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It’s no secret that the popularity of small batch, craft beer is growing worldwide and experimentation and innovation are at an all-time high within the industry. In Southern Illinois, the number of breweries is beginning to catch up with the number of wineries as more and more people discover how creative and diverse beer can be. Much of that inventiveness stems from humble beginnings — sometimes in a garage, on a back patio or even a small apartment stove, home brewing as a hobby can be a catalyst for some to move from a fun weekend activity to a real business opportunity.

Several of our local breweries are owned and operated by “former” home brewers. Chuck Stuhrenberg of Big Muddy Brewing in Murphysboro started out home brewing in college and now owns and operates the oldest — and largest — craft brewery in Southern Illinois. The same can be said for the founding owners of Scratch Brewing Company in Ava.

“Homebrewing allowed for the ultimate flexibility in experimentation. Since I was trying to source my food locally, it was natural for me to incorporate that into my beer making. That's how the great Scratch experiment began,” co-owner and brewer, Marika Josephson said. And “great” is something of an understatement. Scratch is now enjoying national and even international acclaim for their innovative approach to brewing, all stemming from the experimentation home brewing provides.

Most professional brewers won’t refer to themselves as “former” home brewers for this very reason. Much of the research and development of new beers happen at a very small scale in exactly the way home brewers operate. Paul Scudder is the President of the Southern Illinois Brewers (SIB) homebrew club. Founded in 2010, the SIB has become a valuable resource to aspiring brewers throughout the region and currently enjoys a membership of more than 40 brewers.

Scudder reiterated the key role home brewing plays in the development of new beers. “A large number of craft brewers started as homebrewers and I would think that many of them still look to homebrewers for inspiration. As homebrewers, we are not worried about selling products or bottom lines, so we can be freer to experiment. At the beer festivals that SIB attends, we tend to have the longest lines and always run out of beer. People love trying beers that push the envelope and homebrewers can sometimes do that much easier than a craft brewery,” Scudder explained.

The SIB has a lot to be proud of in terms of advancing better beer in Southern Illinois. Members have collaborated on beers with local craft breweries, the group participates in the annual Learn to Homebrew Day sponsored by the American Homebrew Association, organized an annual homebrew competition has been established in partnership with the CarbondALE Brew Fest and many of the SIB members are BASSET certified — a training course that educates beer servers on the effects of alcohol, recognizing the signs of intoxication, properly checking IDs, liability issues and allows SIB members to pour at events requiring certified servers.

If you have thought about brewing your own beer, joining a club like the SIB can be a big help, not to mention a lot of fun. Doug Brinkley, the vice president of SIB, noted “Anyone interested in home brewing should attend a meeting and join our Facebook page … Southern Illinois has good people with good taste and many craft beers to choose from. It’s my hope that some of these folks will find enjoyment in home brewing and join our club,” Brinkley said.

Scratch’s Marika Josephson makes a more specific appeal to women interested in brewing — a role that is less common today but historically was the norm.

“Women were historically the brewers in many countries. I'm part Finnish and I re-read a chapter of the Kalevala (the Finnish national epic) almost every year, which tells the story of Osmotar, the woman who brews the beer for the great wedding feast. I love her perseverance in that part of the story as she takes step after step to get her beer to ferment — challenges I feel like I confront as a brewer every day! Women have some of the best palates for tasting beer and all of the female brewers I meet — commercial or home brewers — are filled with ideas for using unusual ingredients because of other life experiences they've had,” Josephson confessed.

Are you ready for a new life experience? Homebrewing could be the creative spark you’ve been looking for and it’s always nice to be able to enjoy and share the fruits of your labor, too.

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SHAWN CONNELLY is the founder of BREWTHINK.COM; a certified beer judge with the BJCP; and a professional freelance beer writer. He can be reached at thebeerphilosopher@yahoo.com.

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