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Why I am an AHA Member (and you should be too)

Happy National Homebrew Day, everybody. I'll be celebrating in an appropriate manner, as I'm sure will many of you. On this happy occasion, let's take a moment to reflect on just how awesome it is to have the ability to brew, enjoy, and share your own handmade beer, and then sip a thoughtful sip in gratitude for the largely unseen, perhaps even unappreciated, work of some folks who have helped get us where we are today, fermentatively speaking.

And honestly, they deserve more than a grateful sip. Everyone who likes to make their own beer should join the American Homebrewers Association.

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this AHA  member and union suit enthusiast has an important message for us all

Full disclosure: I've been homebrewing for 17 years this fall, but I never joined the AHA until this year (particularly ironic, since Northern Brewer, the company I’ve worked for for over a decade, has been such a staunch supporter and sponsor of the AHA for a long time). But more on that later.

First, to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. Please come with me on a bottle-finding expedition into the cellar of the past: the year is 1994, and your narrator has just taken up the big wooden spoon (with charisma) . A homebrew nation is waking up and taking shape, riding the wave of the microbrew boom and busting through the formulational limitations of the dry yeast and hopped malt extract that all but defined homemade beer for decades.

Wyeast has about a dozen strains available in 50 ml packages. You got your 1056, 1028, 1084, 2206, and there’s lots to brew with yeast like that. But no 1275, no 3711, no 1450, no 3522, no 1762, no 2633,  no 3763, no single-strain lambic bugs. Yet. You got your Cascade and Chinook or maybe Galena, you got your Goldings and Fuggle, you got your Hallertau and Tettnang and Saaz; but varieties Simcoe and Centennial and Amarillo and Summit and Warrior and Tradition and Premiant and Sorachi Ace and Palisade and Vanguard and French Strisselspalt and Ahtanum and Mt. Rainier and Citra aren't even a glimmer in the eye for us 1/6th-barrel brewers. Yet.

Imported malts, especially lager malt, can be hard to come by, and a lot of the recipes from back in the day are a testament to determination and make-do-with-what-you-can-get resourcefulness. Heck, I can remember malt from two-row barley being a big deal; now it’s taken for granted. You kids today got it easy.

There's no Brew Like a Monk or Brewing Classic Styles or How to Brew or second edition of Brewing Lager Beer or third edition of the New Complete Joy of Homebrewing; we had the first edition of Brewing Lager Beer and the second edition of the New Complete Joy and nothing but wet kindling to fire our brew kettles in five feet of snow uphill both ways and we liked it ... we loved it.

And now fast-forward to the present day. The microbrew boom of the 1990s is now the craft beer renaissance of the 2000s. Homebrewing is bigger today than it's ever been, not just in terms of our numbers (the AHA estimates that three quarters of a million Americans brewed beer at least once in 2010, and I’m willing to bet that’s a low guess) but also in terms of the range and quality of ingredients and specialized equipment widely available, and in the abundance of information at our fingertips.

And through the years, as the lot of our hobby continued to improve, with all this selection and knowledge there for the taking, I thought, why should I bother paying AHA dues? Why be a joiner? Homebrewing is all about individuality, right? Self-differentiation from the Lite Lagerbots, DIY, extremism of flavor, etc etc etc.

Solipsistic, I know. But judge not, as Mr. Marley said back in his ska days, because out of all 750,000 of us practicing homebrewers, only 24,000 of you are actually dues-paying members of the American Homebrewers Association. A whopping 3.2%. There are mild ales with a higher abv than that.But again, why should a body care? Why did I finally join?

Because The Man started to come for our beer.

Homebrewing, being much bigger now than in 1994 when we were all chugging American pale ales, and bigger still than just 5 years ago when we all started chugging Imperial IPAs, is showing up more and more on the mainstream radar, attracting more attention from all corners.

Let me back up a bit. Big picture time:

Homebrewing was federally legalized in 1978, after decades of illegality dating back to the enactment of the 19th Amendment and Prohibition. But on a state level, its legality is relatively all over the map.

Right now there are 48 states where homebrewing is legal. Up until very recently that number was 46: with lots of grassroots effort plus support from the AHA, Utah legalized homebrewing in 2009 and Oklahoma in 2010. It is still illegal - on a state level, at least - in Alabama and Mississippi; the AHA is working on that, with the help of the homebrewer-activists in those states. But a legislative defeat about a week ago in Alabama reminds us that the decriminalization of our hobby is not a gimme.

Even in states where homebrewing is legal, there are old laws still on the books that aren’t equipped to deal with the nature of homebrewing in America today.

Last year in Oregon, where homebrewing was not only legal but recognized as an important component of the state’s thriving craft beer scene, one such law was reinterpreted with the effect of making the production and consumption of homebrew permissible only within the brewer’s home. Competitions were shut down. No homebrew at public meetings or gatherings, no more organized tastings or classes, no brewing demonstrations.

The AHA immediately responded, joining a coalition of Oregonian homebrew clubs, raising national awareness of the issue, and working with state lawmakers to pass legislation reversing the restrictions. SB444 was signed into law in March of this year and homebrewers in the Beaver State are once again free to brew, share, and enjoy their beer.

And already in 2011, an eerily similar story in beer-loving Wisconsin: an archaic law has been reinterpreted with the effect of restricting where homebrew can be produced and consumed, and subsequent enforcement  - yes, enforcement - around the state has meant that homebrew shops can no longer brew on site for teaching classes, competitions have been shut down, and club activities curtailed.

Once again, the AHA was there right away, joining the grassroots effort, just as they did in Oregon in 2010, presenting a unified front and working towards enactment of new, updated, homebrew-positive legislation.

It's naive to think that this couldn't someday come to any state, I said to myself. When it does, I want my voice to be louder than it could alone. It's only right to stand with the homebrewers of Alabama, Mississippi, Oregon, Wisconsin, and everywhere else if I want them to stand with me when these same chickens come home to roost with a Minnesota accent.

Without a national umbrella organization to orchestrate and marshal our efforts to effect positive change and resist the cramping of our collective style, homebrewing could begin a slide back towards the dark ages instead of striving for whatever unimagined level of homebrew culture lies above the awesome one we're currently enjoying. Weak!

A Zymurgy subscription, the pub discount program, and events like the NHC and wort rallies are all very cool, too. But the tipping point for me, ultimately, was advocacy. I don't ever want to go back to the days with less selection and less information. Or worse yet, some dystopian nightmare of paranoid windows-blacked-out brewing in the middle of the night in fear of the neighbors smelling the hopburst addition. Weak!

Support your local homebrew shop (wherever it may be), keep brewing, don’t join a local club if you don’t want to, but for the love of Fred Eckhardt, pony up the cost of a few six-packs of your favorite craft beer and get an AHA membership. Make the investment, make sure your voice will be heard, make sure there will always be a great homebrewing scene in America, make sure that going forward we will all be able to relax and not worry while having a homebrew.