August 1, 2011

Homebrew CSA: 2-3 pros, 20-30 cons

Brew Lab SF is a CSA-style homebrew club. Community Supported Agriculture is an awesome idea that even the USDA supports, but notice it doesn’t support CSHB (community supported home brewing.) I found out about it through the SFoodie/SF Weekly food blog written by my friend Jason Henry who took over my beer blogging duties there when I retired moved out of San Francisco. It was also covered in Urbandaddy

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.



David Jensen said...

I haven't got through the entire post yet. So far I disagree with point 5. Not everybody has friends that will give you frank and honest feedback. They usually say, "yeah, that's good stuff." It's not until you get a few bad batches in a row that you get the, "please, stop giving me that crap."

Sean Rea said...

A lot of your points are valid but you lose me on #4. From their list it would seem they're doing 10 beers per "batch". Even if we charitably accept your argument that every bottle handed out is one that would have otherwise been purchased, that still only gets us to 400 (or roughly 67 six packs) every ~5 weeks.

I could make the argument that I've purchased less beer post-homebrewing. Does that hurt professional brewers as well?

That said, I think you're spot on a lot of your other reasons. The actual written feedback seems mostly useless to someone trying to improve their craft; most of it is just backpatting seemingly geared toward convincing the brewers that they should keep cranking out new beer. It was hard to find constructive feedback. "Aggressive bottle conditioning - tons of head that lasts a while." -- you mean it was a bottle bomb?

And finally, like I said on twitter, I'd much rather share my beer with known homebrewers and friends, who, frankly, are worth my time a lot more than some people on the internet who signed up for free beer. That sounds harsh, and probably is, but isn't it the truth? Homebrewing is fun, ultimately not that expensive, but it is time consuming.

Brian Yaeger said...

David, you bring up a point I meant to make in the blog, which is that nobody homebrews in a bubble. And it's the point that Sean makes at the end of his comment. Homebrewers associate with other homebrewers, who, b/c they "get it," DO give honest feedback. Maybe they are kinder/gentler with noobs, but once they test the thickness of your skin, they'll get specific on you b/c it's meant to Improve your skills.

And Sean, I meant the part about craft brewers kids going hungry to be tongue in cheek. It's been proven that as the hobby grows, the craft industry grows and even commercially, a rising tide raises all ships. But if the wrong people (well, there are no "wrong" people) buy into this club (er, "donate" into it), people start thinking beer should be free or that only unique beer comes from homebrewers.

Sean Rea said...

Oh, I wasn't taking you literally that they would go hungry, just objecting a bit to the idea that they're somehow damaging / undermining the brewing profession.

I would hope that the kind of people who would sign up for a "homebrew csa" would already be attuned to good beer, and not just jumping on the latest fad. But I freely admit I could be wrong about that.

Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to write out your opinions here as opposed to duking it out on twitter.

Unknown said...

Here's 20 - 30

21) Opening a traditional commercial operation involves overcoming barriers of entry, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and having a plan. Brewing the beer is the easy part. Why create a haven of false hope- an incubator of fail for both the customer and the brewer.

22) Homebrewers are allowed to brew by (in most states) exemption from Federal Excise tax. There are very few regulations, but the primary one is that you don't accept money. If you do, you are participating in the regulated market with out paying excise taxes. The law doesn't care if you are making a profit or not. That isn't relevant at all. The people that seem to think that they have some loophole really jeopardize our ability to brew. They are inviting state legislators to create more regulation and oversight. Think about the Oregon homebrew situation with a less-than-informed state legislature and you may end up with a repeal of homebrewing.

23) The distribution of beer to "customers" really invites municipal agencies to get involved too. Remember the San Diego Health department getting involved in tasting rooms. Do we really want a city agency declaring that homebrew needs to be brewed and bottled in an approved kitchen? Do we want the Health department telling us that we must serve our unpasteurized beer at 32F?

24) Will I need to have TTB approved labels on all of my beer?

25) Do you really want your relatives and friends to continually ask you why you don't have a brewery so you can sell them beer?

26) Do I want some agency auditing my homebrew club, because some well meaning people think they have a business model?

27) The "no profit" thing deserves another post. I can think of thousands of businesses that would love to have beer made at cost for them under the auspices of an organization that makes no profit. That un-taxed revenue would not go unnoticed. In fact such an arrangement seems tailor-made for a criminal enterprise. At a less than nefarious level, for all we know this club could be floating a label, sticker and marketing company some business.

28) Homebrewing is about empowering others to, "make their own damn beer." It is not about, "Answer your door, here is your beer."

29) An area that homebrew clubs gain notoriety and funds to exist is through BJCP competition. The best feedback is through anonymous blind entry by qualified individuals. BJCP competition needs more entries and feedback rather than less.

30) The club being talked about here is NOT a homebrew club and it's existence causes confusion about what clubs are and what this entity is.

This San Francisco club exists to facilitate distribution and re-coup costs.

A homebrew club exists to (quoting our club mission): To preserve and promote the time-honored tradition of homebrewing, and to recognize it as a true art form through information, education, and dedicated practice.
[...] the club promotes homebrewing appreciation and knowledge through its monthly meetings and festivals.

Nor Cal Beer Guy said...

What if you set it up like a real laboratory? Have equipment that homebrewers who can't brew at home pay a monthly fee to use and chip in when things break, chip in for ingredients, and sign up for usage time. That way after it's over people can bottle it in bulk-purchased bottles and a standard six-pack case, and then do what they want with it. Take it to a party and ask for donations, give it out to friends, whatever.

Brian Yaeger said...

olllllllo (dunno if I got the # of l's right, but glad your avitar finally explained where that name comes from. Reminds me of those psychological puzzles they show kids), thanks for fleshing out the list even if a few of those may have been covered to varying degrees in the first 20.

I know a member of the CSA (I mean, odds are good I know more than one) who loves the delivery aspect. Personally, I love grazing in bottle shops with labyrinthine shelves. But whether pick-up or drop-off, it's definitely risky.

And John, they HAVE those. BOPs or Brew On Premises. Closest one in the Bay is in Belmont at Devil's Canyon.

Big Hal said...

Personally I LOVE the idea of a homebrew CSA. The way I understand it the brewers are recouping their supply costs(maybe). I don't know about the organizers...are most CSA's for-profit? The distribution aspect sounds a little wierd... what about some sort of age verification? IF I were to set it up it would have to be a person/person deal. I am really interested to see how this group evolves. There are some definite legal issues/gray areas. I just can't imagine that the police, ABC, and/or TTB has enough time/money to go after them IF they are breaking the law. What are they going to do? Set up an undercover sting operation so they can get a $500.00 fine levied?

Brian Yaeger said...

Hey Big Hal,
I LOVE the idea of people sharing homebrew. But the way this club is set up, apparently both for profit and for paying the homebrewers when the law is very clear that they are not allowed to be paid for their hobby and there's no loophole if it's just for the raw ingredients, makes it walk a not very thin line between legality and ill-. And if you think gov't agencies won't go after a private club distributing alcohol...just take a look at what they did to this CSA for RAW MILK!!!

Big Hal said...

I agree it shouldn't be a "for profit" agreement. I belong to a local produce exchange. We are all backyard gardeners who bring our excess fruits and veggies and share them. Last month I brought homebrew for the first time. Big Hit!! I just think it is absurd that we are so paranoid about receiving anything in return for our homebrew. Am I a criminal because I received some tomatos, oranges, and mint and I gave away some homebrew? Where's the common sense? I don't think there is any comparison between homebrewing and raw milk. Raw milk production/consumption has some serious possible health effects if done incorrectly. These include death. Homebrewed beer has none of these health risks. It really is just a tax issue.
I am interested to see how this CSA progresses and if the authorities try to shut it down. I did some research and I have yet to find a case where a homebrewer was fined/arrested for selling/trading/bartering homebrew in the 33 year history of legal homebrewing. Either homebrewers are on the same level as Mother Theresa or the government doesn't really a point.

Caitlin R. said...

Perhaps the point isn't simply to make beer and hand it out. It's another way to meet people and feel a sense of community. Also, I believe the American Brewers Association charges a membership fee? If so, this may be a less expensive way for home brewers to come together and have a good time. The point of a CSA is not always to sell something. After all, most CSAs are basically to make citizens feel good about themselves for eating locally.

Also, the "selling" portion of this is a little unfair. They ask for donations to recoup the costs to home brewers for sharing the product of their labours. It probably makes the brewers feel good, especially when they get high compliments on a brew. Not all compensation is monetary.

The organization has not been found to be harnessing any "profit" from it. Profit is extra money above and beyond recouping costs. So if they are not obtaining profit of the monetary variety then they are not "Selling" their beer, as you say, and thus not engaging in an illegal act.

I understand that it is taking away from the micro brewers and everyone else who could get a profit from it, but that's life. Am I taking away from the grocery stores' bottom line when I decide to participate in a vegetable CSA? You bet I am! But it is such a selective group of people who can even afford a CSA that in the end it hardly matters. The world needs both forms of consumerism.

Besides, the favorite beers of America are still the Coors and Budweisers. I do not feel bad wanting to participate in a group where I'll actually get good, enjoyable beer. Also, I do not feel guilty about taking my business away from a multi-billion dollar business which has been around since the prohibition. I still get the variety of local beer, and I can choose to support micro brewers such as the Breckenridge Brewery or Lefthand. For me, it's a win win, and it just depends what I feel like having at any given time. Sometimes there are things available from a CSA that you will simply never see in stores. I could never pass that up.

Brian Yaeger said...

Caitlin, you're exactly right about the communal aspect of homebrewing, and the fact that homebrewers love to be complimented on their efforts as well. But don't delude yourself that just because this or other CSA-style homebrew organizations aren't making a "profit," that they're not "selling" non-licensed, alcoholic home brewed beer. (If I spend $50 to make a 5-gallon batch of beer and then turn around and sell you five gallons of beer for $40, did I not just sell it to you?)

There are laws I'm not a fan of. If it's safe, I think we should be able to make U-turns in all intersections, or cross double-yellow lines, or go 70 MPH on a clear day on freeways with light traffic. Maybe you do, too. Maybe you think it's OK to buy alcoholic beer from non-licensed breweries (or distilleries aka moonshine). But that doesn't make it legal. Just like stealing an apple from a supermarket that makes tons of money selling apples imported from China and keeps local farmers from earning fair wages is also illegal. Or stealing a can of Coors Light from the quicky mart since they make billions of dollars. Or any other little thing you can think of to justify your actions.