For homebrewers, the only thing more fun than brewing beer is sharing your homebrewed beer with new and old friends and other brewers. So it’s no surprise that home brewers are so strongly drawn to Burning Man, where building community and “gifting” are core principles, and 68,000 people build a do-it-yourself city. Shockingly, drinking ice cold beer in the 100-degree heat is also a popular activity.
Home brewers seemed to be everywhere at Burning Man, and the week in the desert offers beer lovers what amounts to a week in Napa for wine lovers. A kaleidoscopic variety of home-brewed beer, often of the finest quality, to share with some of the finest, quirkiest, smartest people you’ll ever meet.
For me, home brewing beer started at Burning Man. The first time I ever tasted home brewed beer was at Burning Man in 2005, when I enjoyed dozens of different home brewed beers and great company at Home Brew 4A Homebrew, a camp run by a band of home brewers out of Reno and nearby Gerlach, Nevada. Their bar was a wooden coffin with six taps built in, filled with ice, serving as a jockey box, and they had a dust-covered, crooked old pool table out in front. Camp leader “Gawd” was a bee keeper, and in addition to beer, brewed mead from his own honey. They had home-made sodas on tap for the kids.
I was immediately hooked on the taste of freshly, home made beer, the idea of being able to make it yourself and the camaraderie that flowed from it. Every time I returned to Burning Man, I sought out all the home brewed beer I could find, although I didn’t start brewing myself until several years later. I have been sharing my home brewed beer with friends and strangers at Burning Man for the last three years.
Burning Man is a home brewer’s dream – you can freely share your beer with everyone over 21, and there are bars where kegs of home brewed and craft beer are on tap for free. Everything is free at Burning Man – commerce is forbidden. And of course, nothing is free – everyone has to work really hard to make everything at Burning Man happen. The only true bartering goes like this: “I made 20 gallons of home brewed beer to share with everyone. It’s the least I could do, since those guys over there built a bicycle-powered bumper car course for me to enjoy. Those guys there built a zip line. Those guys have a full service coffee shop, cafe and bakery…giant art piece, bicycle repair shop, fire performance, dance club, bar…public transportation vehicle with a dance club, bar and fire performance.” You find a way to give something to honor all the ways that others are giving which create the whole mind-blowing spectacle.
Another reason Burning Man resonates so strongly with brewers is that it is a week-long, build-it-yourself, live-aboard festival of arts, culture and radical self expression. The only electricity, water, buildings, air conditioning, entertainment, food or water, are what participants have built. I brewed 20 gallons of beer to share as my contribution to the “gifting economy” – a keg of wheat IPA with Simcoe and Cascade hops, a keg of hoppy American amber ale with Mosaic and Falconer’s Flight hops, a keg of Belgian Witbier, and a bottled batch of Belgian Dubbel.
One of the quirkiest aspects of home-brewed beer (and many activities) at Burning Man is all the clever ways folks come up with to be able to do the most unlikely activities in 100 degree heat or 40 mph winds, or in blinding dust storms. I tapped my kegs out of a mobile beer buggy made of a 10 gallon cylindrical cooler on a hand-cart with a sun umbrella attached. It had solar- powered lights, off-road wheels, an iPod sound system, and a tiny little bar. My mugs were chained to the tiny bar so that, if you came to drink my free beer, you had to stay and chat with me for a minute.
Everywhere I went, I met home brewers who immediately recognized the Kornelius keg in my little contraption. Many of them did not bring their own home brew to share at Burning Man, but all of them were overjoyed to be sharing some of the golden liquid with a fellow brewer – not to mention to have a little shade, some tunes and an icey cold one in the 100-degree heat of the desert lake bed. I made lots of friends and had the tiniest, coziest bar in town.
The Steampunk Saloon’s brewmaster Sean Morris, an award-winning mead brewer, had a home-made four-tap jockey box decked out in true Steampunk style in the camp’s bar and lounge. The group out of Los Angeles had a bar that was a mash-up of Victorian era and old western styles. Sean had a 5 gallon keg of his orange blossom honey mead spiced with cinnamon on tap, and 5 gallon kegs each of his home-brewed extra hoppy IPA and Dark English Bitter. He also had bottles of his rose mead, a pear champagne mead and a Pyment, (a mead made with wine grapes) made with a 50/50 blend of buckwheat honey and cabernet sauvignon grapes. Fellow Steampunk Saloon campmate Josh brought three 5 gallon kegs – a Pale Ale, a Saison and Warrior’s Ale, similar to Stone’s Arrogant Bastard, and Evan, a friend of the camp, brought over a 5 gallon keg of Dark Brown Ale and his girlfriend Sarah gave a delightfully refreshing Peach Vanilla Summer Ale. Everything was on tap and being poured to keep the hospitality flowing at the Steampunk Saloon. Home brewers visited the Saloon all week to sample beers, share their beers, dance and do what all home brewers love – socialize and talk beer.
Homebrew 4A Homebrew was back as always, with somewhere north of 500 gallons of home-brewed beer, mead and soda. “Honestly, I lost count,” said camp mate “Goathead.” They tapped kegs of their beer and of friends and fellow brewers who brought over their own kegs to give to the camp to tap in the bar for all to share, using a refrigerated trailer with 6 built-in taps sticking out the side. Just to add some variety, the camp also hosted a home-made pickle tasting party, offering at least 30 different kinds of pickled fruits and vegetables, with such exotic offerings as chipotle pickled watermelon, pickled roasted garlic cloves, sweet pickled leeks, and intensely-spiced Indonesian Atjar pickles. Another day, they had a honey tasting hosted by Gawd, the bee keeper.
Over at the Mystikal Misfits Camp out of L.A., head brewer Adam Severi had 5 gallon kegs of Imperial IPA, Double IPA, Belgian Strong, and a dark ale, all 9% ABV or stronger, which he had on tap simultaneously from a home-made cooler “keezer.” Where many bars rationed out their kegs or only served at certain times to make them last all week (Black Rock City is a 24/7 town), Adam drained all 20 gallons in one night during the Mystikal Misfits Apocalyptic Inferno Party.
The WetSpot Bar & Faceplant Lounge listed itself on the Burning Man directory as “the best place on the playa to enjoy a home crafted beer while relaxing in our unique lounge. WetSpot is about making new friends in an open-to-all setting while engaging in musings around one of our favorite pastimes: brewing beer. Our crew includes homebrewers and non-homebrewers alike and provides an inviting atmosphere to sample and learn about the art and science of brewing beer as well as just having fun. Hometown: Reno.” The WetSpot used had an insulated, refrigerated trailer with four built in taps protruding from a silver platter mounted on one wall. Campmate Rick Bacon said they started out with all home-brewed beer, but added craft beer just to keep up with demand. “It was getting unrealistically expensive, so the last two years, bought kegs of Icky IPA from Great Basin Brewing in Reno, and usually had a few kegs of homebrew in there somewhere.” All guests are forced to burst through the camp bar’s heavy, cartoonish saloon doors “John Wayne style.”
Homebrauhaus, a group out of Reno, NV, called themselves “a collection of Scientists, Artists, and Ne’er Do Wells who all have a passion for making and drinking beer. HomeBrauHaus is devoted to upholding the longstanding traditions of beer culture by providing a wide variety of ales, lagers, and gluten-free home brew. Bring us your thirsty, your parched, your sober! We accept these huddled masses as equal, and they will leave as equally inebriated, satisfied, and quenched.” Homebrauhaus had 300 gallons of kegged home brewed beer on tap in their camp bar.”
Camp DDI out of Oakland offered something fun and unique. “Brewing beer on the playa? Can’t be done. No way; not with 60 degree temperature swings, only one week for fermentation, hippie-quality sanitation, and pyromaniacs stealing your flamethrowers when you’re trying to boil the wort. We’re going to do it anyways. On a camp stove, with a pot that’s too small. By the end of the class, you’ll have gone through the process; you’ll know how to brew beer! Will you remember by the time you get home? Fat chance. Barring disaster, it’ll be fermented, carbonated, and kegged by the end of the week. Drinkable? We’ll see.”
Over at the Black Rock City French Quarter, a conglomeration consisting of a bakery, a coffee shop, a bar with live music, a Tarot Card reader, there was the Black Rock Brewery. Since 2005, they have hosted gatherings at Burning Man where brewers were invited to share their beers, with daily organized tastings and even a few BJCP certified beer judges to evaluate them. You could even send them your beer name and have a custom label printed out for your bottles.
In addition to catalyzing such revolutionary inventions as writing, bread, the calendar, math and beer pong, beer has been building communities. And drinking beer together at Burning Man is an extension of that tradition, building friendship and community.