The ties between the professional craft beer industry and amateur homebrewers are a close and strong bond. The culture of beer stretches back more than 4,000 years. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Homebrewing is on a meteoric rise in the United States, due to the popularity of the craft beer industry and a new generation of brewers.
The Homebrewers Association did a survey in the earlier part of 2014 with a third party resource, estimating there are now at least 1.3 mil home brewers in the U.S. The homebrewing industry has been experiencing unprecedented growth, growing at a rate of ~ 20% per year, in the last five years. And yes, there are a lot more women joining the hobby.
As homebrewing continues to grow, home beer supply retail shops are also thriving. Sales of beer ingredients have surpassed wine ingredients among home beverage supply stores, in the last two years.
Since 1978, the American Homebrewers Association has promoted the joys of homebrewing. It now has over 43,000 members.
I spoke with four active and passionate homebrewers in the Coachella Valley and their methods and styles of producing delicious home brewed beer.
Joshua Kunkle has been brewing since October of 2007 and is now the president of the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club. The club meetings are held on the first Thursday of the month, at Coachella Valley Brewing, starting at 7pm.
Unlike most homebrewers, Josh first started making alcoholic ciders, after returning home from France. Living in San Francisco at the time, he sought out local brew supply shops that sold the appropriate equipment. When the equipment came with a free batch of grains, to brew beer, Josh knew he had found not just a hobby, but a community.
“I did the beer, beer turned out better than I thought it would. And when I finally got around to making the cider, it was so much of a bitch to do that, I thought, I’m going to stick with the beer. It’s a lot less work, for a lot better product. But, that spurred me into trying different things, and along the way, every time I made a mistake, it turned out to be kind of serendipity in my favor, so that helped me learn new things.”
EP: “Have you always been brewing in the Coachella Valley? If not, where?”
JK: “No, I started brewing when I living up in San Francisco, did that on a very small scale…I moved back to Southern California. I was living over at my parents’ house, which is on 5 acres, and that gave me impetus to expand the operation and start working my way to all grain. Once I started doing all grain, that’s when I started building all my equipment…”
“On one hand, the beer was slightly better at his parents’ house in Murietta, because they lived on a well system. But on the other hand, the weather was perfect for brewing in San Francisco. The temperatures do fluctuate more in Southern California.”
EP: “What are the main differences in brewing in the desert vs. brewing elsewhere?”
JK: “I will say, Murrieta, the temperatures have higher degree of fluctuation, compared to out here, that I was surprised to find out. But, one thing that makes it interesting out here is the higher temperatures, which for certain styles actually turns out to be a good thing. A lot of your Belgian styles will ferment around 80-85 degrees and that actually is a good thing, versus ya’ know some of the other styles like Ambers and stuff – not so good…it doesn’t really surprise me that Chris over at CVB might be focusing a lot on Saisons and Belgians, just from that stand point alone.”
Josh’s system is a 4’ x 4’x 8’insulated, temperature controlled box, which started out as an old armament storage from his grandfather. There’s a door on the side and lid that opens at the top. After doing research about home brewers using chest freezers, his system is larger and has the ability to put as much as 70 gallons in it at one time, he’s able to also control the temperature of his bottled beers. On one half of the box, he’s got a hole cut out with some PVC and a window air conditioning unit and temperature thermostat, hooked up to a temperature controller. This gives a relatively accurate reading of the temperature inside the box. He even has a dual stage controller, to run two different circuits – air conditioning or heater, depending on any weather.
As for the system itself, it was built with a slight pyramid shape to center the gravity to the middle, minimizing the risk of tilting each side, which raises and lowers via a winch and pulley system. Each side sits in a set of tracks with heavy duty wheels, taking the load when the plates holding the pots are being lifted.
With this system, Josh has won several medals, including the Best of Show at the 2013 Props and Hops Homebrew Competition.
With a nearly 100 degree variance in temperature in the Coachella Valley from winter nights to hot, summer days, he’s found this to be the key to his award winning beers.
“I’m dealing with a living organism; I should treat it with respect. I used to joke - you should treat yeast like people. If you fluctuate the temperature, hot, cold, hot, cold, you get sick. And I imagine yeast is the same way. Your beer is a result of that, for better or for worse. The idea is, you’re creating a nice environment for them.”
His two favorite homebrews have been a Trappist style honey-orange pale ale and a “Braggot” style hybrid-beer. Braggot is actually a form of mead made with both honey and barley malt, introducing nitrogen after fermentation. Like most homebrewers, Josh isn’t afraid to experiment. He’s even brewed with wormwood, taking concepts from Absinthe.
Josh won the gold in the Lager category and Best of Lager for his pilsner in 2014. He also won a silver and bronze for his porters. In 2013, he was awarded the silver in Old Ale for his honey orange pale ale, and Best of Show for his porter.
EP: “As the new homebrew club president, what are you doing to lead the club this year?”
JK: “One of my big things, I told the club at the last meeting, was that I want to be part of the community a lot more, ya know. I want to get our name out there; I want people to know who we are. “That we’re not just a bunch of drunk guys sitting around. There is a science behind this. There is biology, chemistry. This is a smart peoples sport. You can learn a lot about the art of it…and of course, trying different things, propagating the art of it…the other one would be focusing on a lot more training during the meetings. It’s nice trying different beers, but sometimes a lot of people come to the meetings hoping to learn something…so I’d like to use the meetings as a means of getting people together and learn, ‘tonight we’re going to learn why an IPA is an IPA’, or ‘why sanitation is a good thing’…”
Josh is also collaborating with Kimberly Bowers, the president of the Mohave Desert Brewers Guild. Josh’s favorite locally brewed beers are Coachella Valley Brewing’s Condition Black, La Quinta’s Tanline Brown and CVB’s Monumentous.
As a full time reference librarian, brewing feeds his desire to constantly learn.
“I live by the ethos that if I’m not learning something I’m dying.“
Despite being interested in craft beer since 1993, Brett Newton only started brewing with his cousin (with whom he co-hosted a podcast called "Beer Me Podcast" up until a couple of years ago) a little over five years ago. Their first batch was an IPA and it wasn't very good. But it was drinkable.
He joined the Coachella Valley Homebrew Club in 2010 after meeting four of its members. He sat in with many of the members on brew days in order to learn more about the process (including future brewmaster of Coachella Valley Brewing, Chris Anderson). He then went on to be elected president of the club in 2014.
EP: “What resources have you used since to hone your brewing skills?”
BN: “The best research I ever did was sitting in with a bunch of the original homebrew guys in the club, like Micah [Stark], Chris [Anderson, now of Coachella Valley Brewing] and Sarge [Ralph Sargent]... I just kinda’ watched them do what they do… I feel like I was able to brew better beer right away. There’s a bunch of resources online…there’s a free older edition of “How to Brew” by John Palmer. That’s kind of the brewing bible. You can buy a version of it that’s up to date. I also read a couple of books by Charlie Pappazion, who’s kind of considered the godfather of homebrew.”
Brett has brewed some delicious English barleywines. In one, he soaked French oak cubes in Makers Mark Bourbon and the other barleywine was brewed with French oak cubes soaked in Genlivet Nadurra 16 year old scotch whiskey. He’s also brewed lavender, lime Saison and raspberry rose Saison, brewed with dryed rose petals. Brett orders his ingredients online at Austin Homebrew Supply because of the quality and customer services. In a pinch, he’ll visit MoreBeer in Riverside.
EP: How has the local home brew club helped brewers here in the desert?
BN: I think it’s just like, as self-reliant as I can be, it still helps me with learning to brew and I basically, it’s a great place to come ask questions, whom you can sort of test out. You can go online and you can get some good advice, you have to sift through some stuff. But you can know that there are some guys in the club who can really brew because you’ve tasted their beer. And you can ask them questions and be a lot more sure of the answers…also, just to get everyone together and get people motivated.”
EP: “How do you think home brewing has changed over the years?”
“Maybe in the same way craft beer has changed. People are willing to try lots of different styles. It’s not just ‘let’s brew the hoppiest beer we can brew’, which I always thought was ridiculous, because I try to discourage the beginners from going hoppy right away, because that’s one of the harder ones to get right…it’s way easier, almost in every way, to do Belgians or English…the margin for error is much larger….”
Brent Schmidman is not only the previous owner of Schmidy’s in Palm Desert, the founder of the Props and Hops Festival in Palm Springs, but is an avid home brewer for the past eight years.
Brent started with a Mr. Beer kit and quickly realized there’s got to be a better way to brew. He now has a system that was partly purchased from MoreBeer and some elements that he designed himself.
Like Josh and Brett, Brent utilizing the Coachella Valley homebrew club as a great resource in learning more about the craft.
“I’d say when I joined the club, Chris [of Coachella Valley Brewing] was probably the most influential, cause he was so open to meet new people, and that kind of thing…and the rest is just experience. You just keep brewing and do something different until you get what you’re looking for.”
One of Brent’s most impressive homebrews was a 17% ABV chocolate cherry Russian Imperial Stout, aged in Bourbon barrels.
EP: “How has the homebrew club helped home brewers in the desert here?”
“I think the best part about the club is that people can come and just learn and experience and share before they have to actually go and buy equipment to do all of that. We had several members that came for 6 months to a year before they ever bought anything…it’s a very open and accepting club…”
EP: How do you think home brewing has changed over the years?
BS: “I think it’s a lot more user friendly and accessible and convenient now, than it used to be…now there’s so many different sites that you can order from online. There’s tons and tons of books now…now you can have kits that take a Russian River beer and you have a clone that’s very, very close to that. Maybe you’ve never made a sour before, and you can buy a kit and do it. I think it’s the accessibility to everything, in small quantities…”
Fellow Coachella Valley home brewer, Erik DeBellis has been brewing for just two and a half years, but has racked up the medals, locally.
Erik took the gold medal in the American Ale category in 2013 and 2014 at the Hangar 24 homebrew competition. He took home the gold in the German Wheat category at the 2013 and 2014 Props and Hops home brew competition, the gold and silver in the IPA category at the 2013 Props and Hops competition. He also nabbed a silver in the German Wheat & Rye category at the Southern California Homebrew Championships.
Erik is now the assistant brewer at Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse in Rancho Mirage.
The Hangar 24 home brew competition in 2012 sparked his interest in homebrewing, after he and a friend visited the brewery, on the day of the competition.
EP: What kind of system do you use?
ED: “…I used to just do stovetop, ya’ know, everything on your burner. Now I actually bought a propane powered burner. So, I’m doing everything on that…and it’s awesome. I will never go back to stovetop.”
EP: “Why? What’s the difference?”
“Because I’m just getting so much more power out of it…I’m just getting so much better isomerization of my hops on this bad boy…more power, more heat. You’re getting a better boil, which allows my hops to bitter more, I’m getting more out of my bittering additions.”
EP: “Where do you buy your ingredients?”
ED: “MoreBeer in Riverside is kind of my main source. Although, I think they take relatively shit care of their hops. So, now, I pretty much buy everything at MoreBeer or Northern Brewer, um, but when it comes to hops, I just source straight from the farms. Mostly, Yakima Valley Hops...”
Want to start learning more about home brewing? There are a slew of resources if you want to start or further your craft.
Beer Conscious Training offers beer training and eLearning videos for those interested in passing exams like the Cicerone®, Beer Judge Certification Program and Beer Steward Exams.
Beer Smith is a homebrewers dream resource, with answers to just about any brewing question or roadblock. It also has informative video blogs from seasoned home brew professionals.
Better Beer Scores™ is a Colorado based company that offers fantastic interactive webinar programs to learn more about craft beer styles, homebrewing and prepping for beer exams.
Craft Beer University is an online school offers Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exam prep courses and web based educational services to improve home brewing skills.
So what are some current and upcoming trends to be aware of?
Brew in a Bag (BIAB) 1 gallon kits are becoming more popular for brand new home brewers. BIAB is an inexpensive way to for homebrewers to transition to all grain or partial mash brewing.
Alternatively, all-grain is becoming more popular and extracts are declining, likely due to the fact that home brewers aren't purchasing the extract kits as much as they were several years ago. This speaks to quality and the fact that the future brewers of America want to make the best beer they can.
With the ever-growing popularity of the hobby, you can now find more quality ingredients; including malts and hops from around the world and top-notch yeast from more companies.
Don’t fear the foam. Join the club, do some online research or read a home brew book. Then take a sip and exhale with the satisfaction of your delicious, home brewed pint.