Nothing beats the honor and respect more than offering your Thanksgiving company a bottle of your homemade brew. Nothing but your blood, sweat and tears poured into a recycled bottle. But blood, sweat and tears don't ferment well with malted barley, drinking water, sugar and brewer's yeast. The labor and time invested in a batch of homebrew trumps the King of Beers. A small shop in my home town of St. Charles, Ill., sells the supplies to build a liquid-gold empire.
"It's a hobby where you can enjoy the fruits of your labor," said storeowner, Ed Seaman.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Seaman and two of his employees sat near the check-out counter, explaining the art, culture and community behind crafting beer.
"Everyone is making beer around here," said Kyle Teichart, employee and seven-year brew maker. "Everyone's open in the homebrewing community," he said.
Teichart started brewing in high school — before he could legally buy or drink a brew anywhere.
"I started breaking the law when I added the yeast," he said.
His mom kept an eye on the projects that today he considers "science experiments."
"I approach the process more on the technical side. If you think about it, bakers and brewers are alike," he said. "It's a science, you have to make sure everything is measured and added in right."
It's been seven years since Teichart's first batch. He loves the idea of homebrewing, but he hasn't forgotten about the stuff in the stores either.
"The only way to know if your own beer tastes good is by trying the commercial beer," he said.
Teichart fancies Ayinger Jahrhundert, a "nice, delicate, well-made German light lager."
Seaman enjoys a fine Belgian style commercial brew, but when it comes down to it, nothing compares to the experience of being a brewmaster.
"The best way to become a brewer is to brew," said Seaman. " Everyone has their own technique, that's what makes it good."
Seaman said that there are beer clubs around the area who congregate once a month to share their stories over a good glass of brew. It's a popular community of homebrewers, mainly because they can get their supplies just down the street.
His small shop on the corner of Main and 3rd St. has been selling the essentials for homebrews, wines and meads since 2001.
"We have the regulars, but we get a lot of new people interested in the hobby, too," said Seaman. "A lot of guys come in, and they bring their girlfriends along. Then the girlfriends who love drinking wine discover that they can make their own wine, too."
Seaman explained that the homemade revolution gained momentum in the 1990s. Today there are over 1,500 craft breweries across the nation. You'll find microbreweries (joints that brew less than 15,000 barrels a year) and brewpubs (they serve their own brews in their restaurants and bars) in towns and cities from the east to the west. Switch on the tube Sunday nights, and you'll find a new show on Discovery Channel featuring the guys at Dogfish Head Brewery in Maryland.
"Beer making has been pretty steady, but there has been an upsurge in making wine lately," said Seaman.
He explained the process for the two drinks is similar. The same equipment is used and they both ferment. Wine takes a lot longer — three to six months, instead of four to six weeks for beer, and both involve a unique style of recycling.
"You're re-using bottles that would otherwise be crushed up and recycled in a different way," said Seaman.
The homebrew culture not only recruits recyclers, they recruit local food supporters, too.
"We're foodies. We love going out to eat and support local restaurants. We know how much time and money goes into the process. We can appreciate that," said Teichart.
The Homebrew Shop is a welcoming place, inviting beginner guys and gals to pick up a new hobby. Seaman suggests starting out with a kit; it's got all of the raw materials one needs to start the process right. He also recommends books and the Internet for recipes, tips and advice from the pros. His shop also offers monthly classes for a one-on-one learning experience.
"If someone's apprehensive, we'll help them figure it out," said Seaman. "Like anything, it takes time, but it's a lot of fun," he said.