CINCINNATI -- When starting out on your homebrew adventure, there are plenty of ways to go it alone but one of the best ways to become a better brewer is to join a homebrew club.
As it happens, Cincinnati has a rich homebrew community with several groups to join depending on where you live and when you can meet.
The people you’ll meet at these clubs are incredibly diverse and range between novice brewers to perennial medal winners, young and old and even a few brewers who have moved on to selling their own beer.
The two largest and most well-known groups are the Bloatarian Brewing League and the Cincinnati Malt Infusers.
WCPO Digital spoke with Chris Nascimento of the Malt Infusers and Bloatarian President Robert Westendorf about their groups and what makes the homebrew community in Cincinnati so special.
There’s an old joke between the two groups (who actually share a few members) that the main difference between the groups is based on “what day of the week you’re available for meetings.” While Nascimento and Westendorf laugh and agree at the thought, there are some differences to highlight.
“Well, the Cincinnati Malt Infusers are an extremely active bunch, with more activities on a week to week basis than most other clubs. The Cincinnati Malt Infusers are always friendly and always going to make you feel welcome. … Besides our monthly club meetings, the Cincinnati Malt Infusers ‘Brew Tour’ features monthly brewouts at host members’ homes. At these brewouts, we bring our equipment and typically brew individually while sharing the fun together,” Nascimento said.
He also said the Malt Infusers participate in parades, help out with Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) training for aspiring judges, have annual pub crawls, organize brewery tours and trips to many other homebrew events nationwide. They even put together a trip to Ireland one year.
“From Ph.D. chemists to painters: it doesn't really matter what you do for a living -- unless you also brew professionally. Then we will geek out with envy over what you do for a living -- everyone has the same purpose. We are all united by our passion for brewing great beer and enthusiasm for exploring well crafted examples of beer. We have a great deal of fun and really enjoy each other’s company. It doesn't matter what your level of brewing experience is, the Cincinnati Malt Infusers welcome everyone from the brewing novice to the seasoned homebrewer,” Nascimento said.
According to Westendorf, the Bloatarians are the oldest and largest homebrewing club in the city.
“We have a long established track record of promoting homebrewing to the community at large, and of helping our members become the best brewer they can be. We are welcoming to all levels of brewers, from the simplest kitchen brewer to members who have built impressive brewhouses, including complete automation,” Westendorf said.
The club also has an all-grain brewing system that is available for members to use for free. He said they often use the system for public demonstrations. Westendorf also said the Bloatarians host classes during which they go through the full process of making beer, including all-grain batches.
“We are involved in both the national homebrewing community as well as the local, non-brewing community. We were directly responsible for bringing the National Homebrew Conference to Cincinnati twice (1987 and 2008.) Currently one of our past presidents is an officer with the Governing Committee of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA), and other members are active participants in AHA committees and events,” Westendorf said.
The Bloatarians are also part of the local German-American Citizens League and are partners with libraries in Hamilton, Kenton, and Boone counties in providing brewing presentations to their patrons.
“The benefits of interacting with other experienced homebrewers cannot be overestimated. The opportunity to interact with other brewers and try their beers will directly lead to an improvement in the quality of any brewer's efforts. In addition, our meeting topics are designed to offer something for all brewers, including in-depth technical presentations, style discussions with tastings of representative examples, judging and critical evaluation of beers, as well as beer and food events. We offer a program that lets a member bring in a beer for evaluation. It will be tasted and scored by two or more experienced judges, after which the brewer can meet with the judges and discuss their perceptions, and determine areas where either the recipe or process might be improved,” Westendorf said.
Joining a brew club can also be beneficial to your bottom line. Many of the local homebrew shops such as Brew Monkeys in Cheviot and Listermann Brewing Company in Norwood will offer discounts or services to brew club members.
One of the most important functions of the brew clubs is to help judge the beers the members make.
The Malt Infusers hold two BJCP sanctioned homebrew competitions
each year. Nascimento said at the last Cincy Winter Beerfest, the competition had more than 325 entries. The next date for that competition is Feb. 15, 2014. The second competition will be Oktobersbest Zinzinnati on Oct. 19.
He said the Malt Infusers typically hold a BCJP certification training program about once a year and it takes about 10 weeks to get ready for the exam.
“The club holds two major annual competitions, and occasionally has other smaller competitions,” Westendorf said, “In May of each year is the Bloatarian Open, which is our ‘Club Championship.’ Entry is free to members. While providing a great opportunity for bragging rights, the Open was originated as a means to introduce members to judging, and to further the skills of experienced judges. In August we host Beer and Sweat, which is one of the largest homebrew events in the world. Entry requires a full keg, and after judging, everyone has the opportunity to sample any of the beers. The evening session includes live music, and is one of the largest homebrew social events anywhere.”
The Bloatarian president also said the club offers and in-depth training program for beer judging over the winter. It typically takes about 20 weeks and meets once per week.
“Students are led through the whole range of beer styles, and detailed discussions of the key technical details of brewing. Particular emphasis is given to preparation for the BJCP exam, which is required for certification as an ‘official judge.’ The instructors of other classes in the area are all graduates of the Bloatarian program,” Westendorf said.
As both men will tell you, having a strong homebrew community in a town will do more than just help out would-be brewers.
“Homebrew represents passion for great beer at the most grassroots level. It is a creative process. From the standpoint of our community, it provides people a medium through which they connect with each other in a positive way. Homebrewers also provide economic stimulus -- the area now has five full time homebrew shops -- including my shop, Brew Monkeys -- so it obviously benefits small business within our community. Homebrewing provides a reason for travel and tourism within the area through events such as the 2008 AHA National Homebrew Convention held here, or when judges, stewards and other volunteers travel to the Cincinnati area to help support the many homebrew competitions held locally,” Nascimento said.
It also provides a potential springboard for entrepreneurs who want to make the leap from brewing as a hobby to brewing as business.
“A large number of our members have gone on to brew professionally, and even as professionals many have remained members, even after they have moved away. Currently we have members brewing in Cincinnati at Rivertown and Blank Slate, in Akron at Thirsty Dog, in Cleveland at Market Garden, and in Chicago at 5 Rabbit. There are a number of other members who have brewed professionally, but for various reasons have changed to other careers (brewing really doesn't pay well.) Two members are currently in the planning stages of opening their own breweries soon,” Westendorf said.
In fact, many if not most of the breweries in town were founded by homebrewers. In addition to Rivertown and Blank Slate, Mt. Carmel, 50 West, Triple Digit/Listermann, Double Barrel and MadTree were all started by one-time homebrewers.
“Many of Moerlein's employees, including brewmaster (OTR Production Facility) and Director of Brewing Operations Mike Carver, Assistant Brewer Gregg Wilson (Moerlein Lager House,) and Assistant Brewer Matthew Utter (OTR Production Facility,) all learned valuable skills as local homebrewers which enabled them to get the positions they hold today,” Nascimento said.
That all said, the best benefit of brewing in a homebrew club is the camaraderie. It’s the shared experience of success and failure that keeps the members going even when they have a bad batch or when one of their beers is not well received.
Besides, wouldn’t you rather share a beer with friends than have one on your own?
Local homebrew clubs:
Bloatarian Brewing League
Cincinnati Malt Infusers
Northern Kentucky Brewer’s Guild