State of Homebrewing - Colorado pushes the envelope on homemade beer

By Steve Graham

Mike Anderson usually has four beers on tap and a couple more in production at his brewpub. But he gives all his beer away to friends, and mostly brews on weekends.

Most Colorado craft brewers started out as home brewers. But the state also has a huge number of passionate brewers like Anderson who are still brewing in their garages, kitchens and home workshops for the love of the craft.

 Photo Jay Bond

Photo Jay Bond

Gary Glass, director of the Boulder-based American Homebrewers Association, said Colorado has always had one of the largest and most dedicated homebrewing communities. An early group of home brewers launched his organization in 1978, one year before Boulder Beer became Colorado’s first modern craft brewery.

“Ninety percent or more of people making their living with beer started as homebrewers,” Glass said.

Russell Scherer was the 1985 Homebrewer of the Year before he became the first head brewer at Wynkoop Brewing, an early brewpub he opened with John Hickenlooper.

Rather than competing with craft breweries, Glass said homebrewers are huge advocates.

“The homebrewers are the biggest champions for their local brewery,” he said.

Anderson started four years ago with a cheap home brew kit he received as a gift, but his first beer was a failure. Still, he enjoyed the process enough to get some higher-quality equipment and try again.

 “I would brew it in the kitchen and bottle it in the kitchen, then I started getting yelled at,” Anderson said.

When his girlfriend kicked him out of the kitchen, he set up a propane burner on the patio, but that setup also had its drawbacks.

 Photo: Jay Bond

Photo: Jay Bond

“Wow, this kind of sucks when it’s January,” Anderson said. So he built a workshop on his Fort Lupton property, and turned about half of the space into a home brewpub and man cave. 

He spent about six months building the brewpub, which cost about $30,000, including all the construction materials and brewing equipment. He said a lot of the brewing gear overlaps with the technology he uses as a technician for a local energy company. 

Anderson said that job is perfect for him, and he has no plans to switch to professional brewing. Instead, he spends many of his Saturdays brewing beer.

Similarly, Jay Bond is a corporate sales representative in downtown Denver, and loves his job. He said he would consider turning his homebrewing passion into a career, but he can’t match his current pay
and benefits.  

He has spent about $13,000 on top-of-the-line brewing equipment, and brews 10-gallon batches in Aurora for his friends and for local and national competitions. 

Like Anderson, he hit a steep learning curve at first, but it quickly became a consuming passion. “My first batch had some off-flavor profiles … but I caught on pretty quickly,” Bond said. “I felt like I got lucky because it just made sense to me, and if I get obsessed with something I just research and research and research.” 

The research paid off, with 10 homebrew awards under his belt, including a Colorado state fair prize for his Belgian wit, and multiple awards for his Scottish ale. 

Even so, he still faces obstacles and makes occasional bad batches of beer.

“There’s always challenges,” Bond said. “You never stop learning. I think in order to be a master brewer, you’d have to be brewing consistently for 10 years.”

Gerry Lynch has only been brewing for four years in Milliken, but has racked up more than 70 awards. Some of those awards were in pro-am competitions, and the pros wanted to work with him more.

He has considered opening his own brewery, but is sticking to his contractor job for now. 

“I have been offered head brewing jobs but that would be taking a 75-percent pay cut,” he said. 

Lynch has two half-barrel fermenters and can make about 20 gallons of beer at a time. He has been trying a wide variety of styles.

“The more I get into it the more I learn,” he said.  “I just tried a pilsner last month and I love that beer. They are hard to make because there’s nothing to hide behind.”

These top-shelf home brewers all have similar advice for rookies, starting with the importance of thoroughly washing and sterilizing all equipment.

“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” Anderson said.

Bond adds that oxidation is one of the most common problems with beer he judges at homebrew competitions, and said home brewers need to work hard to avoid oxygen exposure after fermentation.

Above all, homebrew experts tell us to have fun when brewing at home.

“You’ll hit that batch that works, and you’ll fall in love with it,” Anderson said. “At least that’s what happened to me.”

Steve Graham is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor who likes taking his two young boys biking, hiking and brewery-hopping in northern Colorado.