Annie Johnson, Homebrewer of the Year

Last Call by | Aug 2013 | Issue #79

It might seem easy to draw a line between Annie Johnson’s birth-country (Germany) and her penchant for brewing German- and Czech-style lagers. But clarify that she’s also half-Irish, half-African-American, and was adopted by an American couple, and Johnson’s story begins to sound more like the complex genealogy of American brewing itself. In late June, her Lite American Lager swept 25 categories at the National Homebrewers Conference; Johnson, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., became the first woman in 30 years to be named Homebrewer of the Year by the AHA, a fact that she takes in stride. “It’s great,” says Johnson, who’s 48 and works as a business analyst. “I’m being contacted by so many other women brewers across the country I didn’t know were out there.”

Tell me about your background.
I was born in Germany and adopted by an American couple at 4 days old. I became a US citizen in 1972. My birth mother, Colette, is Irish, and my birth father is African-American—he was a GI serving in Germany at the time he met Colette, and she at the time was working for my parents as an au pair. And not being able to go home to her Irish-Catholic homeland pregnant, she gave me up, and I was lucky enough to be adopted by the Johnsons.

What were your first batches like?
The first batches were kits from the local homebrew store. They weren’t that great, mostly watery and phenolic, but we kept at it. … When my friends moved away to Delaware in 2000, I continued to brew on my own. The following year I entered the California State Fair homebrew competition in 2001 with American Amber and won first place.

What’s your setup like?
I brew between six and eight batches a year, having scaled back from previous years where I was a brewing machine—as many as 20. I brew on a three-tier, 10-gallon system.

What’s your experience been like as a female homebrewer?
It’s been fairly positive. I’ve been lucky, as I started out with a good group of local brewers who encouraged me, sometimes unbeknownst to them, to excel in the hobby. My local competition consisted of Jamil Zainasheff, Mike Riddle, Mike McDole and Bud Tourville. … They often entered a competition with 30 to 40 homebrews. That was a lot compared to my three to five entries. It pushed me to exceed and branch out, brewing different styles so I could compete. Eventually, I gave up the philosophy of brewing against them and began brewing for myself, for the challenges of the different styles presented. …

I will tell you what made me a better brewer. I no longer drink when I brew. I stopped many years ago. I was ending up with too many undrinkable brews. Not being buzzed can be the difference between making delicious Amarillo Pale Ale or Amarillo Pale Ale with cinnamon.

What’s your take on why there are few people of color in the craft beer industry?
In my opinion, lack of exposure. And you won’t just find it in the craft beer industry—it’s noticeable in the food and beverage industry as a whole. Craft beer is a focused product that appeals to beer connoisseurs, and if all your local corner mart carries is mass-marketed beer, then that’s what you know. In general, there is not that much interest in craft beer by minorities because it costs more. If you’re not going to buy it and try it, how can you be interested in making it? The craft brewing industry doesn’t cater to minorities like the big guys do, and I’m not convinced they really care to because of their bottom line. …

I wholeheartedly feel the product should speak for itself no matter who brews it.