by Tara Nurin
Nancy Rigberg expected to run her homebrew-supply storefront boutique until she turned 70. But at 63, she and her husband, George Hummel, have decided to take early semi-retirement and close down the existing brick-and-mortar part of Philadelphia’s oldest homebrew shop, Home Sweet Homebrew, which they’ve owned since the early 1990s.
“For one we’re getting old,” half-jokes Rigberg, who bought the store with Hummel from the original owners who’d opened it across the street in 1986.
“The real estate market has changed,” she says, more seriously, of her slice of Center City just west of trendy Rittenhouse Square. “If you’re not a restaurant or a dry cleaner or nail salon there’s very little room in the market for small retail.”
Hummel chimes in from behind the glass counter where he watches over the grain sacs, rubber hoses, vintage brewery t’s, moving boxes and the one person who enters the shop while I’m there at 4:30 on a Friday less than ten days before the shop closes for good — a delivery man looking for an address.
“$2 million condos are going up on the corner,” he says. “People spending that much aren’t coming home and making beer.”
But pricey highrises aren’t the only thing sapping the energy from Home Sweet Homebrew, which will shut down its sole location Labor Day weekend. As I wrote here in 2016, overall, the approximately $1 billion homebrewing business is taking some heavy hits; Fifteen-hundred miles away, Houston’s oldest shop, open since 1971, is closing September 8, citing slow sales.
According to the American Homebrewers Association (AHA), even with 1.1 million homebrewers in the country as of 2017, with most boasting high incomes and education and 40% launching their hobby just four years prior, the number of supply shops has shrunk to 656 this year from a 2015 peak of 815. The sharpest decline came in 2017, when 97 stores closed. Forty-five have closed so far this year.
“Homebrewing grew rapidly between 2006 and 2014. In that time frame our membership went from 9720 at the end of 2005 to 45,519 at the end of 2014. We’ve since stabilized between 45,000 and 47,000 members. During that time of rapid growth a lot of new shops opened up, likely creating some over supply of stores that couldn’t handle having the market level off,” emails Gary Glass, director of the AHA.
Even Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) got out of the industry: in July it sold the online powerhouse Northern Brewer homebrew supply shop to a holding firm that describes itself as an entity that “rescues small- to mid-sized distressed companies” and “corporate orphans that are in out-of-favor industries or are undergoing some form of transition.” AB InBev’s “growth and innovation” arm, ZX Ventures, purchased Northern Brewer a mere three years ago.
“When there’s so much beer available why should you bother making it?” asks Hummel, summing up the main reason why I say, along with the departing owner of Houston’s DeFalco’s Home Wine & Beer Supplies and others, that homebrewing has largely become a victim of its own success.
Modern American homebrewing started around the 1960s and 70s, when domestic beer drinkers grew deeply unsatisfied by the pale adjunct lagers that dominated the marketplace. A large subset of influential early brewers like Jack McAuliffe and Ken Grossman developed their talents over homebrew set-ups before going on to found New Albion Brewing and Sierra Nevada Brewing, respectively. Since then, so many homebrewers have “grown up” to become commercial brewers that the Brewers Association trade lobbying group reports a record-setting 7,500 breweries operating across the U.S. as of June 30.
“While I think homebrewing in general is quite healthy and we likely have as many homebrewers now as we’ve ever had in this country, when a new brewery opens, it’s very likely that a local homebrew shop just lost one of their best customers. Many of the local shop’s customers will likely visit the new brewery as well,” writes Glass. “If those customers are spending more time at a new brewery, they are going to have less need to be stocked on their own homebrew.”
“Yards, Flying Fish, Victory, Oxbow, Sam (Calagione, of Dogfish Head),” list Rigberg and Hummel as they brainstorm some of the notable breweries and brewers that got their start buying homebrew supplies from them.
“The good memories are all the neat people we’ve met, the friends we’ve made,” muses Rigberg. “Everything has really changed.”
She’s not just being sentimental. So much has really changed, even in the past five-to-ten years. It’s not just rents that she says have climbed 20%-25% per year since Center City Philly started rebounding from economic gloom in the late 1990s, and it goes beyond the fact that a local craft beer drinker has only to go into almost any bar or bottle shop to browse an assortment that would have been impossible to imagine even a year ago.
To start, despite the explosion of breweries and their ensuing beer offerings, interest in beer is giving up ground to spirits, suggesting that the brew-your-own craze may be sputtering out as the number of people who wanted to make or drink better beer has plateaued. Second, online suppliers have crushed mom-and-pop retailers – especially those cramped into small, expensive downtown spaces like Home Sweet Homebrew — with their lack of overhead and unlimited storage space. Third, older operators like Rigberg and Hummel are reaching retirement age and growing tired of running a shop on such a barebones budget they no longer hire help.
But it’s also more than that. It has to do with the changing attitudes of the younger generations, and Rigberg and Hummel are just plain over it.
“People used to come in here because they wanted my knowledge and now they come in because they want to tell me why I’m wrong,” Hummel says.
Buried in their smart phones, customers don’t bother to say hello, Rigberg laments. They express their aggravation when the couple very occasionally closes for a few hours to attend a rock concert or family celebration, and they grumble when Hummel tells them he can order them ingredients or equipment that will take a few days to arrive. Rigberg calls it the “Amazoning of America.”
“This 24/7, ‘satisfy me now’ mentality is annoying,” she says. Reminiscing about the days when she and her husband built relationships with customers over decades, she says, “We’re trying to please everybody with everything without any kind of reciprocal loyalty.”