Not to be confused with Pacific Brewing Laboratories in San Francisco, an entity that gets miscategorized as a nanobrewery but is really 2 homebrewers, Patrick and Bryan, who also share their beer with the public for free and accept donations. I don’t know if I “fully” support their set-up, but I do stand behind it because they are talented, creative homebrewers who aspire to go pro through the proper, legal chanels and their events are community-based and offer the conviviality that gathering and drinking beer produces unlike sticking a 6 pack in one’s fridge (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
To be clear, nanobreweries are legal breweries licensed by the TTB. Only legal breweries can legally sell beer. They also must pay excise taxes. So, while I’m sure that founders Sam Gilbert and Emily Ford are well-intentioned and enterprising individuals who started this for great beer-promoting reasons involving proselytizing the merits of homebrewing, I can only think of 2-3 good reasons for this club and 20-30 bad ones.
1. Free beer. Who wouldn’t like that?
2. Feedback. Each homebrewer gets feedback on his or her brew and even gets some of the costs associated with the hobby reimbursed.
3. Waste not, want not. Even when I make 5-gallon batches it’s sometimes hard to get through it all.
Where to begin?
1: Selling homebrew is illegal. I know the argument here is that it’s not “selling homebrew” but c’mon. In their own words: We can only cover the costs of brewing and running the organization with the help of membership donation, and so each batch we ask our members to consider donating to the cause. Good luck getting the free beer without paying the donation, which they do not specify the suggested amount.
2: Don’t be nervous. You put the donation on the dresser. Donations by and large are given to nonprofit or other charitable organizations, or to political campaigns, or to…prostitutes. Just like it’s illegal to sell homebrew, it’s illegal to sell sex*. (Though I think that vices like prostitution and marijuana should be legalized and taxed to high heaven. The Dutch seem happy.) I’m well aware of the huge difference between homebrewing and human trafficking, but just calling payment a “donation” doesn’t make it charitable. Ask Rick Santorum.
3: Hurts homebrewing hobby. Any club like this makes it look like we homebrewers are in it for the moolah. Or it gives us the very false impression that our beer is worth buying. Much of it is. That’s why I’m writing a book about it! But much of it is not, despite once having someone insist on giving me $2 for bottles I brought to a dinner. Yes, I broke the law by accepting that money, but I only did it because even after I explained I couldn’t accept it, the guy insisted, and I liked the ego stroke.
4: Hurts professional brewers. Every 6 pack of BrewlabSF you buy, that’s one 6-pk of craft you didn’t. I once heard a craft brewer call this “share of mouth.” Some craft brewer’s kid is going hungry if you participate in this club.
5. Like homebrewers need help getting feedback. What homebrewer doesn’t already have friends, coworkers, neighbors, etc. already willing to offer that, especially in exchange for “free” beer.
6. Quality of/qualified feedback. From whom exactly? These club goers aren’t necessarily BJCP certified. IF, if, if they give feedback at all, it’s in the form of 1-4 star ratings and then maybe a quick line. And they can (and do) post some anonymously. Club co-founder Emily Ford reviewed one of the beers called Royale with Cheese—a Simcoe and Amarillo hopped pale ale fermented with a Belgian yeast strain—as “Fantastic!” That was the entire review. I’m sure she’s right and I’d love to try that beer. But that’s not constructive feedback.
7. Slave drivers? OK, probably not, but this reeks of BrewLabSF folks profiting from the hard work of others. How much DO they pocket off this little venture? And how much goes to the actual brewers (who, see #1, aren’t legally allowed to make anything off it anyway)?
8. TTB/ABC. Commercial brewers went through tons of trouble and jumped through tons of hoops to be allowed to sell their wares. Now homebrewers get to skirt those orgs and laws? I love loopholes as much as the next guy. Figure out a way I don’t have to pay taxes or get to run red lights and I’m there. But…
9. TTB/ABC pt 2. It’s not like we’re talking selling homemade jam or bread here, two hobbies related to homebrewing. This stuff has alcohol. That’s why it’s so highly regulated. Can you imagine a moonshine CSA? If there’s one out there, they’re smarter than putting it on the world wide web.
10. Hooch. I have no clue what the authorities would do if they busted sellers and/or brewers. Probably assess a fine. Prisons are overcrowded. But before I started writing about beer, I wrote about music. (And I write about these things because I’m a better writer than I am musician/brewer.) One of the indie/punk rags I wrote for had a recipe on prison hooch. Crush a bunch of oranges in a trash bag, add a ton of sugar, fill with water, then wait and “burp” it as needed. Just to be on the safe side, let’s keep these homebrewers making quality beer.
11. 21+. How do we know the club members are of age? Yeah, there’s an “I am 21+ years old” button that they have to click saying they are, but are IDs checked before the sixer is dropped off or picked up?
12. Free beer is a bad idea. I know brewers hear all the time how amazing, borderline unfair it is that they get paid to make beer. But brewing is hard work with long hours. They DESERVE to get paid. Beer is WORTH paying for. This makes it seem like beer should ever be free. But of course, it’s not really free. Would they actually allow a member to NOT make a donation? C’mon!
13. For the geeks. I’m not saying only homebrewers should drink homebrew. Far from it. But is this really turning people on to brewing? I hear membership is so popular, they can’t allow everyone in. And most people who love and support homebrewing know where/who to get some from.
14. It’s a hobby. Why do any homebrewers believe their beer is worth buying? Of course, again, a good amount of it is. But they shouldn’t do this for that reason. That’s why it’s a hobby! Mountain bikers don’t get paid to mountain bike. Girls who go to Stitch’n’Bitch knitting sessions probably don’t sell their scarves that often. We ALL have hobbies, and just because you’ve been doing it for a few years doesn’t mean you’ve reached the major leagues. Hell, I started home masturbating decades ago. I got really great at it. Wanna make a donation? Want a 6-pk of what I’ve made?
15. Hobby Pt 2. Lots of great homebrewers aspire to go pro. But other than the fact that you’ll almost never see a rich brewer, another reason not to make the leap is it turns brewing from an avocation to a vocation. If the member brewers start thinking of it as work, it could take the fun out of it.
16. 40 bottles!? A 5-gallon batch yields roughly 2 cases. Sure, it’s supposed to yield 53 12-oz bottles, but c’mon, who’s gonna bottle the gook at the bottom of your carboy? So, the homebrewers go through all the trouble involved in a brewday just to get to enjoy a sixer or two of their own beer while the rest goes to strangers?
17. Those strangers. This may sound like #5 a lot, but if I’m going to share my homebrew, I want it going to people I know with palates I trust. It doesn’t have to go to people with the most sophisticated palate, but someone whose evaluation I value. Sorry club members, but maybe you really know how to enjoy and critique beer—and maybe you don’t.
18. Fresh’n’clean. You’d think that since the beer doesn’t go through any of the 2nd-tier channels, ie: a distributorship, that the club organizers are delivering the freshest beer possible. And it very well might be! But maybe the contributing brewers are using this as a bottle-dump to rid the closet of old or questionable bottles. Lord knows I’ve done that at parties. And while every good homebrewer knows the 3 essentials are sanitation, sanitation, and sanitation, there’s no guarantee the contributors follow all 3 steps the way commercial ones have to do if they want repeat customers. (Trust me, when word gets out about spoilage in a commercial brew, it hits them in the bottom line.) Lastly, look at the last batch of sixers that went out on their blog (scroll down). Green bottles?!
19. No CRV. OK, I don’t really think that Calif. Redemption Value is an argument here, just trying to stretch to get to an even 20.
20. As the story on Chow put it, BrewLabSF is a labor of love. I don’t know if they’re operating in the black at this point with their newfound popularity, but I doubt they’d continue to run it if they’re losing money on it. Still, it can’t be making them rich. However, the blog post ends: “it's only a matter of time before this idea is picked up by other home-brewers around the country.” And where others go with this idea and what they’re motivated by, I’m afraid to consider.
So, there ya have it. What do you think? CSAs like BrewLabSF a honky-dory idea or well-intentioned but ought not to exist? Do you have an additional 17 reasons to make the pros outweigh the cons? Or perhaps 10 more negatives to flesh out the “20-30” I thought I’d come up with. I expect this post to be updated frequently.