By Greig McGill
I was listening to a podcast while cleaning in the brewery the other day, and a question from a New Zealand listener came in asking about, or rather bemoaning the lack of, homebrewing clubs in New Zealand. We are (usually) social creatures. Even this grumpy old brewing hermit enjoys and benefits from the company of others now and again! Because of this, some things lend themselves better to being done in groups than alone. While brewing itself can be just as fun alone as with friends, there are so many benefits to be had from joining or starting a local brewing club that I thought it might be worth the time to talk about clubs and what they can offer. I’ll also talk about how to start your own club - it’s not that hard!
Benefit 1 - Knowledge and Experience
One of the biggest barriers to people brewing at home is often the old “I’m not sure where to start” problem. A huge advantage of joining a club is the wealth of experience, and input from brewers of all skill levels. Not sure how to start? Just head along to the club and you’ll almost certainly be able to arrange a brew day with one or several of the club members with similar gear to you so that you can see in a hands-on way just how easy and fun the process can be without the weight of the world on your shoulders worrying about what might go wrong. With a group of fellow brewers, problems can be discussed and solved, different approaches can be weighed up, and the latest techniques talked about and analysed for usefulness. You’ll feel like a better and smarter brewer every time you go to a club meeting, and whether you’re imparting or receiving knowledge, you’re almost guaranteed to learn something new each time. You simply will make better beer as a result.
Benefit 2 - Honest feedback
In a club environment, honest feedback is the default. Nobody is going to tell you your beer is great because they’re your mate and it’s free. You’ll get (and will be expected to give) an honest critique of any and all beer tasted. We’ll talk more about this aspect of club culture later on, but criticism is not the same thing as fault finding, and clubs should always be careful that their critiques don’t end up sounding like attacks. Experienced brewers will be able to quickly identify common brewing issues and share this information with the newer brewers, rapidly enhancing the skills of the newcomers and speeding their path to being able to contribute in turn when newer brewers join the club. Nothing improves brewing technique faster than good honest criticism from a place of knowledge.
Benefit 3 - Cool Toys!
A well patronised brewing club will have members who have all sorts of equipment and usually won’t mind showing it off. Also, if a club has plenty of money in the bank, they can purchase shared equipment that might be too expensive for an individual member - a microscope for yeast cell counts, a fancy pH meter, or a water testing kit for example. The club can act like an equipment library of sorts, lending out these “cool toys” to members for particular brew days or to dial in their process. Clubs can also arrange bulk ingredient purchasing and pass on cheaper prices to their members.
Benefit 4 - Local Competitions
While the honest feedback part of a club is probably the most useful, there’s nothing like the feeling of brewing a beer and having it take first place in a competition. Even if you’re not competitively minded, it can still be a great test of the art of packaging beer for competition - seeing if you can get the best and freshest beer possible in front of the judges. I’ve talked at length about competitions before, and the followup to this article is going to be about how to organise and run your own, so I won’t say too much more about them here. Suffice to say that most brewing clubs hold regular competitions, and it can be a lot of fun tasting each entry along with the judges.
Starting a Club
OK, so clubs are cool. But there’s no such thing near you? Well, start your own! You’ll want to begin by identifying your goals and focus. Do you want to be more of a social club, where the focus is on drinking and discussing the beers your members brew? Or do you want to be a resource powerhouse, buying and sharing equipment, sourcing ingredients, and running regular competitions? Or some combination of these? Or something else entirely?
First, you’ll need some like-minded people who are willing and able to put in some work. From experience with volunteer-run organisations, it can be really challenging finding people who are willing to step up and do the day-to-day work involved in managing the club resources and communicating with the members. When you do find someone (or ideally, a few people), and they have to take a break, or step down permanently, replacing them can also be a challenge. Don’t let that put you off though. The answer is to make the job as easy as possible. Document everything that needs to be done, and create easy systems for executing it. Make the job “on rails” so in theory, anyone can just step up and do it. Some clubs even rotate management as a duty of membership. Decide if you want one person taking on the “main three” roles of president, secretary, and treasurer (doable in a small club) or whether you will split these roles.
Once the structure is decided upon, gauge interest by reaching out to like minded people on social media and see if you can get a critical mass to get the club going. Try to attract a diverse group of people, as you will get more experience and creativity that way - clubs can be a bit boring when everybody looks the same!
You’re going to need to charge fees according to the resources you want to provide. Create a spreadsheet budgeting out the annual costs for what you’d like to achieve, work out the number of members you have, and divide the cost among the members to determine the fees you’ll need to charge. You can try reaching out to local beer friendly organisations like your local brewery, hop farm, home brew store, or even a good beer bar. They may be willing to offer sponsorship and meeting locations in return for custom. Be aware that if you’re approaching a local brewery taproom or a bar, you’ll need to encourage the members to drink the beer on tap, and not just turn up, take up space, and drink homebrew, otherwise there’s nothing in it for the sponsor! Be respectful in these tight times for the beer industry - most businesses have many demands on them, and things might be tough. Try to ask for as little as possible, and you’ll be surprised how often that respect is met with generosity.
Try to meet regularly - keep your members engaged and interested. Set a good structure for your meetings - even if it’s just a “sharing and drinking” meeting, try to ensure that everyone gets a fair hearing and a chance to share their beer and their feedback on other beers. There are a lot of different ideas for meetings. Guest speakers are a common option - brewers, champion homebrewers, hop and malt growers, even people from other countries who can share information on their local beer scene. Fault tastings are a good idea, and help improve everyone’s palate. “Iron Chef” style competitions are another idea - everyone is given a particular ingredient they must use, but everything else about the beer is up to them. Group brew days can be fun, especially if it’s something that’s hard to do as an individual. As an example, I know of an American brewing group who all get together and brew 12 batches of “the same” stout recipe, and they are all added to a club-owned barrel after fermentation. A variation on this is a solera-style brew for sours, where members take turns to contribute to a collective barrel, and some is drawn off the same barrel and split amongst all the members. The possibilities really are endless!
Don’t forget to “have a meeting about meetings” at least once a year. This can be an online discussion, but in my experience you get the best and most useful participation when people are out from behind their screens! The point of this review meeting is to keep the club relevant and serving the members. There’s little point in just going through the motions if members are starting to drift away quietly because the club doesn’t meet their needs anymore. You may need to think about how you keep being relevant to new members, especially those with little knowledge or experience, while the original members have become advanced. Try not to alienate newcomers, as they are the lifeblood that will keep the club healthy and relevant moving forward.
It’s also important to review the culture of the club at regular intervals. Be careful not to devolve into a group of old wise heads who only criticise and never compliment, and a bunch of people who feel like they aren’t getting anywhere because everything they make is “terrible” according to the wise heads. If a particular member really is struggling and never improving, be sure to work with them to help. Maybe they’re not understanding the feedback given? Maybe there’s an equipment fault they haven’t noticed? ABE - Always Be Encouraging!
That seems like a good positive note to wrap this up on. Hopefully this article has you fired up to either join a club or start one of your own. This hobby is plenty of fun alone, but it’s even more fun with friends, and it will definitely make you a better brewer.