Brewing circle

Chico Homebrew Club allows enthusiasts to share their skills

Chico Home Brew Club members (from left) Shevonne Prewitt, Alex Lucero, John Abbott and Cheryl Romanak take a break from drinking their own recipes to meet at the bar.

Chico Home Brew Club members (from left) Shevonne Prewitt, Alex Lucero, John Abbott and Cheryl Romanak take a break from drinking their own recipes to meet at the bar.

Photo by Ken Smith

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John Abbott, the longest-running member of the Chico Homebrew Club, started making his own beer in Hawaii in 1981. Since then, he’s made hundreds of beers, including several that earned blue ribbons at state fairs and other competitions, and at least one that’s become world famous—Kona Brewing Co.’s Longboard Lager. He’s also brewed some tasty marinades, albeit unintentionally.

The topic of flavoring meat came up during a recent midday interview with Abbot and other club members (over beers, of course), as he remembered his first attempt at a ginger-based brew, when his overzealous addition of the star ingredient resulted in red eyes and coughing fits upon tasting. That prototype, much like his tongue-scorching ghost pepper porter, failed to become a refreshing beverage but was repurposed to add some zest to the next day’s dinner.

The inadvertent invention of sauces seems to be a situation familiar to other homebrewers: “That reminds me of the time I tried to make a bacon-infused beer,” club President Alex Lucero said. “It was terrible for drinking, but amazing to marinate meat in.”

Club member Eric Simmen shares homebrewing knowledge at the California Craft Beer Summit in Sacramento.

Photo courtesy of Chico Homebrew Club

Disaster is rarely so delicious, however, and failure is a natural byproduct of the experimentation at the heart of homebrewing. And one of the Chico Homebrew Club’s main goals is to provide an avenue for do-it-yourself beer-makers to share their skills and experience and to help each other learn from each others’ mistakes. Lucero said the club’s current roster includes brewers of all skill levels, from those who’ve yet to brew their first drop to those who’ve been able to turn their homebrew hobby into a living.

“Our membership includes some very accomplished homebrewers that now work for big breweries, or small breweries with big reputations,” he said, naming Sierra Nevada, Wildcard (Redding), FiftyFifty (Truckee) and Elysian (Seattle) as examples. He said a handful of members are in the process of opening their own breweries, and Abbott owned the now-defunct Chico Brewhouse (“I realized I’m a brewer and not a restaurateur, so we sold it,” Abbott said). Abbott has also brewed professionally, and was working at the Kona Brewing Co. when he developed the original recipe for Longboard Lager.

The origins of the club, like the origins of beer itself, are unclear. Abbott has been a member since moving to town in 1999, and said he thinks the club started in its current incarnation around 1997. Before that, another club called the Butte County Brew Crew had been active since at least the mid-1980s, he said.

The club currently has roughly 60 members, about half of whom regularly attend monthly club meetings. The meetings are sometimes at public places, other times at members’ homes.

Lucero noted that state law prohibiting patrons from bringing their own brews to commercial establishments makes it difficult to meet in public, but those issues should be solved soon; on Sept. 24, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2172, which will allow homebrew clubs to meet, share the juice of their labors, and hold competitions at venues licensed to serve beer beginning Jan. 1.

At each meeting, 12 members assigned to brew different styles of beer—a porter, a gose, a cream ale, etc—bring in their own homemade creations to share with the group.

“We go over whatever business there is to attend to, and then we start pouring,” Lucero said, noting the club—which has nonprofit status—is “only as formal as we have to be.” Everyone tries samples of the beers brought by members—tasting, discussing and evaluating each according to Beer Judge Certification Program guidelines. Abbott is a certified beer judge and as such serves as the club’s de facto competition coordinator and “chief educator.”

“Typically people want feedback,” Lucero said. “You’ll smell it, taste it, converse a little and maybe someone will say, ‘Hey Jim, I think it had a little dicetyl [a compound that can cause off flavors] in it.’ Then he’ll tell us what the recipe was, how he made it, what the conditions were, and we try to pinpoint any problems.”

“As long as they can tell us what they did, a lot of members can identify whatever the potential issue might be and help them make it better,” Abbott said. He and Lucero agreed that the most common problem most homebrewers face comes from contamination due to improper sterilization of their equipment.

The club also participates in events like the American Homebrewers Association Big Brew, in which brewers around the world share a toast and start brewing at noon in honor of National Homebrew Day (the first Saturday in May). For the past two years, the club has been invited to the California Craft Beer Summit to demonstrate homebrewing techniques, and they also host an annual Chico Homebrew Competition.

Lucero, who began home brewing just three years ago, said it’s possible to acquire all of the necessary equipment and ingredients to brew a batch of beer for about $150. With only ingredients to buy for subsequent batches, it’s a small investment with a big payoff.

“There’s a tremendous satisfaction that comes with brewing your own beer instead of buying it,” he said.

Abbott agreed, adding that sharing the interest with fellow enthusiasts is also uniquely rewarding: “It’s all about the camaraderie,” he said. “The education is important, and we all learn a lot from each other, but you meet people in the club that become friends for life.”