Rachel Zeiss’s Ditmas Park kitchen is positively crammed with equipment. A 10-gallon stainless steel pot sits on the stove, almost touching the underside of the microwave; that, in turn, is hooked up to another large pot on the floor, via a snaking apparatus of tubing I keep losing track of. In between the pots, on a wooden chair in the middle of the room, sits a repurposed orange Gatorade cooler, the kind that gets turned over on proud coaches’ heads—it’s covered, all around its circumference, with stickers. One declares, in instructively bold lettering: “MAKE SOME BEER.”
Zeiss and her husband George are—maybe you guessed it—home beer brewers. Although neither brews for a living, they’re quite serious about it: this isn’t buy-a-kit-at-Whole-Foods-and-see-what-happens homebrewing. Or, it isn’t anymore, not since they first started in 2014. Since their early forays, brewing has slowly become a lifestyle, and their set-up has suitably come to sprawl across much of their apartment.
“We had to figure out how to make this work in a small Brooklyn space,” Zeiss explains, pointing out the boxes of unmilled grain under the table, the bags of hops stuffed in the freezer, and the small pyramid of buckets used for fermenting, nestled between an end table and the couch. On my tour around their home, Zeiss also shows me the occasional splatter mark on the ceiling or a wall—these have, much like the equipment, been lovingly accumulated over the years, just another part of the décor. Zeiss acknowledges the slight scrappiness of their whole operation with a smile. “It’s part of the innovation of being a homebrewer,” she says.
The couple belongs to the Brewminaries, which claims to be the largest homebrew club in New York (they estimate that their membership is around 140 to 160 at any given time, with some flux). Sheri Jewhurst founded the Brewminaries in 2015 “for the express benefit of education,” as she told me, which may explain its wide appeal. Many other homebrew clubs have a predominantly social emphasis.
When Jewhurst entered the New York homebrew scene back in 2011, what she really wanted was to improve as a brewer. “I couldn’t compare my homebrewing methods side-by-side without having to brew, like, three different types of beer, manipulating one variable each time,” Jewhurst recalled. Doing it that way was “wildly inefficient,” and she couldn’t simply read about the effects of different brewing methods online. “Until you actually taste the difference,” she emphasized, “it just doesn’t sink into your mind.”
Jewhurst was looking for a specific kind of space: one in which brewers were pooling knowledge and resources, where she could team up with others to conduct brewing experiments, and where she could get better at her craft without just manipulating variables, slowly, in a vacuum. She searched for that club, and didn’t find it. So, with the help of a handful of other Brooklyn homebrewers, she created it.
In years since its founding, Jewhurst’s club—which she no longer leads, thanks to term limits in bylaws she wrote—has perfected its unique formula. The club, which meets at Strong Rope Brewery in Gowanus, is targeted at hobbyists who want to pursue the craft in earnest. It provides opportunities for scientific experimentation, and educational resources on topics from hop schedules to oxygenation methods—which “can help new brewers leapfrog common beginner problems,” as the club’s current leader, Carrie Soom, described. The club is also a way for members to connect with like-minded curious brewers (community is key, even if it isn’t the club’s express purpose: the Brewminaries is, I’m told, absolutely a place for informational support, as well as for making fast friends).
“We have a really active Slack,” Soom said, referring to the online communication channel. “There’s always someone saying, ‘I actually tried that and it didn’t come out the way I wanted. Maybe try this instead!’”
In her other life, Sheri Jewhurst is an environmental scientist who works to protect lakes, rivers, and coasts. She’s always had an innate scientific curiosity, an interest in how things work. She first learned about beer with some academic remove; she was fascinated by the environmental-agricultural aspects of barley and hops, as well as the biology and chemistry of the fermentation process, the ideal conditions for yeast. She was reading about beer a lot, but still hadn’t brewed anything when, on a whim during her studies in Australia, she embarked on a two-week apprenticeship at a brewery and hops farm in Tasmania.
That hands-on experience, coupled with her research, set the foundation for what would become her lifelong relationship with beer. “I was able to take a thing that I liked, recreationally, and apply some scientific engagement,” she explained. For her, beer has always been a passion project, but also a subject of serious study.
Some Brewminaries do go on to become professional brewers. The club has current or ex-members at established breweries like Grimm in Williamsburg, Other Half in Red Hook, and elsewhere; club members have also gone on to start several of their own breweries, like Wartega and Svendale. But most participants’ brewing lives look something like Zeiss’s: they occupy a middle ground, somewhere between professionalism and once-in-a-blue-moon endeavoring. They’re a little unpolished but very knowledgeable, running funkily amateurish kitchen operations with visible seriousness.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about homebrewing,” said Soom, “from the idea that all homebrewers are a bunch of bearded white men, to the idea that homebrew is universally inferior to professionally brewed beer.” To the first point: the Brewminaries’ leadership is currently majority women, and was, of course, founded by a woman. And to the second: Soom told me that “at nearly any homebrew event, brewers get approached by ticketholders asking if they can buy our beer somewhere.” You usually can’t. There are a few exceptions, like a cream ale Jewhurst brewed that will be available at Fifth Hammer this spring—but your best bet for tasting homebrew is to swing by an event like this one upcoming at Littlefield. Introduce yourself to a member of the Brewminaries, or of any homebrew club represented there, and ask for a sample. For curiosity’s sake.