Like many people, I needed a new hobby.
As spring faded into summer my typical, fully-loaded work schedule cleared up and to my surprise I had time on my hands.
It felt bizarre.
When the shock of Tiger King wore off, my next undertaking was tackling a bunch of new recipes I found on outstanding YouTube channels like Sam The Cooking Guy and Binging With Babish. I finally started putting a dent in the recipes folder on my Google Chrome bookmark bar.
It was fun but the more I saw college friends from Michigan State get into home brewing out in Michigan, the more I started itching to do it.
Writing a few stories about breweries across the state over the summer took the urge to another level but the confidence to give it a shot wasn’t there just yet.
After a flight and a pint – or two – at Ashton Brewing Co. in Middlesex County, I told owner Steve Ashton that it was something really starting to pique my interest.
He told me to start reading and suggested I pick up a copy of Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing Fourth Edition.
That changed everything.
Papazian’s conversational writing style made it all seem possible, even easy at times. When something worrisome came up in the book it was always followed by a “relax and have a homebrew.”
Almost seven weeks later, I was sipping my first homebrew, a nice blonde ale from a kit purchased at Love2Brew in North Brunswick also in Middlesex County. It tasted terrific.
It was such a feeling of accomplishment in a year where good feelings and positivity have been incredibly hard to come by.
Not surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one who had making beer on the brain.
As it turns out, home brewing supply stores across New Jersey have been experiencing booms in business in 2020.
“It’s the same reason people decided to start making bread or gardening,” said Kendall Alvarez Eskew, owner of Thirsty Quaker. “It’s a hobby that is not that difficult to get into. Once you’ve completed your project it’s something you can enjoy. Who doesn’t like drinking a good beer?”
Thirsty Quaker, which is Hudson County’s only beer supply store, saw a roughly 75% spike in beer equipment sales this summer compared to last. Love2Brew has already sold over 500 starter equipment sets between beer and winemaking, one of which now sits nestled in my garage.
Fermented Food & Beverage Supply Shop in Hammonton told NJ Advance Media that overall sales in 2020 are up between 15% and 20% from 2019.
These businesses also had to compete with grocery stores when there was a shortage of yeast in the summer. It took nearly five months before things settled down.
Some people might scoff at the idea of making beer at home. After all, perfectly good beer is available at the store or at one of the growing number of craft breweries.
But having done it yourself, being able to show your friends and family that this was something you did on your own makes it all worth it.
“It’s an artistic or creative way to express yourself in a way that’s enjoyable for a lot of people,” said Eric Schmehl, owner of Fermented Food & Beverage Supply Shop. “I used to make weird or crazy beers when I first started. There’s a lot at stake on each batch of beer for breweries but if it’s a few gallons that you make in your kitchen, you have a lot more room to experiment.”
Schmehl’s shop is one of many across the state that traditionally held their own brewing classes. He tried holding virtual classes via Zoom but the success wore out as the summer progressed.
These classes are a perfect chance to get to know their customers in return for giving their customers some much-needed nuggets on how to make quality homebrew.
“My favorite part of the job is talking to the customers, hearing their unique stories,” said Andrzej Bzdula, one of the owners of Love2Brew which also used to have classes before the spread of coronavirus. “Why they got into it, why they’re doing what they’re doing and how they’re doing what they’re doing. We have a lot of very interesting characters that come into the shop and do this fun stuff. That’s definitely the part I’ve missed the most.”
Added Alvarez Eskew: “When I see someone that was in a class come back and keep buying ingredients to make more beer and talk to us, it makes me really happy. Now I have a new friend basically to chat with and trade beers with.”
The uptick in business is a welcome shot in the arm of the home brewing industry, which has been overall on the decline over the last several years.
According to the Brewers Association, there were 1,447 breweries in the United States in 2005 and that was the fifth year in a row that saw a decline. In 2019, there were 8,368.
“Go back 10 years ago, craft beer wasn’t that big of a thing,” said Alvarez Eskew. “Part of the appeal of homebrewing was you could make things you just couldn’t find on the shelves.”
It’s not the case as much anymore.
These stores all hope the boom they experienced in 2020 will carry over to 2021 but if there’s one thing 2020 has told us, you just never know what’s going to happen.
Some don’t expect to see another spike in first-time homebrewers.
“Most of the people that wanted to get into it have already picked it up by now,” said Alvarez Eskew. “There aren’t too many people nine months into this pandemic looking for a hobby now. I think most people have already figured it out.”
If you already have your homebrew kit, have at it. Experiment, enjoy it and take pride in what you’re doing.
And if you’re homebrew is good enough and you’re close enough to Hammonton, think about entering Vinyl Brewing Co.’s homebrew contest in 2021. This would’ve been the third year it was held but it was canceled.
Brian Bobal may be reached at [email protected].