The Biggest Name in Beer You’ve Never Heard Of
After announcing his retirement, Charlie Papazian talks to us about his mind-blowing list of craft beer accomplishments.
In his book The Homebrewer’s Companion, Charlie Papazian mentions the first time he learned about homebrewing back in the 1960s. He stopped by to see a friend’s neighbor, who was whipping up his own beer using simple cake bread yeast, a “fizzy, cidery, and alcoholic-tasting prohibition-style” concoction. It’s incredible to think how much things have changed: Nowadays, your neighbor is more likely to offer you a Simcoe-hopped IPA, fermented with brewer’s yeast he picked up from his local homebrew store, intended as a clone of his favorite beer from his local craft beer bar.
Though not particularly well known outside of beer circles, Papazian helped pave the way for that seismic shift in beer culture.
Among his laundry list of accomplishments, he went on to literally write the book on homebrewing, famously penning The Complete Joy of Homebrewing back in 1984. It's one of the first and best-known books on the subject. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Brewers Association, now a massive craft beer trade group and one of the most influential voices in the entire industry today. And he also founded a little event known as the Great American Beer Festival. And that just scratches the surface on all he’s contributed to America’s beer scene over the years.
But after all that work, Papazian is due for a rest – and maybe to have a beer for pleasure instead of business. The Brewers Association announced this week that, after 40 years with the organization, its founder and former president will officially be stepping down on January 23, 2019 – a date that also happens to be his 70th birthday. “We are all here today because of Charlie Papazian,” Bob Pease, the current president and CEO of the Brewers Association, said in the announcement. “His influence on the homebrewing and craft brewing community is immeasurable.”
We wanted to hear about Papazian's legacy from the legend himself, so we reached out with a few questions to hear what he’s learned about beer and life…
F&W: What do you want your lasting legacy to be within the beer world?
C.P: Perhaps a legacy of being a dream maker and an instigator of beer enthusiasm. Through my books (specifically The Complete Joy of Homebrewing), through founding the American Homebrewers Association, the Brewers Association, and all the beer-related resources and opportunities, I helped to make beer fun and authentic and to improve the quality of life for the world’s beer drinkers. The approach and activities I was involved with helped build a cooperative network of people that enjoyed sharing and helping others to succeed. I helped make good beer accessible to anyone; whether they wanted to homebrew it or start a small business to brew it, distribute it or sell it. I helped give everyone the opportunity to increase their enjoyment of beer. Before I began my beer journey, beer knowledge was almost non-existent and what did exist was not accessible to the general public/the beer drinker.
F&W: What changes in the beer world over the past 40 years has surprised you the most?
C.P.: I am not surprised at all about the dramatic changes in the brewing world. I was always confident that fundamentally beer authenticity, enjoyment, flavor and diversity were core values that all people embraced.
I often get asked, “Charlie, did you ever imagine that beer would become this?” The answer is simply yes, I had a playful and inebriated vision that there would be a homebrewer in every neighborhood and a brewery in every town. But what I did not imagine, couldn’t imagine, never considered… was the impact that homebrewing and craft brewing would have on our culture, economy and our American lives.
F&W: Part of the success of craft beer has been driven by brewers’ big personalities, but though you’re a legend in beer circles, the larger public probably isn’t as familiar with you. Why do you think that is?
C.P.: The extent of myself as a legend, I think, is a result of my approach and personality. I strived to maintain a life/work balance throughout my career. I learned very early that taking time off to explore the wider world of people, ideas, places, etc. really made me a better person. Taking time off discovering other perspectives inspired me to work better, harder, and sustained the enjoyment of what I had become work involved with. I also realize that learning and growing is a lifelong process. I know that I’m somewhat a “big personality” to many beer enthusiasts, but it most often doesn’t feel that way; I also nurture and enjoy the personal and private part of my life. I think that, in effect, has resulted in me not getting an invitation to be on any major media shows. Which is okay. I’m content with the people I have helped.
While I may not be familiar to the larger public, I find it hard to go to a craft beer bar and pay for my own beer. I have also found ways to navigate with moderation the onslaught of beer offered to me whenever I visit a homebrewers’ gathering anywhere in the world.
It continues to amaze me how many people tell me that they started their craft brewing business as a result of reading my book. It amazes me how many people tell me that I changed their lives. It amazes me how many people credit me with their marriage.
So while I’m not a 200 million person personality, having inspired several million makes me content.