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With breweries shut down, homebrewing sees a resurgence in Colorado amid coronavirus

The Boulder-based American Homebrewers Association reported record participation in its Big Brew Day this month

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Like most during the coronavirus pandemic, Carl Hjort is stuck at home. No skiing. No hiking. No biking. Instead, he finds himself turning to another hobby: brewing beer. 

“I’m brewing more and a lot of my friends in the club are as well,” said Hjort, an attorney and the president of the Foam on the Range homebrewing club in Denver. “One of the things with all this newfound time on my hands, is that I’m actually able to do the process. It doesn’t get hung up anymore.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

He’s not alone. Homebrewing is experiencing a resurgence in Colorado — and across the nation — as stay-at-home orders, quarantines and other restrictions have kept people home and craft breweries closed. The specialty shops that sell supplies to make beer are reporting solid sales, if not an uptick, even as other retailers suffer amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are seeing a number of consumers who haven’t been … brewing in a while coming out of the woodwork,” said Taylor Caron, the manager at Hops & Berries, a homebrew supply store in Fort Collins. “Especially with so many local microbreweries shutting down … the idea of swinging by for a pint of beer isn’t reality anymore.”

The Boulder-based American Homebrewers Association set a record earlier this month with its annual Big Brew Day celebration when nearly 5,000 people in 77 countries pledged to make more than 31,300 gallons of beer. The prior record was 11,000 gallons in 2016.

The greater interest reverses a slump in recent years and isn’t expected to subside any time soon. The homebrewing industry actually fares better in economic downturns, and the most recent recession led more people to pick up the hobby.

“When people have more free time on their hands they look to brew more, and when money is tight, they look to create more things at home,” said Jeff Jameson, the manager at Brew Hut, a homebrew store connected to Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora.

A basic hombrewing setup in the author’s backyard for the American Homebrewers Associations’s Big Brew Day on May 2, 2020. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Homebrew supply shops remained open during shut-down orders

The homebrew association counts about 1 million members nationwide, and it estimates that about 90% of professional brewers started out making beer at home. Back in 2017, a survey showed that homebrewers produced more than 1.4 million barrels of beer a year, or about 1% of total U.S. beer production.

“It’s probably easier to get into homebrewing now than ever before,” said Gary Glass, the association’s director. “There’s clearly more information available, and the variety and quality of ingredients is higher than it’s ever been — there’s also a lot of new equipment that’s available to homebrewers.”

MORE: Coverage of craft breweries and beer in Colorado

Like others, Glass finds himself making more beer, mostly because he’s home. “I’ve got time to do something fun at home — and thankfully I’m a homebrewer,” he said.

The hobby traces its modern roots to the 1970s in Boulder, where the association was founded by Charlie Papazian, who wrote the book on how to make beer at home, and hit its stride with the craft beer boom in the 2000s.

One of the fundamentals that fueled homebrewing’s rise is a desire to drink better — and more interesting — beer than what is available from the megabrewers. “Sometimes your local brewery doesn’t have a gose today,” Hjort explained. But he added, “you can always get what you want when you make it yourself.”

Ironically, the rise of craft beer put a dent in homebrewing as the pros took cues from the amateurs in terms of flavor trends. Now most craft breweries boast tap lists with a wide assortment of interesting beer, and there’s one in seemingly every neighborhood.

The homebrew retailers felt the change. Five of them closed in Colorado in 2019. The association’s regular survey of shops found revenue fell 7% in 2019 compared with 2018.

At the 15-year-old Hops & Berries, Caron said homebrewing “really went nuts for three or four years” amid the prior recession but then took a slide. Now, the market is a bit saturated, he said. “It’s just this town is full of beer — commercial and homebrew.”

Most homebrew retailers remained open after the state’s order shuttering businesses because they qualified as specialty grocery stores. As the lockdown orders neared, the stores saw a bump in sales — and even new customers looking for yeast for baking. “Folks were getting ready to be inside,” said Jameson at Brew Hut. “Like groceries, people were stocking up.”

In Denver, Altitude Brewing & Supply, which is taking online and phone orders for pickup, owner Steve Wigginton said business is good. “We are up a relatively good amount and the reason being is because making liquor — whether it’s beer, wine, distilling mead, cider — is a hobby. And what do people do when they don’t have anything to do? They resort to their hobby.”

MORE: Colorado’s craft beer industry is sobered as brewers predict mass closures if social distancing continues

Homebrewers double down on pandemic beer

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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And that’s exactly what the Rock Hoppers Brew Club in Douglas County did when the pandemic hit. A handful of the club’s members have brewed five times or more since March.

“The general feeling is people are brewing because it means less trips out to the (beer) store,” said Eric Gould, the club president. “Maybe they are not drinking more, but they are drinking more homebrew.”

Gould, an award-winning homebrewer from Centennial who is looking to become a professional, said the five batches he’s made in two months is double his normal rate. Like him, the club members “have the time on their hands and they’ve got the stuff, so why not make it?”

The club moved its meetings to Zoom and hosted a day-long video call as members made beer for the AHA’s Big Brew Day on May 2. The drawback is the club members can’t get together to sample each other’s creations and offer feedback.

The beer Gould made as part of the national homebrew day is a double chocolate oatmeal porter — made only with ingredients he had at home left over from past recipes. 

“It’s a pandemic beer,” he said.

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