A Brief History of Homebrewing

Posted on May 13th, 2010

Prohibition era "Malt Syrup"

It’s well known that craft beer has become a major force in the world of beer. Here in America it is the fastest growing segment of consumer alcohol. While beers sales overall were down 2.2%, craft beer actually grew 10.3%. What a lot of people don’t realize is that today’s craft beer movement is largely the product of a whole generation of homebrewers who preceded it. The fact is that without homebrewing there would be no craft beer to speak of; almost all craft brewers got there start through homebrewing. It’s just one of the many reasons you should give homebrewing a shot yourself.

Some of the best beer is America is produced in Colorado. It’s second only to California in number of craft brewers, which is why it should come as no surprise that the modern homebrewing movement was started there by Charlie Papapizan, who helped legalize the practice through a bill signed by President Carter in 1978. Home wine making was legalized at the end of Prohibition, but due to a clerical error it took an act of Congress to extent the same distinction to homebrewing. Papaizan has since led the Brewers Association as president, and thanks to his leadership we have seen homebrewing and craftbrewing grow to what they are today.

However, homebrewing didn’t start in 1978. It’s of course been around for much longer than that. Papaizan himself credits an older friend who brewed beer at home during Prohibition teaching him the hobby. Although alcohol was illegal during Prohibition, there were still plenty of ways to get alcohol. Many people brewed it in their homes. Some brewing companies during the period would sell cans of malted grain syrup, one of the key ingredients of beer, as a food condiment, but that’s rarely how most people used it. On the label of these cans would be very curious warnings, instructing one to be sure not to boil this syrup in water with hops, and then once it cools add yeast to it.

Following these steps is of course more or less how you make beer, which is why most people bought the cans in the first place. Almost all accounts of Prohibition-era homebrew indicates that it was foul tasting stuff, consumed almost exclusively for the alcohol rather than the taste. Frequently it would be combined with other illegally produced alcohol, creating perhaps some of the earliest American beer cocktails.

Thankfully homebrewing has come a long way since those days, and it’s now incredibly easy to make really great taste beer right in your kitchen. Head over to the American Homebrewers Association website for details on how to get started with this delicious pastime.

Have you ever brewed your own beer? Do you know any friends who have? What topics about it would you like to see us cover? Let us know on Twitter, or in the comments.