Brewing beer in bathtub for Philly Beer Week

Homebrew expert George Hummel showed off his skills to Metro at his store on Sansom Street.

When one thinks about a bathtub, beer isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind. But maybe beer should take precedence over that old rubber ducky.
For one night, some of the nation’s top craft brewers will be bringing their hops-soaked loofahs to the National Constitution Center for Bathtub Beer Fest. The event — actually, a drunk history lesson — is a fundraiser for Philly Beer Week. Revelers will be sampling brews from more than 20 craft breweries, while being treated to the new exhibit, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”
“Beer has really been an integral part of American forever — except for that minor blip in time, that massive miscalculation in judgment,” said Nancy Rigberg, co-owner of Home Sweet Homebrew on 20th & Sansom. “They weren’t drinking milk when they were writing the Declaration of Independence.”
Rigberg might have the single, most important responsibility at Thursday’s festival. It’s her job to create a drinkable lager in a 250-pound, cast-iron bathtub. Basically, she’ll be inoculating wort (sugars) with yeast.
“You’ll get to see the miracle of yeast do its magic,” Rigberg said.
She admits that the re-enactment is more tongue-in-cheek than anything else. While fermenting beer in bathtubs did occur during Prohibition, it wasn’t the norm.
“The term bathtub gin came about because people could get the vessels used to make it into the tub,” Rigberg said. “It’s not as easy with beer.”
That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Pabst Blue Ribbon used to sell malts, one of beer’s basic ingredients. However, they would use strict warnings to discourage people from bathtub brewing.
“They would tell you, ‘Do not add yeast to this product because terrible things might happen,’ yeah, like fermentation,” said Rigberg. “Nothing stops people from making beer.”
Not then. Not now. Not ever.

They survived Prohibition
Yuengling has long been known as America’s Oldest Brewery, so it should come as no shock that the Pottsville company survived Prohibition. In fact, it thrived.
Frank Yuengling believed Prohibition would be repealed. Instead of shuttering his brewery, he began producing three near-beers, including a cereal beverage called “Yuengling Juvo” that he marketed as an energy drink.
He also constructed the Yuengling Dairy, which served up ice cream until it was closed in 1985. Some believe they may have used the dairy’s refrigeration system to hide and produce real beer.
In 1933, on the day Prohibition ended, Yuengling introduced “Winner Beer” and shipped a truckload to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Ales with ease
Nancy Rigberg and her husband, George Hummel, started Home Sweet Homebrew back in 1986. As the craft beer industry has exploded in recent years, so has the popularity of home brewing. It’s easy, it’s affordable and it’s unique.
“Can you open a can of soup? Then you can brew your own beer,” Rigberg said. “When you make your own beer, that style, that type, can be completely unique to you.”
There has been a noticeable upward trend in the home-brewing demographic, too, which has gained momentum among females. It’s a throwback to the days before the industrial revolution when women were mainly responsible for making beer.
“Women were in charge of the household,” Rigberg said. “And brewing beer was just as much part of the household as baking bread.”

If you go

Get ready for the Bathtub Beer Fest.
Where: National Constitution Center

When: Thursday, 7-10 p.m.

Cost: $45 per person (people are encouraged to dress in Prohibition-era duds)


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