Charlie Papazian + growing a global craft beer movement from Boulder

Craft beer legend dishes on the ‘Relax — don’t worry have a homebrew’ vibe that stoked a thriving industry

By Paul Hagey Jul 27 2018

He might be the actual most interesting man in the world, if it has suds, hops, barley, malt and spices and gives you a slight buzz. That’s Charlie Papazian’s world.

Charlie, 69, found homebrew when most of us find beer. He was in his third year at the University of Virginia in 1970 — back when beer was bland, run by big conglomerates and primarily a vehicle for inebriation — and met an old-timer making his own homebrew and got a taste.

The old guy gave him a four-line recipe, and he and his roommates began cooking it up in their apartment. A pint-sized lightbulb flicked on.

We had beer that we could actually drink and enjoy, Charlie says. People appreciated the beer, it had flavor — it wasn’t just a vehicle for getting blitzed. A community started building around it — people were attracted to it. Charlie and roommates held parties.

“That got me hooked,” Charlie says.

After graduating UVA with a degree in nuclear engineering, Charlie came to Boulder, fleeing the east coast, bringing his roughhewn homebrew knowledge with him. He found a job teaching kindergartners through third-graders at Bixsby School, a private school in south Boulder.

Friends and others in Boulder found out he knew how to homebrew and compelled him to teach them.

In 1973, Charlie began teaching weekly classes through a community education center in Boulder. He taught the class for nine years, over which time he expanded a six-page syllabus into a 74-, 75-, or 76-page (precise number is hard to find) self-published book, “The Joy of Brewing.”

The original edition of Charlie’s book became a homebrew bible. Pictured version is the more advanced sequel.

In 1978, he co-founded the American Homebrew Association and launched the bimonthly homebrew magazine Zymurgy on December 7 of that year (it’s still in publication). He quit his day job in 1981, and the next is craft brew history.

Center of the craft brew universe

If you had to point to one person that catalyzed the raging fire that is the craft beer movement, it would be Charlie.

He started the annual Homebrewers Conference in 1981 and it took off like a rocket in subsequent years (still going today) and spawned other brew-related events. Charlie launched the Great American Beer Festival in Boulder in 1982. It celebrates its 37th year in Denver September 20-22. Over (over 800 breweries, 4,000-plus beers and over 60,000 attendees came in 2017!).

In the early 1980s, craftbrewers numbered in the dozens, today there are over 6,000, a growth fueled in large part by Charlie and the organization he co-founded in 1978.

When book publisher Avon put Charlie’s syllabus-turned-self-published how-to book into mass production as “The Joy of Homebrewing” in 1984 it became the bible of homebrew, inspiring many to get in their kitchens, look at their spice racks in new ways and begin concocting beer. First six months, it sold 20,000 copies, then up to and over 100,000 copies per year thereafter.

Some of those homebrewers caught the beer bug and became craft brewers. Some of those craft brewers became huge — those craftbrewers, themselves, inspired second and third generations, the latter emerging now.

The American Homebrewers Association is now part of a larger organization Charlie founded, the Brewers Association, a 60-plus-employee independent brewers trade group that runs the biannual World Beer Cup (winners from 66 countries in 2018), the annual Great American Beer Festival , several publications including the great consumer-focused and craftbrew industry-focused The New Brewer.

He ran the trade group as president until this January, when he stepped down to spend a year organizing the vast beer history and ephemerata in video, audio, print form into an archive. On his next birthday, January 23, when he turns 70, he will step away from the organization.

A Brewers Association stairway wall showcases the group’s rich craftbrew history. Photo: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly (Image has been color-inverted).

He reminisced with me from his office on the third floor of the Brewers Association’s three-story headquarters on Spruce Street in downtown Boulder. The building reflects the organization, thoroughness and efficiency of the association and which is evident in its websites, content, publications and I’m sure events — people focused, things humming, clean and orderly.

‘Relax, don’t worry — have a homebrew’

Back in his early Boulder days Charlie and American Homebrewing Association co-founder Charlie Matzen, a schoolteacher at school in Longmont then, took frequent trips, always with homebrew in tow, of course, and would occasionally find themselves in a pickle.

At which point they would they would remind themselves to chill out by saying, and practicing, “Relax, don’t worry — have a homebrew.”

Charlie baked the phrase and its vibe into his teaching and approach to homebrew. (Matzen left active involvement in the association early on and is now a Boulder real estate agent — Matzen and Charlie invested about $2,000 each to get the homebrewers up and running, “all our savings,” Charlie says.)

It became an industry mantra — in fact, when reporting the upcoming profile on Boulder microbrewer VisionQuest, founder Adam Kandle quoted the phrase to me.

The chill, fun attitude has catalyzed the infectious effect Charlie’s approach had on others. It presented beer-making in a way that wasn’t intimidating, Charlie says. “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.” Your mistakes will taste good, too. Have fun, enjoy.

From beer to here

Charlie loves beer of course. But what he loves more, and what he says sustained him as one of its chief advocates and pioneers for over four decades is the community, connections, learning, work diversity and travel it afforded him.

He’s been all over the world for beer. (Check out his awesome book, Microbrewed Adventures — A Lupulin-filled Journey to the Heart and Flavor of the World’s Great Craft Beers, about his craft beer-oriented world travels. Reach out if you want to borrow my copy).

After stepping away from the Brewers Association next January 23, when he turns 70, first he’s taking a family trip to Baja. Then he’ll travel the world and accept some of the many beer-related invitations to events he receives and be a full-time craft and homebrew ambassador.

Advice for brewers starting out? Always keep a learner’s mind. “A good brewer knows, you’re always learning, you will never stop learning.”

Feature image — Charlie enjoying a sour craft beer at Brewers Association headquarters in Boulder. Photo: Paul Hagey, BLDRfly

Paul Hagey

Paul Hagey is BLDRfly’s founder and editor. When not wrangling video, audio and words in the name of story, he’s riding his mountain bike, trail running and hanging with his awesome wife Jen and their young daughter.