Ted Perez, who has lived in Evanston for 11 years now, is voluble on the subject of beer-brewing on a small scale. He is the president of the Evanston Homebrew Club, a small group of about 18 Evanston and Chicago residents who get together on the first Thursday of the month to sample the beers they brew, talk about them, and try to interest others in joining them. The club grew out of the now defunct Chicago-based “Local 13 Tasters Union,” which met every three months.
Mr. Perez has, he says, been brewing for over six years, and has run the Homebrew Club for two of them, during which time he has set up club events to visit such local craft brewers and brewpubs as Metropolitan, Half Acre, Goose Island, and Rockbottom (all of Chicago) and Three Floyds (Munster, Ind.)
Last week, on April 6 (the eve of the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition in 1933), the group met in the back room at Prairie Moon, their “bar of choice for Club gatherings,” for their first public event. The restaurant’s beverage manager, Phil Zelewsky, is a brewer himself and brought two of his own brews to share. Co-owners Rob Strom and Paul White have worked to make the Homebrew Club’s events a reality. (See “Hail, Ale! Beer in Evanston,” 3/16/10 Evanston RoundTable; see also video on Evanston RoundTable online.)
Members of the club make beer both individually and as a group. Mr. Perez says, “We do stuff at my house. It’s like a playdate!” Other members also refer to gatherings in Mr. Perez’s driveway. They say it is good to have friends help on brew day (and especially later with the bottling); a 5-gallon batch – the usual amount made in a homebrewing session – may take six to eight hours. “My wife says it takes the whole day,” says Mr. Perez.
In the first hour malt extract is added at the boil, says Mr. Perez, “giving the beer flavor and deep color.” The brewer has made up a “hop schedule” beforehand, since when one adds hops and how much, as well as how often, will affect flavor and color of the final product. Some home brewers use hop pellets. Not Steve Jacobsen, who grows his own. A professor of geophysics in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University, he grows and uses Cascade hops, the variety used by the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. The vine, grown from rhizomes rather than seeds, does well in sun in the Midwest climate, he says, saving him money as well as affording the satisfaction of producing the ingredient himself.
Mr. Jacobsen uses the “all-grain” method. Instead of using a malt extract, he buys whole grain. He sets his grain mill to crack open the grains of malt barley, exposing the interior, and leaving the husks to act as filters.
Liquid yeast is added after the mixture cools down somewhat, after the “wort” (the unfermented beer) is transferred from the kettle to a “carboy” and cooled with a system of copper tubing. Yeast is a living organism, and, as when baking bread, its temperature is important: Too high a temperature will kill it.
A key rule to making good beer is keeping everything clean. Mr. Perez says, “Sanitization is key for taste – to make sure your beer turns out like beer.” Mr. Jacobsen says he even wears gloves when working with the cooled beer.
The primary fermentation can take 7-10 days, during which the yeast will consume its available “food” (sugars) in its friendly environment, and will reproduce rapidly. As the food disappears, yeast cells will die. Before decaying yeast cells can have an unpleasant effect on the beer, it is time to siphon the beer from the first carboy to a second (“racking”), for a second fermentation. How long that will be depends on what kind of beer is being made. Dry-hopping – adding more hops – may also be done at this time, especially for India Pale Ales (IPAs). If one is brewing a fruit beer, such as a raspberry weiss, often a third fermentation will be executed. Finally, the brewer can bottle the beer.
Among the club members and guests at this event is Alex Schiffer of South Evanston. He has brought a “maibock,” an “Oktoberfest sweet beer,” he says, a paler version of a traditional bock – a strong, dark lager – and his own version of Three Floyds’ Alpha King Pale Ale, which he brewed “as a test of skill.” People come up to receive a small draught in one of the very small glasses used for sampling. Water pitchers are set out on the tables to clean cup and palate between samples.
Andrea, a young woman whose boyfriend, she says, is a homebrewer, is developing a beer palate. She knows what she does not like – nothing too hoppy, so IPAs are out, she says. “And nothing too dark.” Her friend, Mark Varnes, arrives at the event. This is the first time he has come to one of these meetings, he says. He has not been making beer long, he adds.
Phil Zelewsky has brought a Bohemian Pilsner and an English Robust Porter, “a new style for [him].” He says he might in the future “elaborate on it or… turn it into a coffee porter.”
Mr. Jacobsen pours glasses of his offering for Sylvia-Monique Thomas and Claudia Nitschke. He says to them, “Does it taste real?” It turns out both women come from Germany; Ms. Thomas is a post-doctoral student working with Mr. Jacobsen, and Ms. Nitschke is visiting her. “Yes, it does,” they say. “Just like the German one.”
The crowd of 40-50 people appears to be enjoying themselves very much. There is lots of animated discussion about the different kinds of beer – dark, light, small, big, “hoppy” and the like. It seems likely that this group of home-brewers (and homebrew samplers) will add to their “official” numbers in the near future.