In 1992, my hometown of Memphis, Tenn. was a beer wasteland. The exotic stuff was Bass, Guinness, and St. Pauli Girl, but I had recently joined the workforce and I was doing some travelling. I learned that there was more to a beer lover’s life than the paltry offerings found at home, and it didn’t take long before I came to the conclusion that the best way to really explore the range of beer was to make it myself.

That August, I stopped into a little place with the simple, unimposing sign “Winery & Brew Shoppe” in midtown close to where I grew up. I had walked, biked, or driven past the place thousands of times and I had finally decided that I was going to see what was involved in brewing my own beer.

I walked into the shop feeling some trepidation and looked around at the bewildering things on the floor and the shelves. The friendly woman behind the counter looked up from whatever she was reading and asked if she could help me. Thus began my friendship with Mary Alice, manager of the only homebrew (and winemaking) supply shop I had visited to that point, and a lifelong love of brewing, winemaking and all the other facets of this wonderful hobby.

I should back up just a little bit and explain something to my readers who don’t really know me — I am not the type of person who will walk into something cold. I always want to have at least some idea of what is going on and, to that end, I had spent some time at the library (doesn’t that sound archaic?). I wanted to learn what is involved in brewing and did gain some information. Unfortunately, the library didn’t have Papazian’s New Complete Joy of Homebrewing or Miller’s Homebrewing Guide, so the information I got was not well-suited to the modern homebrewer.

That’s why I needed Mary Alice, even if I didn’t fully realize it at the time.

Local homebrew shops, such as Keystone in eastern Pennsylvania, not only offer sound advice but they typically provide socialization opportunities to meet other brewers and share tips and resources.

Local homebrew shops, such as Keystone in eastern Pennsylvania, not only offer sound advice but they typically provide socialization opportunities to meet other brewers and share tips and resources.

Thanks to her, I got a basic pale ale recipe that used a can of Mountmellick’s extract and some Kent Golding hops. I also got an education in terms of everything that a kit brewer needs to know before brewing his/her first beer — things that were not mentioned in the books I read. Mary Alice asked me what I owned and how much space I had and told me how to organize my materials. She told me where to find cheap bottles (the local Anheuser-Busch distributor) and told me what to expect when the pot started to boil over. In short, Mary Alice turned what could have been a traumatic experience that I would never repeat into a door leading into a lifelong hobby.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I recently was thinking about my own odyssey in making wine, beer, cider, and mead … and olives … and cheese, and I have benefitted so much from going into your local homebrew supply shop (LHBS) and chatting with the folks working there. These people are basically the golf pros of our hobby.

One of the things that sent me down this memory lane is the fact that I recently took a mini set of golf lessons, the first of my entire life, despite starting to play with my grandfather when I was 10 or 11. Those four 45-minute lessons fixed all the problems that caused me to hang up the clubs nearly for good about 12 years ago. It showed me, again, how we can all benefit from the tutelage of a “pro” in our hobby.

My own home fermentation hobbies have benefited tremendously from the time I have spent chatting with Mary Alice, and then a long list of people (I won’t try to remember them all because I know I’ll miss someone), and finally ending with the excellent staff at Keystone Homebrew Supply in eastern Pennsylvania, which is my current LHBS.

I know there are places that will give you great prices over the Internet and a lot of them are well run operations with lots of benefits to doing business with them. I know that some maltsters and manufacturers will do “bulk buys” for clubs and groups of customers (although that is becoming more and more rare; those guys need the local shops, too).

But your local supply shop, if you are lucky enough to have one nearby, can offer a wealth of expertise at no charge. And at 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon when you realize you’re out of One Step, they can be a great resource. 🙂

P.S. Don’t drink and drive. You’ll never reach the fairway. Just sayin.’

Stay thirsty, my friends!

Rick Theiner