like old-school pale ale. The kind of pale ales I like now probably would have been classified as IPA 20 years ago. I like really hop-forward ales, but not 7½ to 8 percent versions, more like the 5½ percent versions.
On his parting advice to the beer industry …
Don’t let your guard down, keep learning. There is always something new. Keep an open mind and talk out your differences. And focus on what the beer drinker really wants, and that’s a good experience.
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