TAMPA — Charlie Papazian was greeted at Cigar City Brewing last week like the conquering hero he is. He wrote The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, which has sold 1.2 million copies. He founded the American Homebrewers Association and the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. He is president of the Brewers Association of America. He's the real king of beer, the most important figure in the craft beer world you've never heard of.
A cult figure among home brewers and craft beer enthusiasts, Papazian, 62, was the featured attraction last week during a Homebrewers Association rally at CCB. A couple hundred people clutched dog-eared copies of his book, stood in line for autographs, posed for photos with the master and offered samples of their own brew. We talked with Papazian about the art of home brewing and its influence on the craft beer scene:
When you started home brewing 41 years ago, there wasn't a lot of great beer. Was that the motivation?
Well, I didn't know it was the motivation. It was a happenchance experience when I was invited to taste some home brew by an old-time brewer in my neighborhood where I was going to school. (It was) a lot more interesting than what I was buying. It had flavor and taste to it.
There weren't a lot of people home brewing then, were there? Wasn't it illegal?
It was a legacy of Prohibition. It was illegal. But it was still fresh, and most people who tasted home brewing tasted Prohibition-style beer, which is not the kind of beer most of us are making now — mostly sugar and a little bit of malt. It was beer, but not like the good stuff we're making now. We've come a long way. Brewers in this country are viewed as the pioneers of the world right now. You go to Germany, Belgium, Scotland, European countries, South American countries, and they are five to 10 years behind.
A lot of people are not aware of the connection between home brewing and the craft beer explosion of the past 20 years. Can you explain?
You go to any brewery in this country — there are over 1,800 — and over 95 percent of brewers started off with an interest in home brewing. Some of the most successful brewers in this country — New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, for example — started out home brewing.
Is Florida's craft beer scene catching up?
I think in the last three or four years there's been quite a bit of elevated awareness of beer. There are so many elements: the brewers, the distributors, the retailers. . . . They're in business to make money, and they're understanding people are willing to pay a little bit more. I think the roots have been established . . . with Cigar City and a number of other brewers that are collaborating. This is a beer-drinking state!
What's going to happen to home brewing now that there's so much great beer out there?
There was a cycle we went through in the late '90s when people discovered, hey, I can get microbrews, and they're worth paying for — and a lot of them dropped out of home brewing. Another generation of people has come into the fold, and it's not about accessibility of the beer commercially. The reason why they are brewing is it's fun, it's rewarding, you can make whatever you want whenever you want with your friends. It's a cool thing to do. Many of those people who dropped out of brewing . . . came back.
What do you suggest to someone who has been thinking about home brewing but holding back?
Just do it! I hate to sound like a Nike ad, but once you've done it, it's not that difficult.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.