The American Homebrewers Association Brew-ha-ha

This article appeared in Southwest Brewing News, June/July 1997. When the editor ran the idea by me, I thought I’d signed on to write a cheery 20th anniversary piece on the AHA. Charlie Papazian had given me my first opportunity to write for national publication; I had always respected him and enjoyed his company; I was looking forward to writing wonderful things.

“And here’s a few people to call,” the editor said. Within an hour, I had knocked down a hornets’ nest. I should have fled, but I knew that if I didn’t write it, someone else would, and I at least trusted myself to find a balance.

I probably got myself taken off the AHA Christmas-card list, in much the same way I’d gotten myself blacklisted at Anheuser-Busch while writing for the same editor. A few weeks after I finished this AHA piece, he asked me to write one about organized crime muscling in on beer distributors. Let’s see: Anheuser-Busch, the Association of Brewers, and now Organized Crime. I said, “No.” I’d annoyed enough people, and wasn’t about to add The Mob to the list.

* * *

Twenty years ago, Charlie Papazian was a mild-mannered teacher with a five-gallon fermenter and a dream. Today, he is the nation’s best known expert on homebrewing, a best-selling author, and the President of the Association of Brewers. All would be palm trees and Hawaiian guitars if Charlie were not, at the same time, being reviled in some circles as the William Randolph Hearst/Bill Gates/Darth Vader of the homebrew world. So what’s up with that?

In search of an answer, one could journey back to 1953, when Charlie was five years old and his “Uncle Paul” slipped him a sip of his Ballantine Beer. But more to the point, Charlie was introduced to homebrewing while studying nuclear engineering at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. A chance meeting at a marbles tournament brought him together with a local gentleman named George, who in turn introduced him to a beer-drinking neighbor who offered some homebrew and a recipe. He accepted both and set out to make his own beer. His first three batches filled the flagons of the local sewer rats, and a grateful lot they must have been, but with characteristic persistence, Charlie labored on until he had fermented something humans could drink.

After graduation in 1972, Charlie moved to Boulder, Colorado, where “nuclear engineering became unclear engineering” and he accepted a job as a preschool teacher, all the while developing his homebrew skills. In 1973, he began offering evening homebrew classes in his kitchen through Boulder’s Community Free School. In the five years that followed, two things happened that would change the beer culture in the United States.

:: In Which Charlie Has a Vision ::

First, Charlie Papazian had a vision — not a “Saul on the road to Damascus” sort of thing, no blinding light, no thunderbolt splitting a nearby tree. Instead, inspired by the homebrewing community in Boulder, he gradually came to believe that homebrewing could become an important part of people’s lives all over the country.

In 1977, while still teaching at the Bixby School in Boulder, Charlie began talking with a friend and fellow teacher, Charlie Matzen, about a nationally distributed newsletter that would share homebrew recipes and techniques, elevating homebrew from its status as a messy kitchen experiment to a consistent source of quality beer. As they discussed the matter over the next year, they began to think they should form an association as well.

In 1978, working evenings and weekends, the two Charlies pulled together the first issue of Zymurgy and filled out the legal paperwork to become the American Homebrewers Association (AHA). Their timing was sublime.

On October 14, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that legalized homebrewing. One of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Alan Cranston, noted, “Homebrewers brew home beer because domestic beer lacks the rich malty taste they like. Homebrewers share a creative desire to concoct beer to their own personal taste. They also share a consumer’s need to cook a tasty brew for the equivalent of 15 to 25 cents a quart.”

(With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Congress intended to legalize homebrewing. But when the law was printed in the Federal Register, someone left out the words “and/or beer” from the phrase that legalized home wine-making. The mistake was not corrected immediately because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) and the brewing lobby both had reasons for leaving it in place — the BATF to prosecute moonshiners who were caught before they actually began the distilling stage of the process, and the brewing industry because they didn’t want the competition — and they especially didn’t want beer drinkers to find out how beer really could taste. And so the “typo” remained uncorrected for a convenient 45 years.)

With the passage of the new law, homebrewers, home brew shops and homebrew newsletters could operate without the fear that some zealous, cranky or ambitious BATF agent might whip out the cuffs. It was the dawn of a new age, and the brand-spanking-new AHA was perfectly positioned to thrive.

The first issue of Zymurgy came out in December of 1978; it was 12 pages long, carried two advertisements, and subscriptions to the new quarterly could be had for $4 a year. For an extra $2, the AHA would throw in a copy of The Joy of Brewing by Charlie Papazian, regularly $2.50. The second issue of Zymurgy appeared the following spring, now 16 pages in length, and offered a lifetime Golden Mug membership for $50.

In its first year, the AHA grew from 46 members to 288. The first annual National Homebrew Competition was held in Boulder on May 5, 1979, with 24 homebrewers competing in six categories: light beer, dark beer, light ale, dark ale, stout and “unusual brews.” Life was simple, but good.

In 1981, with more than 1,000 members in the AHA, Charlie Papazian finally quit his teaching job, confident that he could live on the $300 a month that Zymurgy was generating. The magazine had a shiny cover now, and was looking less and less like a newsletter.

Daniel Bradford was the AHA’s first real employee. Today the publisher of All About Beer magazine, Bradford started at the AHA as a part-timer, but he made more money than Charlie by virtue of having an actual salary. His title was Director of Marketing and his office was Charlie’s kitchen.

“One of my jobs was to do the dishes,” Bradford notes.

“He did them poorly,” Papazian recalls.

This was not the last of their disagreements. Bradford argued long and hard that Papazian needed to become the face of homebrewing. “Charlie was the one who had the vision,” Bradford notes. “Like nobody else. He had put incredible amounts of thought into how to popularize homebrewing. I told him that if we were going to sell homebrewing, we had to sell Charlie Papazian.”

Papazian was not comfortable with the idea of being an icon. Neither an actor nor a politician, he was not endowed with a statuesque frame nor a crushing handshake. But Bradford prevailed. Papazian began signing his articles in Zymurgy and becoming more of a public figure. Finally, in 1987, he warmed to the task sufficiently to enter the annual Homebrewers Conference dinner astride an elephant. At the following year’s banquet, he was lowered through the ceiling. “I lowered him,” said Bradford.

An early Vice President of the AHA, Grosvenor Merle-Smith, moderates that image slightly. Now the Master of Hounds for two fox hunts, one in Virginia, one in Ireland, he emphasizes that Bradford did not create Papazian. “Charlie was Charlie long before he met Dan Bradford. He had charisma. But Bradford had the nuts and bolts of promotion down, and he extended Charlie’s reach beyond what it would have been without him.”

:: On the Road for Homebrew ::

What Papazian would do without any prodding was talk about beer and homebrewing. Meeting homebrewers and talking about the hobby was and remains his favorite part of the job. Spreading the gospel of “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.”

Traveling all over the country, Papazian would arrive by bus in time for a homebrew club’s banquet, eat dinner, make a speech, talk to each homebrewer, sleep on a homebrewer’s sofa, and depart by bus the following morning. Even then he was displaying patterns of accessibility and thrift that would mark his style in the years to come. (And perhaps explain why, after 19 years, the AHA still does not have an 800 number.)

Bradford remembers that Papazian had ideas — good beer for everyone, every small town with its own brewery — that were far ahead of their time. Papazian was thinking about the world of beer, not just his own corner. “I’ve met Wall Street brokers who were affected by what Charlie said and did. Stuffed shirts by day, brewing bohemians by night. Charlie had a vision for homebrew and it was easy for everybody to understand.”

The vision included a catch phrase — “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” — which became ubiquitous, appearing in Zymurgy, on bumper stickers, in Papazian’s books, everywhere. And the AHA grew. Looking back, Merle-Smith notes, “The whole thing was growing incredibly, month by month.”

Growing so much, in fact, that it needed a new structure to encompass all of its functions and audiences. Homebrewing and craft brewing were growing apace, cross-fertilizing one another with people and ideas, and the AHA wanted to be involved with both groups.

In September of 1986, the AHA created a parent organization, the Association of Brewers (AOB), which would preside over The Institute for Brewing Studies, serving as the publisher of The New Brewer and a trade group for the craft brewing industry; Brewers Publications, the AOB’s publishing house; and The Great American Beer Festival, an annual blowout that publicized quality beer nationwide and made a few bucks in the process. In eight short years, Papazian’s newsletter had grown into a major force in the beer culture of the United States.

:: Clouds on the Horizon ::

But not everyone was relaxed. In November of 1985, a number of homebrew supply retailers had begun boycotting Zymurgy, removing it from their shelves along with membership forms and displays. The reason was the magazine’s policy of accepting advertising from direct mail suppliers, allowing homebrewers to bypass their local retailer. In the Spring 1986 issue, Papazian wrote an editorial that chided the boycotters and noted, “We are too small a community to build fences.” In the following issue, a letter of response noted that it was inappropriate for the journal of a not-for-profit organization to carry any advertising at all. The sniping at the AHA had begun.

Scott Birdwell, of DeFalco’s Home Wine & Beer Supplies of Houston, Texas, remembers the early days and how the AHA changed. He notes that the AHA started out as a bunch of fun-loving people who didn’t take themselves too seriously. “They did a pretty good job promoting the hobby; they were enthusiastic and high-profile.”

But by 1990, Birdwell felt the resulting power had gone to their heads. The AHA grew officious, created a complex bureaucracy and began writing bylaws for every possible occasion. While serving on the AHA’s Board of Advisors (BOA), Birdwell was presented with a proposed set of bylaws for the group — consisting of four Articles, eleven Sections and six Subsections. “We were advisors,” he remembers, “Why did we need bylaws?” More troubling, after the annual BOA meeting, Birdwell would read the written minutes and recognize nothing. “It was like I wasn’t at the same meeting.”

:: The Wrath of Pat Baker ::

But Birdwell’s criticisms are mild compared to those of Pat Baker. A co-founder of the Home Wine & Beer Trade Association (HWBTA), Baker had been a homebrew supply wholesaler, beer judge and beer writer. While others speak of a “love/hate” relationship with the AHA, Pat Baker says simply, “I detest the AHA. I consider them enemies.” But in the same breath he adds, “You should definitely talk to somebody else if you want a balanced view.”

Baker’s ire centers around the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). It was, after all, his idea. Early on Baker saw a need for homebrew competitions, and for trained judges to serve at them. In 1983, he ran the idea by Papazian, who agreed to work with him. The program would recruit, educate, test and certify judges for homebrew competitions. The AHA, which had a central office and staff, would provide the administrative support and half of the staff for the BJCP. The HWBTA, which met just once a year and had no office, would provide the other half of the staff people, working from their locations across the country.

People had their doubts. The AHA was already acquiring a reputation for being overly administrative and controlling. On the other side, Baker had a reputation for being headstrong and controlling. To everyone’s surprise, and perhaps in testimony to the importance of the program, the AHA and HWBTA managed to work together for a few years. But then the cracks began to appear and communications broke down.

Baker notes, “The Association of Brewers wanted to control it. They want to control everything they touch and they want to touch everything that has anything to do with homebrewing and microbrewing.”

Papazian notes, “We were administering the program, but we didn’t have control of it. So we couldn’t improve the quality of the program, and we were unhappy about that. The HWBTA wanted to control it.”

You don’t need a Wharton MBA to get to the heart of that conflict. When the BJCP became an independent entity in 1995, free of both organizations, many homebrewers breathed a sigh of relief, and for more than one reason.

Personalities aside, some competitive homebrewers felt that the real hazard of AHA control stemmed from a looming conflict of interest. As both the president of the AHA and the author of a leading book on homebrewing, Papazian was in a position to influence the training of judges and the criteria by which they judged. In other words, if The Joy of Homebrewing specifies that a stout requires a certain amount of gypsum, AHA-trained and certified judges might look for the characteristics resulting from that recipe, and use them as a benchmark for what qualifies as a winning stout — ultimately increasing sales of Papazian’s book and decreasing the sales of books authored by those who compete with him.

The AHA’s withdrawal from the BJCP satisfied many people, but not Pat Baker. For one thing, he maintains that the AHA held on to $4000 that belonged to the BJCP. And to him, that accounting disagreement is the tip of the iceberg. He feels that the AHA is certainly not a non-profit educational organization, but a business in competition with every other business in the homebrew industry.

Baker is not alone in thinking that the AHA’s not-for-profit status is undeserved. On one occasion, when homebrewing author Byron Burch dared to quibble a fine point with the AHA, he was told straight out, “Don’t tell us how to run our business.”

Baker specifically feels that Papazian is enriching himself at the expense of every homebrewer who is a member of the AHA, and using AHA time and money to promote his own books, whose royalties accrue to Papazian personally. To make his point, Baker acquired the AHA’s tax records (!) and in April of 1997 began mailing them out, with his own annotations, to interested parties. The true measure of Baker’s wrath can be taken by observing that one recipient of his mailing was the IRS officer charged with overseeing the AHA’s tax-exempt status. Talk about hardball.

:: Whadda Ya Make? ::

A major burr under Baker’s saddle blanket was Papazian’s salary. In 1995, while leading an organization with an annual budget of $3.3 million, Papazian earned $101,000, plus $14,000 in benefits, for a total of $115,000. Homebrewers are a frugal lot and Baker’s disclosure was calculated to raise hackles. But was it truly a lot of money for the well-known director of a nationwide association? A man who worked two jobs for four years to get the organization off the ground? A man who still travels 15 weeks a year spreading the homebrewing gospel?

Paul Clolery, editor-in-chief of The Non-Profit Times, notes simply, “$101,000 for a $3 million organization is high.” His journal ‘s annual salary survey, published in the February 1997 issue, shows that for an organization in the $1 million to $9.9 million range, the median salary was $67,000, with the highest reported at $81,650. That puts $115,000 off the chart.

Papazian responds, “I don’t need to defend what I’m making; I have to defend the quality of the information we provide, and whether people are receiving value for their money.”

:: To Benefit Homebrewing Magnificently ::

How good is the information? A portion of the AHA’s mission statement reads, “…to promote public awareness and appreciation of the quality and variety of beer through education, research, and the collection and dissemination of information; to serve as a forum for the technological and cross-cultural aspects of the art of brewing.” On this count, the AHA receives stellar marks from everyone.

Byron Burch has nothing but praise for the AHA’s efforts on this count. “They were in a position to magnificently benefit homebrewing, and they did. The conferences have been extremely valuable. The National Homebrew Competitions have helped people get together and compare ideas. It’s been fun and educational. Despite all the problems, I have learned a lot about beer styles.”

Scott Birdwell also cites the AOB’s Brewer’s Publications’ “Classic Beer Style Series” as a help to the spread of the gospel of good beer.

Zymurgy is the standard by which homebrew publications are measured, and cannot be faulted save in one category; that is another issue that involves the entire Association of Brewers. Somewhere along the line, perhaps through the advancing years, in the face of the perceived stakes of success or failure, under pressure from the responsibilities of leadership, in a blizzard of self-promotion, those young, madcap homebrewers lost their sense of humor. Other homebrew magazines, like Brew Your Own, still exhibit the energy and light-hearted spirit that Zymurgy seems to have lost.

The tone of Zymurgy points to a central problem at AOB. They are having a hard time serving all their members. Craft brewers want an organization that is very buttoned down, while homebrewers want an organization that is very “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” There’s a conflict in that, and the homebrewers are losing.

To Papazian, the AHA’s problem stems from its success. “In the beginning, we were a protagonist for better ingredients, better techniques and better equipment. But about three years ago, I realized that all of our objectives had been met. We had to evolve to the next step.”

Indeed, the drop off in AHA members may reflect a shrinking of the hobby caused by the abundance of good beer it helped to create. Papazian’s dream has come true; good beer is everywhere, and so why homebrew? Every week, more beer drinkers live within range of a microbrewery and/or brewpub where interesting, quality beers are being made. With its success in reinventing the nation’s beer culture, the AHA may have paved the way for its own demise.

:: No White Flags ::

But Papazian is in no mood to give up. “We have to serve the recognized needs of homebrewers, stay in the forefront of new ideas and creativity, and keep in touch with what people want and what people don’t know they want yet.”

Papazian’s extensive travels annoy some of his critics, but he sees them as vital to the next step. “The art and enjoyment of brewing has no boundaries. We have to learn from other cultures.”

Nor does Papazian feel he is out of touch with domestic homebrewers. “We receive news and newsletters from 700 brewing clubs, plus every beer publication in the world. We’re involved with the media a lot, and lobbying in 20 states where it is still illegal to homebrew or the laws are ambiguous.”

The AHA also points to its new Web site as a major service. Already receiving thousands of hits, the site offers, or soon will offer, “Maps on Tap” for those who wish to build their travels around breweries and brewpubs, and “TechTalk,” a members-only e-mail forum dedicated to technical aspects of homebrewing. “Brew U,” a beer evaluation self-study course, is nearing roll-out, and “Beer Enthusiast News & Notes” will update AHA members three times a year with activities, brew news and seasonal recipes.

From where Papazian sits, homebrewers are responsible for the beer landscape in the United States. The fact that there are 15,000 brands of beer in the U.S, with honey beers, wheat beers, fruit beers, et al, is all because the community of homebrewers created the awareness and audience for them. But if people take it for granted, it could all be lost. Beers will gradually be “toned down” to appeal to the mass market, and we’ll be right back where we started. But at that point, people who want unique beers will go back to homebrewing, and the whole cycle will start over again. “One of our charges,” Papazian notes, “is to maintain the beer culture, beer awareness and homebrew awareness.”

AHA-critic Pat Baker has simple needs: “All I want is two things. One, they need to change their name, because they are not an association of homebrewers. The homebrewers have no vote. The AHA is a business, plain and simple. Two, I want them to pay taxes and compete fairly with the rest of the world.”

Other voices are more conciliatory. Speaking of the controversy swirling around Papazian, Randy Mosher, a Chicago beer writer, graphic designer and homebrewer, and a member of the AHA’s advisory board notes, “This whole thing is kind of goofy. Charlie is not the son of the Devil.”

Perhaps all the participants might do well to listen to what some very wise people had to say almost 20 years ago: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.

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