Canadian Invasion—A look into an American homebrew club

Bernard Lebel was only casually thinking about getting more involved with his local homebrew club. “I have been thinking about it very, very casually, for two years. Just curious. Something I was curious about, but not something I was committed about.” So in 2019 when it came around club election time, he toyed with the idea of running for treasurer, but that position wasn’t going to be available that year. “The board told me, ‘Listen, treasurer is staying. You can run against him, but we have other positions that need to be filled, and president was one of them.'” Lebel wasn’t interested in being president, but heard through the grapevines that the president had already done four terms, and was ready to relinquish the reins to someone else. “So I called him, ‘Listen man, I heard that you’re going to run, but you don’t really want to run, so what’s the deal? Because if you don’t run, then I’m up for it.’ And he said, ‘Done.’ So that’s pretty much how it happened. I still needed to be voted it, but it was pretty much just a formality.” The club that Lebel is now president of is none other than America’s oldest homebrew club Maltose Falcons, and Lebel is Canadian.

Lebel grew up in a suburb of Montreal, QC called Sainte-Julie, and lived in France for eight months in 2005 for work before he moved to California in 2008. He’s lived there ever since where he does animation for DreamWorks Animation. It wasn’t until he was in the US that he picked up homebrewing. “I had heard of homebrewing, but for me, this was like this super mystical thing that really, you needed super esoteric knowledge to do, which I though it was not accessible to common mortals. And so I kind of didn’t really think about it, even though I really love beer. A colleague of mine, one day, he brought me a beer to work and he said, ‘Hey here’s a beer for you. I brewed this. And it’s a maple porter.’ And it blew my mind. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. You made this?’ ‘Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, in your small apartment?’ And he’s like, ‘Totally.’ And it just blew my mind. I was like, if he can do, I can do it.” After a year or two of homebrewing, he decided to join his local homebrew club—Maltose Falcons.

In my early days of brewing. Photo courtesy of Bernerd Lebel.

The Maltose Falcons homebrew club is the oldest club in the US. It is so old, it’s older than the legalisation of homebrewing (only federally legalized in 1978) in the country, which they had a hand in help push through. “The club was deeply involved in making it legal with legislators. So you kind of have to credit the Falcons to a certain extent for doing this.” Having celebrated its 45th anniversary last year in 2019, the club has had a long time in cultivating legendary brewers who go on to open breweries that are known from coast to coast. “A lot of the…original breweries like Sierra Nevada…were all Maltose Falcons members at some point.”

The club currently has about 150 active members, but used to be a lot bigger in the peak of homebrewing. “We used to have over 300 members. When I joined the club, the club was huge. Homebrewing as a whole in the country, has declined significantly over the last couple of years. Also, there’s been more home-brew clubs. Right in our neighbourhood, we have another club now. Membership was partitioned a little bit, and with the decline of Homebrewing as a hobby, it’s just not as popular as it used to be.”

Despite the decline in active membership, the club still runs a healthy activity sheet. Every month, they run a “Shop Brew” in the back of a homebrew shop in Woodland Hills, where members get to brew 40 gallons on a 55 gallon system. In one of the months in the first half of the year, the “Shop Brew” is designated a lady brew. “We invite females only. Well males can attend, but the brew itself is done by our female members as well as their guest. So it’s a good opportunity to give visibility to our female members.”

Leading a “shop brew”. Every month the club hosts a brew session on its 55 gallons system, I was asked to lead it one time. We did an imperial red ale. Photo courtesy of Bernard Lebel.

The club runs three competitions a year. In January, they run Doug King Memorial Homebrew Competition. “Doug King is one of our past presidents who did a lot for the club, and that competition is all about lagers, imperial strength beers as well as experimental.” The club’s biggest competition is the Maltose Falcons Mayfaire Homebrew Competition run in April, which usually sees roughly 400 to 500 entries. And then sometime in June or July, they run the LA County Fair. “LA Country Fair is an organization, but they have a commercial and home-brew competition, and they pay us to manage the home-brew competition for them.”

Judging with fellow Falcons at our Mayfaire competition. It’s our biggest competition of the year, 350-500 entries, and one of the most prestigious in Southern California. I’m the one with the hat and the beard. Photo courtesy of Bernard Lebel.

And then there are the parties. They usually run a party celebrating the winner of their Mayfaire competition winner, and then in the first weekend of May, they participate in the biggest festival in Southern California—Southern California Homebrewers Festival. “There’re 40 plus home-brew clubs there. There’s literally over a 1000 beers. Our club, we always have a strong presence at that festival.” And then in fall, the club is usually invited to the Lake Arrowhead Brewfest, where it’s a mix of breweries and homebrew clubs serving. “It’s one of our biggest events of the year.”

The club also helps out a local charity that collects unused fruits from people’s yards and redistributes it to people in need. “A lot of people in California have fruit trees in their yards, like avocado trees, citrus trees. A lot of these fruit fall on the ground and people get rid of them. So what this organizaton does, they go to houses that are interested in giving their fruit. They collect the fruits and they redistribute it to the poor. We help them with that.”

While Maltose Falcons is one of the biggest clubs in the area, there are more homebrew clubs popping up in the neighbourhood, and the Falcons are excited to collaborate with them. “This year we’re also doing collaborations with these neighbouring clubs. In March, we’re going to brew a saison with Thousand Oaked Homebrewers. We also have a big barrel project coming up later this year with the homebrew club in Ventura.”

I’m not on this picture but I included it because something pretty significant is at work. On the left is Eric, a Falcon who was the brewer at Five Threads, the brewery this photo was taken. On the right, another Falcon, Craig. Craig is a bit of a celebrity in LA because he’s won many medals. He also designed a recipe that was brewed nationally (called House Beer). But most importantly, Craig is considered the best brewer of Triple IPAs in this part of California. Several breweries have wanted to do a collaboration with him. He only collaborated with this particular brewery, and literally taught two pro-brewers (including Eric, on this picture) how to make a solid TIPA. Here we can see them preparing hop extract, one of the key aspects of a successful TIPA. Every year he does this collaboration with this brewery, the beer is named after him: Craig’s Nirvana. It’s an amazing beer. That just speaks about the reach of our club, and how lively the craft beer and homebrewing community is. Photo courtesy of Bernerd Lebel.

Having been a part of the club for over a decade, it was hard for Lebel to pick just one favourite club moment, so he shared two. One of this favourite club memory was celebrating the club’s 45th anniversary last year. The Maltose Falcon’s 45th anniversary celebrations was held in a museum, with around 130 people in attendance, and with close to a 100 homebrew taps of beer, cider and mead. “The selection was just phenomenal. Also, we had seven collaboration with breweries. We went to various breweries, because in LA, they know us. It’s almost a formality that you call them up, hey, we’re having a party, we’re interested in having a collaboration, what do you think? And almost consistently, they’ll say, ‘Absolutely, we’ll do it.’ This was a killer, killer party. It was amazing.”

His other favourite club moment was about five years ago for the club’s 40th anniversary. “We got in contact with Firestone Walker Brewing, which is personally my favourite brewery in the country. And they do these amazing barrel aged beers.We brought them a recipe…called Browning Wine. It was basically an imperial brown ale. So they took our recipe, didn’t change anything about it…and they invited the entire club to go there for their brew day. 30 Falcons drove there, and we stayed at a hotel nearby. We participated in the whole brew day, and I say ‘participated’ in quotes because, I mean it’s a national brewery, so there was almost nothing to do. It was just hanging out with brewers, talking about and drinking beer. They opened the tap room at 10am, and it was free. We drank as much as we wanted. And the beer came out six months later, and they aged it in bourbon, brandy and cognac barrels and blended it all together.”

Our club with the brewers at Firestone Walker, I’m at the far right, bottom. The brewery invited us to do a collaboration for our 40th anniversary. Flipping off the camera is a tradition of the Maltose Falcons. Also, this was about a 5th of the club membership at the time. Photo courtesy of Bernerd Leble.

With Lebel running such an active homebrew club in the US, it’s challenging for him to keep up with Canadian homebrewing news. “On Facebook, there’s a French Canadian group called Nanobrasseur. I follow that group. I don’t participate very often. There’s so much going on that I can’t quite catch up. What I would like to do is hopefully there’s a way to go back to Quebec and improve the BJCP program.”

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