San Francisco Homebrewers Guild Q&A: A mashing good time

For this week’s cover story, I profiled one particular homebrewer — my husband — on his quest to DIY kegerator glory. But there’s more to this story — hundreds more, in fact. And the homebrewers of San Francisco congregate in the virtual San Francisco Homebrewers Guild (cute motto: “A mashing good time!). I chatted with the friendly and knowledgeable Kevin Inglin, who is the group’s VP (Chris Cohen is the group founder and president) about rising membership, local homebrewing trends, and helping people brew better beer:

SF Bay Guardian
How many active members are there in the San Francisco Homebrewers Guild?

Kevin Inglin We have about 140 dues-paying members in the SFHG ($45 annual membership gets them into monthly meetings for free — $5 for non-members — and allows them to enter our quarterly competitions for free, attend members-only events, and gets them discounts at local homebrew supply shops).

Our emailing list and Meetup group numbers are nearing 500. We have more than 130 people who are regularly “active” on our Meetup page (meaning they access the page for information at least bi-weekly), and we usually have 40-80 members who attend our monthly meetings and events.

SFBG How long has the group/guild been active? It combined with another group late last year, correct?

KI That’s correct. The current formation of the SFHG is really a combination of two groups. In October 2012 I took over as organizer of a Meetup group (of which I had been a member for about a year) called the SF Homebrew Club, which had formed online in December 2010. Chris Cohen started the SFHG in February 2012 and had held a couple of events throughout 2012. Upon taking over the Meetup group, I was pondering what type of homebrew club I thought we needed to be what my role would be as organizer and I came across what Chris was doing with SFHG.

I thought we had a lot of similar goals with regard to uniting and promoting the homebrewing community in the city, so I reached out to him and very quickly thereafter cross-promoted the November 2012 “SFHG Presidential Honey Ale Competition” — an event he already had in the works — to members of the Meetup group. In December of that same year, Chris then cross-promoted a Meetup group event — a North Bay Craft Brewery Tour I had been working on – to the members of the SFHG.

After those two very successful joint endeavors, we made it official in January 2013 when we merged the two groups, changed the Meetup group name to SFHG to ensure common branding, began having our regular monthly meetings, and proceeded to carry out numerous events throughout the year. We haven’t looked back since!

SFBG Any common homebrewing trends you’ve noticed among the group lately? Any ongoing trends or common issues that always arise among members?

KI I think the common trend in the homebrewing community is that every homebrewer at one time or another secretly desires to “go pro” — if they say they haven’t after someone has told them “that’s really great beer!” they’re probably lying!

Joking aside, I think the trend among homebrewers is creativity and reviving often “forgotten” styles or bringing a new twist to old classics. This creativity inevitably then emerges in the craft brewing scene as many craft brewers do indeed have homebrewing roots. People new to homebrewing then see what is happening in the craft brewing world and work to replicate those beers, so it’s somewhat of a circuitous path, but the two communities (homebrewing and craft brewing) tend to feed off one another.

In the past several years, we’ve seen the craft beer scene follow the homebrewing lead of running through big, high-alcohol “extreme” beers (e.g., big stouts and barleywines), and who can make the hoppiest IPA known to man. Now we see sour beers trending quite a bit in the craft brewing industry, which is at least in part due, in my opinion, to a trend of homebrewers seeking to make these challenging and very tasty beers for the past several years.

Our club is about to embark on a sour beer project with GigaYeast, a local, up-and-coming yeast provider that is gaining an increased market presence – we’re very excited about helping them gather data to tweak their sour yeasts and agents they’ll ultimately bring to market for use by other home and craft brewers.

SFBG Are most members brewing all-grain or extract? What is the experience level of most of the members?

KI We really run the gamut. We have several brewers who have been at it for a decade or more and a large group of people new to the hobby. With that mix of experience level, we have a corresponding mix of brewers who are all-grain and those using extracts. Being in an urban environment, some of our brewers are challenged with space and continue to use extracts for this reason, others have found ways to move to all-grain, but do so on a much smaller scale (1 to 3 gallon batches) than is most-often found in the hobby, where brewing 5 gallons at a time is the most common volume.

SFBG Have you noticed any uptick in membership in the past six months-few years?

KI Absolutely! Before we merged the SF Homebrew Club with SFHG, there were 287 members in the Meetup group, of which, just more than 30 were “active” members regularly using the site to gather and share information. We now have more than 460 members in the Meetup group, of which more than 130 are regularly “active” so that has definitely been very positive and consistent growth for the group over the past 11 months.

With the merger of the Meetup group into the SFHG proper, we’ve also seen a significant increase in paid memberships for SFHG (nearly double from last year), which has been essentially to the vitality of the group and allowing us to host so many events for members in the past year.

SFBG When did you personally start homebrewing?

KI I started in 1996 with an equipment and ingredient kit I bought from a display set up in the corner of a German bar. I had no group or resources to really tell me what to do, so I just read what I could and went for it. Those first batches weren’t too great, but I’d like to think now after all these years I’m able to produce beers a bit more palatable!

SFBG Anything else you would like to add about yourself or the group?

KI Running the SFHG has been a truly rewarding experience – it’s always great to help someone “get it” and see their joy when they make a beer far better than they ever thought they could based on information and tips they gathered from other club members. Having struggled somewhat on my own when I got started, it’s very enjoyable to help others avoid that isolation and be able to improve their brewing much more quickly based on the help and advice from others. That’s really the crux of our existence — help people brew better beer!

As for me personally, as an Army officer, I’ve moved around quite a bit over the years and homebrewed in Tennessee, Alabama (not realizing it wasn’t legal there at the time – thankfully it is now!), Hawaii, Virginia, Texas, Germany, and of course here in California.

It’s been a very enjoyable hobby and now that I’m set to retire from the Army in 2014, my wife and I have indeed decided to venture into the ranks of the professionals and open our own Nano Brewery here in the city. I’ll be attending a professional brewing course next year to augment my homebrewing experience and we’re in the throws of getting the business off the ground in the coming months. Wish us luck!