THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT CHARLIE – An evening with Charlie Papazian at Stone Brewing, Berlin

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT CHARLIE – An evening with Charlie Papazian at Stone Brewing, Berlin

Charlie Papazian is a man who wears many hats.

Many, many hats.

There’s a common theme though, with the hats. Not only does he wear many, but he first started wearing them at a time when nobody else wore hats. They were outlawed actually, and nobody ever imagined they’d come back in fashion. Almost 50 years on, here we are in 2018… and everybody is wearing Charlie’s hats!

 Feeling puzzled by my cryptic analogy? Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Allow me to elaborate.

RELAX. DON’T WORRY. HAVE A HOMEBREW.

These words – Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew – helped a nation stripped of all creative beer culture regain itself. America. Robbed of adventurous beer after a difficult post-Prohibition bounce-back, these words were the friendly, welcoming and calming words of the homebrewing father and pioneer, Charlie, the author of one of the world’s best selling books on the craft,, or, ‘the bible’ if you will, for homebrewers. Peppered throughout his first book, the soothing catchphrase – Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew was designed to make the occasionally overwhelming task of brewing your own beer approachable. Charlie is responsible for inspiring millions of people to start homebrewing.

“I wrote that book with my heart and soul and my experiences… I kinda just said ‘this is what I need to communicate’” says Charlie. In the late 1980s, less than ten years after its release, sales of the book were skyrocketing with up to 70,000 copies sold per year. “It was a bestseller. Boggled everybody’s mind!” Charlie’s casual expression is endearing. I guess he’s had some time to adjust to the fact that, with just a few cobbled-together household items, his passion and generosity in sharing his ideas would give rise to a community of over one million homebrewers and more than 6,300 microbreweries in the U.S. Charlie is a legend.

THE OUTLAW FOR BEER

Here in Germany, it’s difficult to comprehend that America’s beer culture has not always been so fertile and adventurous. In the wake of America’s Prohibition, a damaged beer culture needed to rise from the dead, with the act of brewing beer at home remaining illegal due to a clumsy omission of a few words in the Federal Register after the 1933 repeal. In spite of this legal oversight, in 1973 Charlie, who’d brewed his first homebrew three years prior, began giving homebrewing classes in his living room. After many instances of high visibility on TV and radio, Charlie was acutely aware that what he was doing so publicly was illegal. In what I found very sweet, Charlie admitted that back then he’d had romantic notions of popularising homebrew immediately in the event that he ever got “busted or arrested”. But as he’d suspected, the Federal American Government had better things to do. Charlie was a modern day ‘outlaw’. But for the good of beer. My kinda outlaw!

Over the following ten years, just as much as his students, Charlie took delight in learning the art of brewing beer through experimentation. “That spirit of sharing and collaborating, it was necessary because there wasn’t anything else available” reflects Charlie. He would go on to teach over a thousand students, many who would become professionally involved in beer (including one Jeff Lebesch, co-founder of America’s fourth-largest craft brewery, New Belgium). “We were all pretty much equals in our enthusiasm for wanting to know this stuff and it was a necessity to collaborate and share information” Charlie remembers. His humility is hard to believe.

THE BEER PROPHET

Long before his seminal book on homebrewing and as a direct consequence of the collaborative community Charlie’s lessons fostered, Charlie and his like-minded homebrewing-boffin friend, Charlie Matzen, resolved to found the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) in 1978. This also coincided with American President Carter signing a law finally legalizing homebrewing. At the time, American beer was suffering a wave of barbaric industrial lager after an inadequate post-Prohibition bounce-back. The AHA was the pioneering step towards tackling that, but they suspected it would be a battle. The stigma of homebrewing had widely left an indelible negative impression on society that represented low quality, clandestine exploding bottles of bathtub-brewed-beer. “That was the image of homebrew. That changed as people got older and there were younger people that just knew better…it’s this generational wave that we go through and the generational wave will happen here in Germany”, Charlie asserts. Today, the AHA is more than 46,000 members strong.

Charlie always had a vision for the States- “A homebrewer in every neighbourhood and a brewery in every town” he recounts. Well…that vision has come to fruition. But Germany? “One of the things that makes it so difficult to be a brewer in Germany is that beer is so ridiculously cheap…it’s so hard to make a living and that’s because the beer drinker doesn’t understand the value that diversity and flavour can have”.

Very astute.

It’s difficult to say with any certainty when exactly Germany’s rich history of communal beer brewing and enjoyment started. Early incarnations of the modern Stammtisch (a regular get-together) date back to the early 18th century under the directive of Friedrich Wilhelm I’s ‘Tabakskollegium’. At these gatherings, a group of lads got together to smoke pipes, guzzle beer and discuss what was going on in the world. The Zoigl community brewhouses in Bavaria are existing artifacts of a culture deeply entrenched with a philosophy of beer and community.

Germany’s very new tendency to embrace the young scene of homebrewers and microbrewers has been slow, but it is finally happening. With the influx of more and more homebrewers, microbreweries, experimental beer styles, not to mention IPAs, there is no question that America’s craft-beer revolution has slowly diffused across the Atlantic ocean managing to finally penetrate Germany’s very rigid borders.

Let us take some solace in Charlie’s vision for America. But what is to become of us lovers of beer brewing, quality and diversity in Germany?

Charlie, the prophet: “The evolution is going to repeat itself… I think Germany is going to be one of the more difficult places, just like America was… It was so conservative and so difficult! The whole system was rigged. And things changed. It took twenty years before you could see some movement into the popular culture.”

MOVER AND SHAKER

After founding the AHA followed by the magazines Zymurgy (for homebrewers) and The New Brewer (for professional craft brewers), Charlie went on to found a separate organisation for small commercial brewers (of which there were only 6 or 7 at the time), the so-called ‘microbrewers’ as he’d dubbed them, which went on to become the Brewers Association (BA), an association for small and independent American brewers. He is currently still employed by the BA, with his retirement planned for December 7th this year; a date which will also commemorate 40 years since his founding of the association.

With Charlie behind the reins, the BA is proprietor of some of America’s major beer-related events such as The Great American Beer Festival (GABF), The Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) and The World Beer Cup. The GABF, in its 37th year, is the largest ticketed beer festival in North America with more than 60,000 attendees annually.

Did I mention he wears a lot of hats?

RELAX. DON’T WORRY. HAVE A HOMEBREW.

With Charlie we talked all matters of beer. From the dwindling sales of industrial lager across the globe as an opportunity to introduce ‘craft beer’, to the significance of having a traditional set of rules and values for brewing (so long as they’re not “a hindrance or barrier to be creative and innovative”). From the necessity for brewpubs and holistic drinking experiences to what it means to be truly ‘craft’.

When writing about anything, conforming to word counts is hard. When writing about Charlie, it was even harder. Charlie’s influence on the scene is inspiring. After listening to him intently, it becomes strikingly clear that his knowledge, background and experience is voluminous and not able to be summarised in a short written piece.

I marvel at Charlie’s mild mannered, calm soul, his altruistic vision and his desire to share as much as he is humanly able. Germany just needs to take his advice: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.

 

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Photo Credit: Christal J. Peck

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