May 7, 2011

Why I am an AHA Member (and you should be too)

this AHA  member and union suit enthusiast
has an important message for us all.
Happy National Homebrew Day, everybody. I'll be celebrating in an appropriate manner, as I'm sure will many of you. On this happy occasion, let's take a moment to reflect on just how awesome it is to have the ability to brew, enjoy, and share your own handmade beer, and then sip a thoughtful sip in gratitude for the largely unseen, perhaps even unappreciated, work of some folks who have helped get us where we are today, fermentatively speaking.

And honestly, they deserve more than a grateful sip. Everyone who likes to make their own beer should join the American Homebrewers Association.

Full disclosure: I've been homebrewing for 17 years this fall, but I never joined the AHA until this year (particularly ironic, since Northern Brewer, the company I’ve worked for for over a decade, has been such a staunch supporter and sponsor of the AHA for a long time). But more on that later.

First, to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. Please come with me on a bottle-finding expedition into the cellar of the past: the year is 1994, and your narrator has just taken up the big wooden spoon (with charisma). A homebrew nation is waking up and taking shape, riding the wave of the microbrew boom and busting through the formulational limitations of the dry yeast and hopped malt extract that all but defined homemade beer for decades.

Wyeast has about a dozen strains available in 50 ml packages. You got your 1056, 1028, 1084, 2206, and there’s lots to brew with yeast like that. But no 1275, no 3711, no 1450, no 3522, no 1762, no 2633,  no 3763, no single-strain lambic bugs. Yet.

You got your Cascade and Chinook or maybe Galena, you got your Goldings and Fuggle, you got your Hallertau and Tettnang and Saaz; but varieties Simcoe and Centennial and Amarillo and Summit and Warrior and Tradition and Premiant and Sorachi Ace and Palisade and Vanguard and French Strisselspalt and Ahtanum and Mt. Rainier and Citra aren't even a glimmer in the eye for us 1/6th-barrel brewers. Yet.

Imported malts, especially lager malt, can be hard to come by, and a lot of the recipes from back in the day are a testament to determination and make-do-with-what-you-can-get resourcefulness. Heck, I can remember malt from two-row barley being a big deal; now it’s taken for granted. You kids today got it easy.

There's no Brew Like a Monk or Brewing Classic Styles or How to Brew or second edition of Brewing Lager Beer or third edition of the New Complete Joy of Homebrewing; we had the first edition of Brewing Lager Beer and the second edition of the New Complete Joy and nothing but wet kindling to fire our brew kettles in five feet of snow uphill both ways and we liked it ... we loved it.

And now fast-forward to the present day. The microbrew boom of the 1990s is now the craft beer renaissance of the 2000s. Homebrewing is bigger today than it's ever been, not just in terms of our numbers (the AHA estimates that three quarters of a million Americans brewed beer at least once in 2010, and I’m willing to bet that’s a low guess) but also in terms of the range and quality of ingredients and specialized equipment widely available, and in the abundance of information at our fingertips.

And through the years, as the lot of our hobby continued to improve, with all this selection and knowledge there for the taking, I thought, why should I bother paying AHA dues? Why be a joiner? Homebrewing is all about individuality, right? Self-differentiation from the Lite Lagerbots, DIY, extremism of flavor, etc etc etc.

Solipsistic, I know. But judge not, as Mr. Marley said back in his ska days, because out of all 750,000 of us practicing homebrewers, only 24,000 of you are actually dues-paying members of the American Homebrewers Association. A whopping 3.2%. There are mild ales with a higher abv than that.
But again, why should a body care? Why did I finally join?

Because The Man started to come for our beer.

Homebrewing, being much bigger now than in 1994 when we were all chugging American pale ales, and bigger still than just 5 years ago when we all started chugging Imperial IPAs, is showing up more and more on the mainstream radar, attracting more attention from all corners.

Let me back up a bit. Big picture time:

Homebrewing was federally legalized in 1978, after decades of illegality dating back to the enactment of the 19th Amendment and Prohibition. But on a state level, its legality is relatively all over the map.

Right now there are 48 states where homebrewing is legal. Up until very recently that number was 46: with lots of grassroots effort plus support from the AHA, Utah legalized homebrewing in 2009 and Oklahoma in 2010. It is still illegal - on a state level, at least - in Alabama and Mississippi; the AHA is working on that, with the help of the homebrewer-activists in those states. But a legislative defeat about a week ago in Alabama reminds us that the decriminalization of our hobby is not a gimme.

Even in states where homebrewing is legal, there are old laws still on the books that aren’t equipped to deal with the nature of homebrewing in America today.

Last year in Oregon, where homebrewing was not only legal but recognized as an important component of the state’s thriving craft beer scene, one such law was reinterpreted with the effect of making the production and consumption of homebrew permissible only within the brewer’s home. Competitions were shut down. No homebrew at public meetings or gatherings, no more organized tastings or classes, no brewing demonstrations.

The AHA immediately responded, joining a coalition of Oregonian homebrew clubs, raising national awareness of the issue, and working with state lawmakers to pass legislation reversing the restrictions. SB444 was signed into law in March of this year and homebrewers in the Beaver State are once again free to brew, share, and enjoy their beer.

And already in 2011, an eerily similar story in beer-loving Wisconsin: an archaic law has been reinterpreted with the effect of restricting where homebrew can be produced and consumed, and subsequent enforcement  - yes, enforcement - around the state has meant that homebrew shops can no longer brew on site for teaching classes, competitions have been shut down, and club activities curtailed.

Once again, the AHA was there right away, joining the grassroots effort, just as they did in Oregon in 2010, presenting a unified front and working towards enactment of new, updated, homebrew-positive legislation.

It's naive to think that this couldn't someday come to any state, I said to myself. When it does, I want my voice to be louder than it could alone. It's only right to stand with the homebrewers of Alabama, Mississippi, Oregon, Wisconsin, and everywhere else if I want them to stand with me when these same chickens come home to roost with a Minnesota accent.

Without a national umbrella organization to orchestrate and marshal our efforts to effect positive change and resist the cramping of our collective style, homebrewing could begin a slide back towards the dark ages instead of striving for whatever unimagined level of homebrew culture lies above the awesome one we're currently enjoying. Weak!

A Zymurgy subscription, the pub discount program, and events like the NHC and wort rallies are all very cool, too. But the tipping point for me, ultimately, was advocacy. I don't ever want to go back to the days with less selection and less information. Or worse yet, some dystopian nightmare of paranoid windows-blacked-out brewing in the middle of the night in fear of the neighbors smelling the hopburst addition. Weak!

Support your local homebrew shop (wherever it may be), keep brewing, don’t join a local club if you don’t want to, but for the love of Fred Eckhardt, pony up the cost of a few six-packs of your favorite craft beer and get an AHA membership. Make the investment, make sure your voice will be heard, make sure there will always be a great homebrewing scene in America, make sure that going forward we will all be able to relax and not worry while having a homebrew.



  1. Link to AHA memberships page:

    Thanks. I didn't know about the AHA memberships until now, and I will be joining!

  2. Huzzah! Well said! I joined before the issues with my state and I'm glad I did. I got to enter 10 beers to Nationals at a discounted price, vote for Jake to the governing committee, and I get the pub discount as well. Zymurgy magazine has some nice articles too. I'm on my way to our PDX Brewers Big Brew site for a double boil IPA.
    Have a great homebrew day!

  3. Perhaps the most persuasive argument for. . . oh hell, THE MOST PERSUASIVE argument for joining the AHA.

  4. Coming from Alabama, I know that we definitely need help. I was not only disappointed with the recent failure of the homebrewing legislation, but also angry that our elected officials so readily accepted the fallacious logic that homebrewing would lead to children having more access to alcohol. I don't know if they expected toddlers to be keeping a pint in their stroller or what, but clearly these people need to be educated about what homebrewing is really about.

    As with many things, we just need to keep plugging away until this outdated law is fixed. As stated before, education is really the key. If we can help them understand what homebrewing is really about, then they will be more likely to support our cause instead of ignorantly shooting it down out of fear of the "demon alcohol." I applaud the AHA's efforts at supporting this legislation, and I really think that with their help, this will pass within the next few years.

    Support AHA! Support Alabama Homebrewers! Support Beer!

  5. Great post. I am joining today.

  6. Well said, Michael. As a member of the AHA Governing Committee, I am intimately aware of the time and effort that the AHA has been spending defending the rights of homebrewers. They are especially effective organizing grass root responses when legislators seek to challenge our precious rights. Thank you for taking the time to provide us your thoughts on why supporting the AHA matters. It is indeed much more than just a magazine subscription!

  7. Thomas M.: You need to also focus on the voting population of Alabama. Many elected officials will vote in favor of what their constituents tell them. If they have a flood of people contacting them in opposition, they'll likely oppose. Utilize your network and the network of any homebrew clubs within your state and start contacting your legislators!

  8. Well, I'll be the odd man out here. They've done nothing for me. For what I would spend on joining the AHA and ultimately lining Charlie's pockets, I can brew more beer. It's legal in my state and tax free. The only the the AHA might do is draw too much attention to that and screw it up for me/us.

    Take a look at how they've handled some recent competitions and I NEVER see the costs/profits revealed.

    Also, before you join you should read this. Kind of old, but it's worth a little history.

  9. I took something else away from what you posted, Anonymous: In the 14 years since that article was written, the AHA has whittled down the number of states that homebrewing is illegal in from 20 to 2.

    Whining about issues like how much Papazian makes has nothing to do with homebrewing, it has to do with some people's inability to mind their own business. The AHA's tax status is a similarly facetious issue. Get over yourself and do something for the greater good.

  10. Great article...for those concerned with price I always ask for a membership for Christmas so I haven't had to actually buy a membership yet and it makes a good gift for people to give you.

  11. Great article. I just joined.

  12. dawson! you da man

  13. It's an association. Why would I want to associate with a bunch of arrogant, elitists? The forum convinced me to drop my membership. I know a few others that have done the same.

  14. @the most recent Anonymous - I actually agree with you up to a point: I personally find the emphasis placed on competitive homebrewing off-putting; I think it does a disservice to the entire hobby when hardcore homebrewers are dismissive of extract brewing; I don't belong to a club, I like the art of brewing more than the science of brewing, and I like to brew alone.

    However, having personally met many hundreds of AHA members (in real life) over the years, I found many of them to be nice, easy-to-talk-to people with whom I have a shared interest. A few of them have made, directly or indirectly, a positive contribution to my ability and enjoyment of brewing (John Palmer? Denny Conn?), and probably yours as well.

    Granted, one can probably find at least one arrogant elitist in most any human sample population you care to name, and the AHA can't be exempt from that. At times I also share your antipathy to online forums.

    I felt the same way you do for years, but ultimately for me on a personal level the tipping point was advocacy. I don't personally care about competitions or greatly desire to read flames on message boards written by the nameless at great remove; so I don't enter comps and I am a sporadic forum lurker at best.

    I do want a strong, national organization speaking for my rights as a homebrewer (which are being tested right now). SB444 didn't get passed because a bunch of dudes sat around by themselves in their own houses drinking batch-sparged Fighting Uruk-hai bitching to themselves.

    I imagine that most other members would agree that the AHA is not perfect; but that imperfect stuff, the stuff I don't like, can be changed from within, as a voting member.

  15. By far the most useless organization I have ever joined. The pub discounts are a joke and nothing more than advertizement. The magazine is nothing compared to BYO so that leaves the grand "Discount" on entries to Nationals. Nationals that were a complete disaster on nearly every level this year- do some reading.
    I'm not sure why people can't have a different opinion of this "non profit" club but IMO- it is useless.
    Oh, and completely irrelevant repeated spam emails are unhelpful.

  16. @the new most recent Anonymous, perhaps the same Anonymous (?) - You're certainly entitled to your opinion (whether you choose to attach your name to it or not), and I think the fact that this thread keeps getting longer shows respect for the process of debate and discussion - every comment left by readers, pro and con, has been published.

    I happily concede all your other points (in fact, to recap my previous reply - I kinda agree with you), but I have yet to hear any counterpoint to my actual argument - is national-level legal advocacy for homebrewers useless?