I“I get a green apple flavor,” says a middle-aged man with a notepad in one hand, a glass mug in the other, his silky Hawaiian shirt screaming “Sunday.” “I think the rye is making it a little tannic,” adds a younger guy in back. His exact position is obscured by the 42 other hobbyists huddled into the no-frills clubhouse of the Maltose Falcons, which is located behind the Home Beer, Wine, and Cheese–making Shop in Woodland Hills. Bottles, cans, and larger refillable glass jugs—known as growlers—from several local breweries line the table facing the congregation, while volunteers wander through the crowd to ensure nobody’s cup goes dry.
“Are you getting any hop flavor, or is it all just hop aroma?” asks Drew Beechum, prodding for more participation. Beechum, a 40-year-old software engineer from Pasadena, is a longtime member and past president of the Maltose Falcons, which also turned 40 this year, making it the oldest home brew club in America.
Over the next hour the white plastic folding chairs become a luxury as the number of attendees swells to a cozy 61. The mood is lighthearted and convivial, as one might expect when beer is free-flowing, but bacchanal this is not; these folks are here to learn and trade tips.
Merlin Elhardt—a power line worker who enjoyed brewing light, crisp lagers like those he had tasted as an American soldier in Germany—was a regular at the Woodland Hills store when he formed the Falcons. The year was 1974, and Elhardt wanted to help foster a community and encourage better brewing by sharing notes. Like a book club for beer. In the four decades since, the number of home brewers in the United States has grown to 1.2 million, many of them members of the more than 1,700 clubs that have started since the Falcons held their first meeting.
Paul Camusi, cofounder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, was a Falcon. So was Skip Virgilio, cofounder of San Diego’s AleSmith Brewing. Mark Jilg launched Pasadena’s Craftsman Brewing in 1995 after refining his recipes with Falcon feedback. Jeremy Raub cites the encouragement of fellow Falcons as a primary motivation for founding Eagle Rock Brewery with his wife and father in late 2009. Bob Kunz is the latest Falcon to go pro, recently launching the pint-size Highland Park Brewery inside a back room at the former dive bar the Hermosillo.
Forty craft breweries now operate within L.A. County, most of which have opened in the last five years. Growth of new breweries had long been stifled by Prohibition and the glut of restrictive laws that followed its repeal, but it was Prohibition that also compelled beer drinkers to go underground and do what people have done for 10,000 years: brew their own. While the practice remained technically illegal for decades, the laws regarding it were unenforced when John Daume (pronounced dah-MAY) set up his Home Beer, Wine, and Cheesemaking Shop in 1972.
“Those were the dark days of beer,” says Daume, now in his seventies, though one would never guess as much by his looks. “We didn’t know what the hell we were doing.” This was an era when Pabst was not an ironic choice but a dominant brand produced with mass appeal in mind. Before Daume’s shop, the only way to buy home brewing supplies was by visiting the Pabst brewery in Lincoln Heights, which has since become an artist colony. “We’d drive down to the brewery in the old truck and pick up cases of Blue Ribbon malt syrup,” Daume recalls.
The default recipe was primitive as well. “It was a can of malt, a couple of pounds of sugar, five gallons of water, a pack of some sort of yeast, and these old, dry, stale hops that came in this pink wrapper,” Daume says. “You’d ferment it in a crock, and you’d cover it maybe with a towel, if you were thinking about it. The beer was almost always contaminated [with other yeasts and bacteria], and the times it wasn’t, it was like, Well, how’d you do that? We didn’t know any different; it was alcohol.” Daume credits a UC Davis Extension course taught by microbiologist and biochemist Michael Lewis with spreading much more reliable information that dug deeper into the hows and whys of good brewing. “Everything we know about home brewing and take for granted was unheard of [before] then,” says Daume.
Two years after Daume’s shop opened, Elhardt formed the Maltose Falcons. “He was dedicated,” says Daume. “He found something he was passionate about and took the lead. Most of us were just drinking ourselves silly, but he was making good beer, and we thought, ‘Hey, maybe we should listen to him.’ ” (Elhardt would die in 1979.)
Since home brewing was still in a legal gray area, the Falcons would go on to work with beer writer Lee Coe and then-state senator Alan Cranston to pass a bill allowing each adult to create 100 gallons of their own beer without fear of crossing the IRS. President Jimmy Carter, whose brother, Billy, had a beer named after him, signed a 1979 law that left the legality of home brewing up to individual states. Even then, Mississippi and Alabama, in a spectacular display of better late than never, didn’t abandon their bans until last year.
Barley, hops, yeast, and water—with so many styles and flavors possible from so few ingredients, beer making is definitely a tinkerer’s avocation. “There’s not a lot of creative freedom allowed in people’s 9-to-5 jobs,” says Brian Holter, a video editor by day and president of the Culver City-based home brew club Pacific Gravity by night, “whereas with home brewing, you’re able to create something that is entirely yours.”
Craftsman Brewing founder Mark Jilg knew his hobby would become a habit before he was done fermenting a trial batch with the home brew kit his wife had given him. “I was so fascinated by the transformation—that these dry, crappy cereals could somehow turn into sugar water, then tasty fizzy alcohol,” he says. “All I could do was think about new recipes and better gear.”
Victor Novak had a simple reason for buying his first home brew kit. “It was to re-create Sierra Nevada, basically,” he says of the beloved pale ale. Novak had been the brewmaster at TAPS Fish House & Brewery in Brea before recently being appointed a head brewer at Golden Road Brewing in Atwater Village. After moving to Philadelphia from San Francisco in 1992, he found himself longing for West Coast beers: Anchor Steam, Red Tail Ale, and anything from Anderson Valley Brewing. Reflecting on what it was like for home brewers at the time, Novak says, “We weren’t all about making experimental ‘kitchen sink’ beers with a bunch of flavors and ingredients. We were just hoping to make good beer, which was often tough to find, unless you drove across state lines to get it. I had a hatchback, and you could totally see into it. If they caught you taking beer over the border, they’d fine you and confiscate it.”
A simple setup can cost less than $100, and the ingredients for a typical five-gallon batch—yielding nearly 54 12-ounce bottles—averages between $22 and $65, depending on the style. But to go beyond bare-bones, Daume’s storefront stocks all manner of add-on gadgets: vinyl tubing and stainless steel stockpots, rubber gaskets, plastic airlocks, empty glass bottles, and kegging equipment.
Rows of white plastic buckets with metal scoops line the back wall, each filled with a different strain of malted barley, ranging in hue from pale straw to amber to almost event-horizon black. Malt not only contributes greatly to the drink’s color and flavor, it also provides the essential source of sugars, which the yeast—available here in dozens of varieties, each with its own fermentation characteristics and flavor profile—converts into alcohol and carbon dioxide over the course of a week or two. Then there are the hops. In addition to acting as a natural preservative, they lend a bitterness that helps balance any residual sugar from the malt while also contributing notes that can run from grassy to citrusy to tropical.
Naturally, the shop stocks recipe books, too, not that everybody follows them. “I didn’t want to work from a recipe,” says Natalie DeNicholas, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom from Van Nuys who got her start last year. “So I tried a sort of totally ridiculous experiment. I used lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit zest, plus some rye grains and pomegranate arils. I ended up throwing it away because it was awful, but I’ve remade it. It’s still not great, but it’s getting better.”
For Falcons president John Aitchison, experimentation is part of what sets small-batch beers apart. “I would say in the top 20 beers I’ve had of all time, at least 12 or 13 of them have been home brews,” he says. At the meeting he shares a recent brew that required a method he hadn’t tried before. “It’s very grainy, isn’t it?” he asks, his tall frame and whitish-gray hair easy to spot from almost anywhere in the clubhouse. “I’d never make it again,” he concludes before leading the group through the technical details. Everything is a teachable moment when you’re making your own beer.
Golden Road’s Novak, who has won several awards for his beers, recalls home brewers bringing in samples for him to critique at the TAPS brewpub. Some were good; others, not so much. “More than anything else,” he says, “they wanted honest feedback—‘How can I make this better?’ And then they could get to dialing in the recipe. It’s what I still love about brewing: You get to play.”
Also: Read “A Primer on Home Brewing” for tips on how to get crafty
Randy Clemens, a certified beer judge, coauthored The Craft of Stone Brewing Co.: Liquid Lore, Epic Recipes, and Unabashed Arrogance (Ten Speed Press, 2011).
This featured originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.