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Grabbing life by the malts

Homebrewing shops put beer production into consumers' hands

Photo: Aldrin Capulong, License: N/A

Aldrin Capulong

Standing in broad daylight at Sanford's Magnolia Square Market, I'm looking down at the beige, doughy malt extract in my hand. Under some different circumstance – say, loitering at a decrepit street corner around midnight – and in possession of this powdery-looking package, a policeofficer might insist I had some explaining to do. But Aaron Libera, co-owner of the Sanford Homebrew Shop in Magnolia Square Market, looks thoroughly nonchalant as he alphabetizes fresh green hops into a deli cooler a few yards away. Same goes for the shoppers hefting brew kettles and glass carboys and bushels of plastic tubing toward the register. They must pass barleys heaped in food-grade buckets to find the front door.

This isn't a clandestine black-market operation. This is beer, some assembly required, and everything one needs to brew it. And as many have come to discover, there can be as much fun in the making as the drinking.

Gary Holmes, co-owner of Sanford Homebrew (aka the Fermented Brew Shop), keeps his blond mohawk tall and his goatee twisted in an elastic band. He looks more like a soccer hooligan than a successful entrepreneur. But his and Libera's young enterprise fits perfectly beneath the banana-yellow awnings of Magnolia Square Market, couched in the historic district with other small shops and restaurants.

“Downtown Sanford just felt right for us,” Holmes says. “That small-town, do-it-yourself charm meshes so well with homebrewing.”

“And that's a direction people are taking in general these days,” Libera adds, “learning to bake their own bread, sew their own clothes. American families brewed their own beer for centuries. I think people are coming back to that now, looking at their favorite brands and thinking, ‘Why can't I make this myself? What's stopping me?'”

Some say life progresses in cycles. The economy merry-go-rounds through decades and political topographies; today's El Niño is tomorrow's La Niña. Beer – its consumption and its production – seems to have moved in a full circle, as well.

With a few stalwart exceptions like Yuengling in Pottsville, Pa., and the Boston Beer Co. (brewers of Sam Adams), the great American brewery has changed, if not dissolved entirely. Anheuser-Busch packed its bag for Belgium in 2008 after merging with foreign megabrewery InBev. Miller and Coors entered a joint venture in 2007, forming MillerCoors in order to stay in competition with InBev's massive product line. A heritage of domestic ownership was waived on the dotted line.

Despite seismic buyouts and mergers, America's beer darlings have suffered precipitous decline, according to economic analysis blog 24/7 Wall Street. The site looked at various consumer research databases to report that between 2006 to 2010, sales of Anheuser-Busch InBev's Budweiser – the “king of beers” – fell 30 percent, while its ultra-low-calorie kin, Bud Select, took a 60 percent hit over that same period. MillerCoors' Old Milwaukee and Milwaukee's Best, once flagships acquired from the now-defunct Pabst Brewing Co., sagged 52 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Miller Genuine Draft sales have dropped 51 percent, and Michelob got absolutely drubbed, eating a 72 percent loss over five years. But there is life after death for beer enthusiasts – those looking for an exciting alternative to the lagers marketed on television with busty women and barflies.

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