Brew Biz: Werts and All

Ken Carman is a BJCP judge; homebrewer since 1979, club member at Escambia Bay and Music City Homebrewers, who has been interviewing professional brewers all over the east coast for over 10 years.

Written by Ken Carman

The Topic: Homebrew Club Dynamcs

I can’t write about the dynamics in every homebrew club: I haven’t been a member or “every” homebrew club. I can only write about the clubs I am a member of, homebrew and not, and those I have visited or judged for. There’s a problem with this, as a writer: it involves people’s public behavior that they may not be all that fond of finding published for all to read, even just on the web.

So I am going to be very careful here: no names. My apologies to those whom I have praised. I promise: I will be doing a column on the value of certain members I am about to mention. I will use names.

No apologies to those who are about to receive less than praise. In fact you probably deserved to be pissed off more than this little column could ever achieve. If I had my way some of you should be up on billboards across the country, picture and all: “Never let this person into any club you are a member of, or even state you live in. They are not decent human beings.”

But let’s start this column off with somewhat of a positive spin…

There’s one kind of member highly I recommend for any club, and it’s often the kind some resist: especially when giving them any position of power within a club. The non-home brewer. I know, sounds counter intuitive. It’s, by definition, a homebrew club. But you might be surprised at all they can, and might, do.

I remember in one club arguing with members about giving head of Communications status to a member of the club who doesn’t brew; doesn’t even care for beer. She joined to be supportive of her husband who is so dedicated he grows his own hops. She also loves to organize.

As with all such things I assessed her personality. She seemed dedicated to doing the best job possible, and dedicated to helping the club organize future activities. Her motivation? Supporting her husband and her main competition, running for the same post, was a professional brewer who had joined the club.

She also loves to organize.

A word of warning here. A club is usually a conglomerate of various disparate folks. Herding them can sometimes be harder than teaching cats to salsa. Needless to say if someone suggests organizing your club into a multi-tasking, intricate, conglomeration of various committees… you might want to think twice. OK, three times. Oh, hell, just consider not doing it, OK?

There’s organizing and then there’s, uh, common sense.

Mentioning those “cats,” you know I don’t ever, ever remember my parents mentioning how much of a bitch it was to get along with people. I remember when they were together, but otherwise mostly alone, them kvetching about one relative, or another. Or just some person in church, at work, a neighbor. Have people really become bigger jerks over my more than half a century, or did I just not hear about it? I do remember even them admitting, in private, some of these folks could be real jerks. The thing is that kind of conversation was kept in private: and expected to be.

Sigh.

Anyway, back to positive for the moment. Another club member who doesn’t brew and who has been a great asset is an ex-distiller/wine maker. He helped design a club brewing system for the club. He has participated in a lot of club functions offering free samples: wine, distilled products. Knowing as I do now that the distance between distilling and brewing is mostly evaporator small, I am still amazed. He has become one of the most valued members in that club.

I recommend the non-brewer, depending on how much they’re willing to help. There’s no way to be polite about this: anyone can be a pain in the ass, except yours truly who is treasured by. every homebrew club he has ever even come in contact with.

Gulp.

I tend to find the non-homebrewer will go further than your typical brewer, and they’re not in competition with other member in actual competitions, or just in general when it comes to brewing. The following statement is by no means listed to just homebrewing: seems these days the “competitive spirit” has some folks “competing” for the “Most Stupid and Obnoxious Behavior Award.”

As brewers and lovers of great beer we really don’t need anymore help winning that award. Sometimes what our favorite little beasties in the world: yeast, poop out is help enough help, thank you.

Yes, that was a somewhat foul alcohol joke.

One of these non-brewers is still a member, one is not. Let’s just say that I read the E-mails that contributed to that member leaving and all I can say is, (A) there’s some things we shouldn’t say to some folks and, (B) while it sure would help if we all grew more sensitive to others, it would also help if we’re not as easily offended.

Anything can be taken the wrong way.

Like this column.

Oopsie.

Anyway…

I know: “not saying/being careful what we say/being more sensitive” are all far easier typed than done. Seems my own baby boom generation has a hell of a bigger problem with this than the previous one. I’m still judging the generation after mine, guys and gals, but in case you’re curious, your score is 1, 11, 42 and, yes, the last one is also “the meaning of life.” And other than that I won’t tell you what the scores mean or what they’re based on. You figure it out if you’re really all that smart, ya young whippersnappers!

Kidding, of course.

How about the professional brewer as a member? Mixed results. I have found some professional brewers have common sense: they step back, offer advice and support home brew as a hobby. Some compete in nice ways. Some definitely do not, and I don’t just mean “compete” by what they brew. Everything the club does seems to be about them, what they want and what they think in their eyes. You can tell this behavior through their constant meddling, causing trouble, or use the club to pump the biz they brew for. They can get upset, or even interfere, when the club considers another brew related biz as a location for a meeting. When another pro-brewer is asked to speak to the group they might even attempt to upstage him, con him away from the podium.

Childish behavior? Damn straight it is.

Now I’m going to be honest here. No matter how nice they are, or rotten, when it comes to actual competition I never have been comfortable with pro-brewers competing in non-pro-am competition. Doesn’t matter in the slightest what equipment they use/have that they “home brewed” with. That’s not just “not the point,” it has nothing to do with my point.

Not a good idea. First it creates a perception of general unfairness. It can become more about ego than improving one’s own brewing skills and learning to assess beer better. As one pro-brewer I know said when I told him another was entering homebrew competitions on a regular basis: non-pro-am, “What is it with his ego that he has to do this?”

Another obvious problem: whenever you mix alcohol and people problems are bound to occur. Some folks simply shouldn’t drink, especially if medication you have to take causes problems. Some get lost on the way and show up at a meeting making a scene. Some folks handle it well. Some don’t. Some stand up in busy restaurants and scream in the face of another member, or even tell the current president claiming he’s “the worst president this club has ever had.” Why? Seems that former member was upset they didn’t get everyone’s vote for the position they wanted. They still could have gotten it. They just knew they had a little competition.

My only comment: “Don’t let the false bottom slap you on the bottom on the way out of the club.”

Isn’t it odd how those who are very competitive themselves can act so bratty when they don’t automatically get crowned?

People in charge of the meeting need to be aware and handle such situations well. That’s no small task.

One of the hardest things is getting people to be part of the executive branch. There really need to be incentives, and if at all possible keep targets off their backs. That’s tough: probably impossible to achieve completely. Your execs are doing the best they can, usually, so back the hell off! But… then you do have those who do ascend and then show up to head meeting maybe twice or three times when they’re, oh say, President. Ouch. And at least one of those times show up so zithered few can understand what the hell he is saying. Ouchie ouch ouch.

But generally people behave, even despite the alcohol. That’s the surprising thing. Meeting after meeting, competitions, club activities, even parties: I am impressed how well we function as a group. The number of DUIs/DWIs (varies per state how they’re referred to I believe.) actually seems to be quite low and insignificant. That’s amazing, considering we rarely drink anything resembling Ultra.

Yet some things make sense. Though, having seen it done both ways, I recommend giving out samples and opening any major sources of brew post-meeting. The other way doesn’t bode well for getting business done. I’m not saying pre-meeting we should pretend we’re still in Prohibition times and the cops are in the room. No, just make it more of an after meeting activity. The plus side of this is maybe after the after meeting maybe there will be less lights in rear view mirrors?

I’ll drink to that.

Wait, maybe I’d better not.

I’d like to.

But maybe… oh, hell…

A club, more than anything else, should provide a place a member can get support: even if it’s just gentle critiques of one’s brews.This heads the conversation in an important direction. I can’t count the number of complaints I’ve heard about how non-supportive fellow club members are. A healthy club these days has folks running websites, doing the news letter, writing for the newsletter and other publications, sorting entries, organizing entries and club business, hauling kegs/bottles: generally offering time, money and labor. The amount of thanks they get is often tiny: appreciation small.

And some things simply aren’t called for: some I have already mentioned. I have been writing most of my life, and about beer for ten years. I have tried to write what’s needed, to lengths required even when really not specified. Probably one of the most insensitive things that ever happened to me started with me asking the editor not to publish everything I had given him in advance: one column per issue. He did it anyway. OK, mistakes happen. Then he asked for more. I wrote several columns over the year and submitted them. I was on the road and when I E-mailed the columns each month I got a “thank you” back from him.

When I came back from being on the road I found out none of it had been published. When I asked why he said, “Oh, I decided not to publish your stuff shortly after you left.”

A year or so later I doubt he ever saw the irony when he was told they had decided he wasn’t the editor anymore, after giving something he had babied for quite a while to someone else.

What’s that they say about, “Things that go around?”

If someone has spent a lot of time, effort, creativity doing something from your club don’t just pull something from them as if this is not some rug beneath their feet. 99% of the time they won’t be thankful, even if a few times they have said, “Gee, I wish someone else would do this.” Talk it over with them: gently. At least see where their damn head is at. Otherwise it will look intentionally vindictive and nasty.

You know, I’m surprised I even have to type stuff like that. It should be easy for kids to figure out. Unless it is intentionally vindictive. I’ve seen that too. Usually the person who did that winds up being a victim of the same insensitivity, or thinks they have been, and never realizes it.

Odd how that works, huh?

A few more obvious observations…

1. No club should have to put up with being ruled by, or jerked around by, prima donnas.

2. I have always felt that any organization would be served well by occasionally reviewing possible reasons for why they lost some members. I think even sending the most neutral person to ask why they left, and then report back, might help.

Call it past member review. As humans we learn far more from mistakes than success. I know that sounds counter intuitive, but Edison tried God knows how many ways to make a light bulb. More direct to the point, I’m sure there was a lot of trial and error before we even knew how to brew something like beer. And even closer to home: problem unaddressed, un-assessed, can lead to losing valuable members and keeping the worst ones. Every story has, not just two side, but many, many sides.

Maybe this is the main message I would like to leave you with: the purpose of a club is for club members to help, support, each other and club goals in general. Too many think it’s about them, their opinions, their tastes: screw everyone else. As a club member I’m sure you haven’t always gotten the kind of support you should have had. Yet I’ll bet if you review how you have treated other members you haven’t always been as supportive as you should have been. And, yes by all means, I include myself here.

Various clubs I have been a member of have some of these characteristics over the years have these problems, so it’s not just a homebrew club problem. But if we all remember we’re not in this for ourselves, but the craft, and each other? If a club member wants to help, in any way, at least show how appreciative we are for the offer and whatever efforts they actually may put forth.

Maybe, that way, we’d all be better off and have a better club too.

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Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to review, discuss and comment on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various homebrew, judging and organizations related to beer. Essentially, all things “beer.”

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Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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