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As homebrewing grows, the club that made them languishes 

click to enlarge Homebrew kit sales have spiked at Henrietta's Sunset Hydroponics since the start of the pandemic. Photo GINO FANELLI - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Homebrew kit sales have spiked at Henrietta's Sunset Hydroponics since the start of the pandemic. Photo GINO FANELLI
In the early days of the pandemic, when our social lives as we knew them were more or less reduced to a computer screen, homebrewing enjoyed a surge in popularity that has held fast as the health crisis enters its second year.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in sales, and a lot of new faces,” said Noelle Batterson, a sales associate at Sunset Hydroponics in Henrietta, which specializes in homebrewing equipment. “We’re a small shop, so we normally are just seeing our regulars come in.”

Batterson said sales of extract homebrew kits, which converts a saccharine, syrupy liquid into beer through the magic of yeast, have been particularly robust. Those sort of kits are typically an entry-level product for people working their way into brewing straight from grains.

But the spike in local beer lovers taking up the craft hasn’t translated to growth in a critical piece of homebrewing culture. That is participation in the Upstate New York Homebrew Association (UNYHA).

The organization used to hold monthly meetings and blind taste tests of members’ brews at Swiftwater Brewing Company in Rochester prior to the pandemic. The gatherings were a forum for hobbyists to meet each other and learn something new over a couple of pints.

Like everything else, UNYHA meetings have gone virtual. But the growth in homebrewing hasn’t meant an increase in participation in the meetings. Indeed, even members who were regulars at the meetings have fallen away.

President Steve Zoller, a long-time homebrewer, figures the drop off has to do with not being able to easily sample other members’ creations. He said an internal survey found that UNYHA members were brewing less than they did before the outbreak.

“It’s a social experience, I think what we’re seeing is we have people less interested in brewing beer if you aren’t able to share it with people and compare with what they brewed,” Zoller said.

The organization has been around since 1979, long before the craft beer craze of the 21st century, and typically boasts 150 members, making it one of the largest homebrewing clubs in the country. Yearly membership ranges from $30 for a single patron to $50 for two patrons in the same household.

The importance of UNYHA on the Rochester-area beer scene can not be overstated. The organization has acted as accelerator for many, if not most, of the region’s preeminent brewers, including Swiftwater, Mortalis, Prison City, and K2 Brothers Brewing.

For the brewers that started those businesses, UNYHA gave a platform to test out new brews, compete in competitions, and hone their craft from a simple pastime to a potential livelihood.

“I think it’s safe to say Swiftwater wouldn’t be here if UNYHA hadn’t existed,” Cook said.

Cook acknowledged that he hasn’t attended many of the association’s virtual meetings. One aspect of the in-person meetings Cook found particularly important and useful was the blind tasting, a process in which a person samples different beers from different brewers, and chooses their favorite based solely on smell and taste.

He said blind tasting is the purest way to evaluate the merits of a beer, when the drink is stripped of its packaging and its consumer is deprived of seeing its color and passing judgment.

“I think the tough thing about the pandemic is that (the meetings) can’t happen, where you pass somebody a beer, have them taste it and tell you what you think of it,” Cook said.

It’s a paradox. On one hand, there are more people practicing brewing beer. On the other, the people who have been doing it for years are doing it less.

In the end, it’s the health of an important local organization that suffers.

When the pandemic draws to a close, Zoller is hopeful that the association’s first meeting will be met by not just some new beers, but new members to taste them.

“We’re looking forward to the day when we can all be together again and share some beers,” Zoller said.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.
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