Homebrewing has exploded in popularity in recent years. According to the American Homebrewers Association, there are about 1.2 million people in the United States who make their own beer.
For many it started as a casual interest. They tasted their friends’ homebrew and decided to make some themselves. Or maybe they received a starter kit as a gift from a loved one.
No matter what led them to the hobby, mere interest often grows into a serious obsession. So much so that over 2 million barrels of homebrew are now produced in the United States each year.
Americans are officially in love with homebrewing.
The hobby is tremendous fun, but the learning curve for new brewers is steep – with early batches often tasting more like vinegar or dish soap than actual, drinkable beer. Fortunately there are a number of instructional resources available to make things easier.
Charlie Papazian’s The Complete Joy of Homebrewing and John Palmer’s How to Brew are classic texts on the subject. Nearly everybody who brews more than a few batches gives them a read at some point.
Just as Papazian and Palmer have helped new homebrewers learn the craft, so too has Northwest Arkansas’ own James Spencer.
He produces and stars – along with good friends Andy Sparks and Steve Wilkes – in two popular podcasts dedicated to the art and science of homebrewing.
Basic Brewing Radio and its counterpart Basic Brewing Video have been helping new brewers make better beer for almost a decade. Basic and advanced topics are covered in a highly entertaining format that has attracted legions of fans across the globe.
But despite the shows’ worldwide popularity, the trio remains somewhat anonymous here in Northwest Arkansas.
“I like to say we are very well known among a very slim segment of the population,” said Spencer during a recent interview at West Mountain Brewing Company in Fayetteville.
The three men graciously spent an afternoon with me – over beers, of course – discussing their friendship and how Basic Brewing came to be what it is today.
Early friendships and the catalyst for something special
Spencer was working at the University of Arkansas’ student radio station in the mid-80s when he first met Andy Sparks.
“I was interested in a girl that was involved in student radio,” Sparks recalled. “So I started hanging out at the station.” Things never really worked out with the girl, but the two men have been close friends ever since.
Several years later Sparks asked Spencer, who was by then dabbling in audio and video production, to create a cable television advertisement for his fledgling homebrew shop.
“He paid me with an equipment kit,” said Spencer, referring to a homebrew starter setup. “Which is kind of like getting a free ink jet printer. It’s not the printer that’s the expensive thing – it’s the consumables.”
Spencer was immediately hooked on the hobby, which would later open up a world of opportunities for the two friends. “It was the best decision I ever made as a home brew shop owner,” said Sparks in hindsight.
Spencer met Steve Wilkes under more dubious circumstances.
“I was actually his apartment manager,” said Wilkes. “I think the first time we met I asked him for money.”
The landlord had lost the month’s rent checks and assigned Wilkes the task of obtaining new payments from each tenant. Even though it wasn’t an ideal way to meet, the two immediately clicked. It wasn’t long before Spencer introduced his new hobby to Wilkes and they started brewing together on a regular basis.
Their collective passion for homebrewing would later serve as the catalyst for something special.
Spencer worked in communications for a major corporation until May 2004, when he started his own audio/video production company. He knew he needed an example of his new company’s capabilities if he was going to attract clients.
His newfound love for homebrewing provided the subject matter for a self-produced instructional DVD. Spencer saw similar products in the marketplace, but none with the production quality that he knew his company could provide. He enlisted the services of his friend Wilkes and filmed Introduction to Extract Homebrewing.
Spencer made hundreds of cold calls to homebrew shop owners across the U.S., trying to get them to carry his DVD. Response was lukewarm at best. Not a natural salesperson at heart, he looked for other approaches to generate interest.
Apple had recently introduced the iTunes podcast directory, bringing the platform out of obscurity and into the forefront of self-broadcasting. All of a sudden podcasts represented a legitimate and direct channel to the consumer. So Spencer toted his recording equipment down to Sparks’ shop, The Home Brewery, to record the first three episodes of Basic Brewing Radio.
“I thought, ‘I’ll wear this topic out in ten episodes,’” recalled Spencer. “But that was just the start of it. Here we are now more than nine years later, and 430-something episodes into it.”
The premise of Basic Brewing Radio and Basic Brewing Video is simple – provide homebrewers the technical knowledge that helps make average homebrew great.
Early episodes focused on the fundamentals of brewing, covering topics such as ingredients, basic processes, and equipment. Interviews with some of the brewing industry’s brightest minds were peppered in to keep things interesting.
Eventually more advanced topics were introduced. Decoction mashing, partigyle brewing, and experimental approaches to the hobby were covered in great detail. An episode from 2009 featured a beer that utilized Frankenberry cereal in the mash.
“We’re all about experiments and we’re all about brewing out of the box…doing things you might not think of,” said Spencer. “We use our imagination, kind of breaking the mold of what brewing can be.”
Each member of the Basic Brewing team has a role (though unofficial and not intended to limit their contributions). Spencer is the production guru and primary voice of the program. He conducts most of the interviews and manages the day-to-day details.
Wilkes is the foodie. He doesn’t appear on many of the audio podcasts, but plays a major part in most of the video episodes. He often cooks a dish with homebrew as an ingredient – or to be paired with homebrew – with the recipe linked on the Basic Brewing website. Wilkes is multi-talented, working as the Director of Student Media at the University of Arkansas by day, and playing drums in the Claudia Burson Trio during off hours.
Sparks, who owns The Home Brewery in Fayetteville, provides the technical know-how, and often serves as the “late night ambassador” when the trio attends homebrewing events such as the National Homebrewers Conference.
“He’s more outgoing than we are,” Spencer said with a chuckle. “Steve and I are introverts. When we go out and interact with all these people, it wears us down; whereas when Andy interacts with a bunch of people he gets energized.”
There have been many shows over the years, but a few experiences stand out for the guys of Basic Brewing. One of which involved an unusual food and beer pairing.
“A couple of Veterans Days ago we paired MREs with a beer and a mead,” recalled Wilkes. “It was pretty crazy, and it was a lot of fun. And the emails back from soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq were very heartwarming. I remember one guy said he and his dad had plans to brew when he got home. It just floored me.”
Indeed, the show has had a huge impact on many current and would-be homebrewers. Many of them have become professional brewers, crediting Basic Brewing for providing them the foundation on which to build their careers. Chase Healey from Prairie Artisan Ales is perhaps the most famous, but the inspiration doesn’t stop at the American borders.
“A few years ago at GABF [The Great American Beer Festival] this guy walks up, and it’s Mazen Hajjar from 961 Beer (in Beirut),” said Spencer. “He said, ‘There you are, I’ve been looking all over for you! You taught me how to brew!’”
For Sparks, it was a visit to the west coast that rang the bell.
“I went to my most coveted brewery – Lost Abbey. I think of Lost Abbey as the Mecca for beer lovers. I went there and this guy comes out from behind the bar and said, ‘Hey, I know you – you’re one of the Basic Brewing guys.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be fun.’ He personally introduced me to all the beers they had at the time. It turned out that he worked on the canning line and played Basic Brewing while he was working.”
“The fact that what we talk about on the air in Fayetteville, Arkansas is being broadcast to one of the epicenters of craft brewing in America just blows me away,” said Sparks. “These people are our heroes and they’re listening to what we have to say.”
People are most definitely listening, as evidenced by the number of times the stars of Basic Brewing are approached by fans at the National Homebrewers Conference (which they have attended every year since 2006). Spencer said he is amazed by their popularity at the event. “People are constantly walking up to us and saying, ‘You guys taught me how to brew! Can my wife take a picture of the three of you and me together?!’”
Thoughts on Northwest Arkansas’ brewing community
Having lived here for many years, the trio has had a front row seat to brewing’s meteoric rise in the area. And for the most part, they like what they have seen.
“This is what I expected to happen,” said Sparks. “Fayetteville is as cool as any of the coolest towns in America. I’ve been to a lot of them – Seattle, Portland, Boulder, and San Francisco. And they were in a way a lot like Fayetteville. They had a lot of hip stuff going on. So I knew that once we got the beer bug it would take off.”
“I’m really thrilled about how it’s coming on,” he added. “I think everyone is focused on making a good product, and making this area a destination for craft beer.”
Wilkes thinks the sky is the limit. “As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow, there will be more and more opportunities for creative people to make their living doing creative things,” he said. “And for our part of the world that means brewing.”
James Spencer, Andy Sparks, and Steve Wilkes have dedicated their lives to helping new brewers learn the craft. They have inspired thousands of people across the world, leading to fulfilling hobbies and – in some cases – professional careers. And though it may come as a surprise to many locals, the guys from Basic Brewing are doing it from right here in Northwest Arkansas!
Brian Sorensen (@EBSorensen) is an admitted beer geek, occasional home brewer, and member of the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds.