Love Letter to Beer Lovers

Note: This article first appeared in the February 6 edition of the Santa Barbara News Press

February 6, 2014 5:39 AM

This space has been a champion for local breweries big and small. That has been the case, and will continue to be so, because Santa Barbara breweries continue to be important members of our community who happen to make an excellent product.

But it would be a disservice to the Santa Barbara brewing community to omit some very important members — you.

Specifically, everyone who spends their weekends over their kitchen stove or a turkey fryer in their garage brewing small batches of beer simply for the love of malt and hops. Home brewing has come so far since the days of Prohibition operations in basement bathtubs.

I’ve liked beer since I’ve been able to drink it, but I never truly understood everything it could be until I made it for myself. The same way growing vegetables in a garden can connect home cooks to their food in all new ways, a home brewer begins to look at beer with a newfound appreciation and wisdom.

In our area, the best options for getting started down the home brewer’s path is either Surf Brewery’s homebrew shop in Ventura or Valley Brewers’ Homebrew and Winemaking Supply in Solvang.

Both have all the equipment and ingredients necessary for you to brew world-class beer in your kitchen — and both have the knowledgeable staff to teach you how. They are also key figures in local homebrew clubs.

I’ve never been much of a social person, and so I’ve never been big on joining clubs of any sort. But to pretend that home brewers are any less a part of the Santa Barbara beer community than their professional counterparts is to ignore some of the community’s most interesting characters. And so I attended the January meeting of the Valley Brewers Brew Club, which was convened at Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.’s Buellton facility.

The key ingredient for every good club meeting is, of course, beer — and there was plenty of it. Fig’s brewer A.J. Stoll was finishing a shift and dropped by to share a beer with the home brewers, who were also enjoying some of A.J.’s products.

The conversations focused mostly on beer, as club members exchanged recipes and brewing tips that helped distinguish the crowd as die-hard beer geeks. Some members brought their own beer, and it was passed around to be evaluated and appraised (each example was fantastic, by the way).

And as the meeting was in full swing, the real business of the evening came into focus.

You see, home brewers are being picked on.

Granted, nobody is trying to deny Californians the right to brew beer in their homes, but a relatively recent interpretation of alcohol laws is threatening to change the way home brewers enjoy the fruits of their labor.

For years, home brewers have been able to pour their creations at beer festivals. I’ve written about home-brewed beers at the Santa Barbara Beer Festival and the recent Fig Mountain Oktoberfest.

The brewers do not make any money on these beers (although they certainly spend plenty to make them), and they must abide by all the same rules as the professionals. This was especially the case at the annual Southern California Homebrewers Festival.

But a new interpretation of old regulations has made it illegal to serve home-brewed beer at festivals. The layman’s explanation is that since it is illegal to sell homebrew, it is illegal to serve homebrew at any festival that charges admission — which is essentially all of them.

This is a harmful law that stymies the growth of an interesting and community-based hobby. Beer festivals like the ones mentioned above are typically filled with beer drinkers in the midst of discovering everything that the drink can be, and prohibiting home brewers from taking part in them drastically hinders the promotion of the hobby.

In essence, the new interpretation of the regulations takes home brewing out of the daylight and brings it back into the basement.

At the Valley Brewers club meeting, co-owner Chris Kelly spoke at length about what it will take to get this interpretation overturned. The first step is contacting your state assembly member or senator and let them know you are displeased with this interpretation.

If you’d like more information on how you can help ensure the future of a hobby that has become a major part of the Santa Barbara community, reach out to Chris via email at — then join me in writing a letter to your local assembly member and senator.

Sean Lewis is a beer drinker, beer maker and beer writer. His book, “We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers” (St. Martin’s Press), will be released Sept. 23. His column appears the first Thursday of the month in the Food section. Follow him on twitter @Sean_M_Lewis.


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