Philadelphia’s DIY beer
makers love to share
Photographed by Danya Henninger
Thousands of years ago, as the first cities rose from the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, people began making beer. And over the past six thousand years, beer has served human civilization well. Beer makes non-potable water drinkable. It’s a vital social lubricant, helping people enjoy each other’s company. It could even be argued that, throughout history, beer has woven the fabric of society together, and it helps keep it in more or less one piece.
Beer and community still go hand in hand today. In Philadelphia, a growing network of homebrewers spreads the gospel of malt and hops through projects large and small. They are all part of a nationwide movement whose ranks have swelled in recent years, spurred on in equal parts by the current zeal for all things DIY and the heightened interest in local food and drink. The Philadelphia region boasts more than 25 clubs formally registered with the American Homebrewers Association, encompassing hundreds of people. And there are many more Philly beer enthusiasts who ferment at home without making anything official.
That’s one of the beauties of homebrewing: unlike commercial beer makers, who must follow labyrinthine laws and regulations, homebrewers need no papers or licenses. Homebrewing has nothing to do with commerce and everything to do with fun. Philadelphia homebrewers are givers, gladly offering beer, knowledge and ingredients to their communities and to each other.
Fighting Fires with the Philadelphia Homebrew Club
“Most homebrewers probably give away at least half of what they make,” says Joe McAteer, president of the board of the Kensington-based Philadelphia Homebrew Club. “You usually brew five gallons at a time,” he explains. “But one person simply can’t drink that amount.”
McAteer is responsible for reviving what was a mostly defunct organization and turning it into one of the most vibrant clubs in Philly.
He fell into the position almost by accident, after the proprietor of the Philly Homebrew Outlet, the homebrewing supply store on North American Street, noticed how often McAteer was coming by and suggested he take up the mantle. That was less than four years ago, and the club now boasts a core of 40 regulars, plus another 30 or 40 who come to monthly meetings occasionally.
All the members share a passion for making beer. When he first started, McAteer brewed two five-gallon batches every week for four or five months without a break. While he has learned to restrain his beer-making impulse, he still turns out an average of 25 gallons each month. Others follow similar paths, which means that even with friends and family filling their own glasses and growlers, there’s a lot left over. Happily, twice a year, the club members get an easy way to use up the extra suds and turn the liquid directly into good deeds. Six months before each of Philly HBC’s two biggest events, McAteer gathers his board to begin planning. The process starts with choosing which charity will be the recipient of the money they raise—the 2014 Winter’s Warmers Chili and Winter Ale Competition, for example, was a fundraiser for the Philadelphia Firemen’s Widow & Children’s Fund.
On a cold but sunny February afternoon, more than 200 Philadelphians paid $33 each to mingle in a Northern Liberties event hall.
Music played, families laughed, chili was eaten and, most important, a lot of donated homebrew beer was sipped. The event raised $1,500 for the Widow’s Fund. The next festival will allow a different nonprofit to benefit from the club’s beery bash.
Saving Puppies with the Sunday Pickle Brewing Co.
Deciding which charity to donate their extra beer to was never a problem for Wayne Humphrey and Tim Montague. Though they make an unlikely pair—Montague is a bearded former Deadhead with a long, graying ponytail and Humphrey, ten years his junior, is trim and clean-shaven with close-cropped hair—the two have been brewing together nearly every weekend for the past four years.
This regular schedule led the pair to christen their project the Sunday Pickle Brewing Co. It also led to a huge stockpile of beer. As the beer piled up in the cellar of Humphrey’s Port Richmond home, they began offering it to friends, associates, anyone they knew. However much the homebrewing duo liked watching their buddies enjoy the fruits of their labor, though, they craved impartial criticism.
“When you give the beer to your friends, you’re not going to get an honest assessment of it,” says Humphrey, “They’re gonna tell you they liked it.” A desire for feedback was motivation as much as anything else for him and Montague to start donating their beer to various nonprofit events and fundraisers. After a few successes giving beer to art openings and other charities, the Sunday Pickle crew decided to raise the stakes. Humphrey is a board member for the Morris Animal Refuge, a no-kill animal shelter in Center City. When the organization began planning an anniversary gala fundraiser, he hit on an idea. He and Montague would brew a beer specifically for the Fur Ball, one that celebrated the 140 years of the shelter’s existence.
Montague and Humphrey decided to make a mild brown porter, similar to the kind prevalent in Philly in the 1870s, back when the shelter first opened. It was served at the March 2014 ball to much fanfare, helping the Morris continue its mission to save the abandoned dogs and cats of Philadelphia.
Despite success in brewing really good beer, the Pickle Co. partners never considered going pro. “As soon as money gets involved, you have to start talking about how to split it up. We don’t want that,” Humphrey says. “The real pleasure comes from giving it away.”
Throwing a Hop Garden Party with Jared Littman
Jared Littman, founder of the craft-beer listings site PhillyTapFinder. com, doesn’t give away much beer. As much as he enjoys homebrewing, taking care of his young son and running his own business don’t leave him with a lot of time, and he only gets the chance to work his own wort twice or thrice a year. Instead, this fixture of the Philly beer world hands out something much harder to come by: fresh hops. In 2010, Littman scored a coveted 10-by-10-foot plot in the Southwark/ Queen Village community garden at Third and Christian. Next to neat rows of beets, carrots, tomatoes and squash, he planted three small rhizomes of Cascade hops.
“I’ve always been better at growing than brewing,” Littman says, and whether by his prowess or their own tenacious character, those nascent roots developed into three huge bines (the vine-like shoots hops grow on). Each summer, a morass of sharp-toothed stems and jagged-edge leaves threaten to take over the entire patch of land. The tops of these green tangles sprout a cornucopia of dense buds, flowers that hang heavy with the oils that give IPAs, pilsners and other brew styles their signature flavor.
An essential ingredient in modern beer, hops are most commonly found in dry, pelletized form, because hop flowers are extremely delicate and appear only at certain times of the year. In recent decades, however, breweries on the hop-rich Pacific Coast began to experiment with seasonal brews that incorporate whole flowers instead of (or in addition to) dry pellets. In doing so, they uncovered a broad new range of flavor and aroma.
Known as wet-hopping, the practice has since become popular. Commercial breweries throughout the U.S. produce many labels dependent on the procurement of just-picked hops—sometimes chartering planes to transport the fresh flowers to their brewhouses. That’s not really an option for homebrewers, through, so unless you happen to live near the Yakima Valley or other hop-farming land, you’re out of luck. Unless you have a friend with a hop garden.
The first year his Queen Village bines flowered, Littman did all the harvesting himself, making countless trips up a tall ladder and enduring cuts and scratches as he carefully plucked the precious buds and tossed them into gallon trash bags. One summer he hauled in six or seven sackfuls of these aromatic blossoms, then doled them out to interested acquaintances.
These days, he’s just as likely to hand his homebrewing pals the keys to his plot and ask them to help themselves, which they readily do. Sean Mellody, the man behind expert-amateur operation Mellody Brewing, used the hops in a beer he called Queen’s Harvest. He poured the IPA for free at a special dinner held at Kennett, a tavern located less than a block from the hops’ home soil.
“So many homebrewers out there are more talented at beer-making than I am,” Littman says. “I’m proud to have them use the hops I grow.”
Feeding the Hungry with ALEiens Homebrew Club
Quiet pride is evident in Natalie DeChico’s voice as she talks about the membership of the ALEiens Homebrew Club. In just over a year as president, she’s seen meetings of the Bucks County group turn from sparsely attended gatherings into much-anticipated events that draw at least 35 to 45 enthusiasts each month.
Having a committed coterie of members allowed DeChico to implement the club’s first-ever dues. Thanks to the kitty of official club funds, the ALEiens were able to give over $200 cash to the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission for Christmas last year, supplementing four boxes of collected nonperishable food.
“That was the first time we organized a club-wide giving drive, and it went really well,” she says, “but our members have always supported good causes.” Many regularly give kegs of homebrew to various nonprofits to serve at fundraising galas and events. One ALEiens member raised nearly $1,000 for a charity marathon he was running by selling raffle tickets—prizes included homebrews but also special bottles of commercial beer, donated by local breweries.
Getting involved with homebrewers gives beer businesses an easy way to connect with their constituent audience and stay involved in the local community. The Hulmeville Inn allows the ALEiens free use of the upstairs space where the club holds monthly meetings and special events. Weyerbacher, a brewery in nearby Easton that happens to be DeChico’s full-time employer, also regularly donates to the club in the form of beer, funds and expertise.
Whether with a plastic tub rigged in the corner of the kitchen or a state-of-the-art brewhouse, most of those who make beer do it out of love. Love for the process of creating something, love for the taste of the suds in the glass, but also love for the camaraderie beer awakens in people. Beer is best enjoyed with others. Instead of shouting that message from rooftops, home brewers spread that credo the best way they know: by giving it away.
Interested in becoming a brewer? Learn more at the American Homebrewers Association website at homebrewersassociation.org.