George Hummel's life-changing moment came while traveling in his youth, when he tasted something quite literally unforgettable.
"There were these weird things in California called microbreweries," says Hummel. "The beer was really different. I couldn't get anything like that back here, so I started making my own."
Fast forward to this fall, when Hummel celebrated the 25th anniversary of Home Sweet Homebrew, a supply shop off Rittenhouse Square that he owns with wife Nancy Rigberg.
Despite its age, the store is more relevant than ever. Philadelphia's food and drink engine continues to be fueled, in part, by beer, and through their tiny shop, Hummel and Rigberg have been bolstering it behind the scene for decades. The region's most important brewers and bar owners - who have basically all gone through Home Sweet's doors - can vouch for that.
As can the couple's resume. They have a wall full of ribbons they've won for their brews. Hummel's book, The Complete Homebrew Beer Book, was just released, and he has taught classes at Temple and Drexel. In 2005, he collaborated with Nodding Head on a beer, "George's Fault," which won the gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival.
Rigberg is the long-standing de facto president of H.O.P.S., the Homebrewers of Philadelphia and Suburbs club, which meets monthly at the store. And in 2008, Ed Rendell presented them with his Governor's Inspiration Award.
When Hummel and Rigberg took over the three-year-old store at 20th and Sansom from the original owners in 1990, Philadelphia was a different place. The neighborhood where the store operates did not have Jose Garces and Stephen Starr restaurants. Dock Street Brewing was a toddler. Tom Peters, cofounder of Monk's Cafe, was years away from opening his landmark bar.
But Hummel and Rigberg's store was always vibrant. Today, every inch of the small space is stocked with home-brewing supplies. Its Ikea shelves hold endless stacks of malt with international names, while packs of yeasts are in a beverage fridge. Baggies are filled with powdery white dextrose. There are containers of peach and raspberry beer extract for sale. There are empty growlers just waiting to be filled with basement beer. White plastic pails have been turned into starter kits, packed with everything needed to brew that first batch. The unofficial shopkeepers, the well-fed felines Jake and Elwood, keep a watchful eye on customers.
Craft beer seems an affordable luxury that does well in hard times. "We've been around long enough to see the ups and downs of the hobby," says Rigberg. "During the Clinton years the economy was booming and business was not that good."
To big beer names like Tom Kehoe, founder of Yards, William Reed of Standard Tap, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Peters of Monk's, and the guys from Iron Hill and Victory, Home Sweet Homebrew was a priceless resource.
Whether they were turning a hobby into a career or setting out to learn the trade, these guys flocked to the store.
"The first 10 batches of Dogfish beer were brewed from ingredients I bought at Home Sweet Homebrew," says Dogfish founder Calagione. "Most of the brewers in our neck of the woods came in contact with them at some point ... and we are better off for it."
Reed - an advocate for locally produced brews - remembers when he would sit on the grain stacks at the store and read through Hummel's books for hours. "They were always really great like that, letting me treat it like a library," says Reed, who still bounces ideas around with the jovial couple.
That give-and-take with brewers is what Hummel and Rigberg thrive on. They are honest and chatty and their laughter is contagious. They have hippie DNA. "It's like being a bartender and psychologist at the same time," says Hummel. "We put people in touch with their own abilities," adds Rigberg.
"They never make you feel uncomfortable with their knowledge," says Kehoe. "George would always encourage you to try more things, to keep home-brewing."
And their open-door policy keeps the customers coming back. "There is a grounded quality to it all," says Reed. "Zero pretense. They aren't trying to impress anybody."
They continue to foster the collaborative and upbeat spirit in the local brewing community, even as it has grown exponentially. "With Philly brewers there is a real sense of camaraderie," says Reed. "They [Hummel and Rigberg] probably deserve some of the credit for that."
Kehoe now buys enough grains to fill a silo at the Yards brewery, but he still keeps in touch with the couple. Rigberg sometimes helps him source unusual ingredients. "I still talk to them all the time. George will be the first one to say something if he thinks your beer is not doing so well ..., or if he enjoys a change. Nobody notices but him."
Being in business for more than two decades means the couple have seen longtime home-brewing fathers share the hobby with their adult children, and an increasing interest from female brewers, which makes Rigberg especially proud. Cocktail crafters are a new customer base, perusing the shelves for ingredients to make their own bitters.
Come summer, the low-key lives of the duo are turned upside down because of Beer Week. They organize the Extreme Homebrew Challenge, a large event, as well as participate in and judge others. Once it's over, though, they can return to their actual sweet home, which, of course, is in Brewerytown.
Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.