Last spring Vince Michael, age 33, was getting restless. Work was still fun: he spends his days protecting historic buildings as the Chicago programs director for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. Evenings were long: he’d expended considerable energy restoring his Logan Square greystone, and the thrill of dog ownership had worn off. While his artist wife, Felicity, spun images on her computer, Vince watched TV. But then last April he won a beermaking kit in a silent auction. The rest is history.
That month he produced “Wicked Gravity Ale,” and in the eight months since he’s cranked out 22 batches of assorted beers. He’s got more than nine cases of the stuff stashed in his basement.
“Want a brew?” he asks, standing before his refrigerator door in his “I Brew, Therefore I Am” T-shirt. Who could pass up such an offer? Into tall pilsner glasses he pours a honey-colored elixir he calls Greystone Gold, and it is good, remarkably good.
Glass in hand, Michael leads the way downstairs to his beer-making domain. “Watch your head,”) he says, heading with purposeful stride past old sofas and miscellaneous chairs to a back room. “So, here’s the brewery–ah, it’s also the laundry room,” he says. So it is, and to the uninitiated, it’s not too exciting: an old table, a couple of notebooks, a few plastic tubes hanging on the wall, a little heap of assorted bags that look like he just made a trip to the local food co-op, and three five-gallon glass jugs, one corked and full of a brown fluid: an ale he’ll bottle later tonight.
He flips open a notebook to page after page of his labels: “Memorial Ale, that was good–I did that for Memorial Day. Slam Dunkel, that was when the Bulls won the championship. Then–I really liked this–Independent Stout. This is when I started the Riff Bam line of beers. Riff Bam is an old cartoon character I used to do. Wicked Gravity August Ale, which I didn’t like–it was too hoppy–Scottish Ale, Riff Bam’s Hop Head Bitter. This was Cherry Bomb Ale; I put two and a half pounds of cherries in it. Then I did a Weissbier, then I did a brown ale, like a Newcastle Brown, that was like this recipe here. I followed it pretty closely. Then I made an Irish stout. It was too sweet, I mean the head on it was black, and oh–here’s Felicity Crystal Amber Ale [named after his wife]. That was very nice.”
Under the table are an army of bottles: four cases resting in their six-packs, each bottle with a handmade label. Michael pulls out a few bottles: “There’s some Felicitys left and a few Gravitys, and some Riff Bam bitters. Then out here we’ve got some of the older batches, that makes seven cases, and then over here we’ve got . . . at least another two cases.” It has the look of an obsession. Michael grins. “Well, I am pretty intense about hobbies.”
Vince is not alone in his passion. These days, an estimated one and a half million people are brewing up their own beer in garages, basements, and bathrooms across America. The Chicago Beer Society–a beer appreciation club–has grown from 90 members in 1987 to 630 today, the ranks swelled in large part by rabidly enthusiastic home brewers, busily reviving the gloriously rich, slightly more alcoholic beers of the past: lagers, ales, stouts, porters, and assorted other international styles, as well as concoctions of their own invention.
What many home brewing enthusiasts like to point out is that historically beer making was a domestic chore, like baking bread (which uses most of the same ingredients) or making candles. And the first alewives were not those smelly little fish that wash up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Says Randy Mosher, a graphic artist and a Chicago Beer Society board member, “The alewife was actually a woman who brewed beer and maintained a tavern. They had a broom that they would stick out over their door. If the broom was out the beer was in, and when the beer was gone they’d take the broom down.”
The industrial revolution destroyed the brewers’ cottage industry. England was the first to mechanize beer making, and the first factory-made beer was porter, named for those who drank it–the porters who hauled heavy crates along the docks and streets of London. In time, other beers would follow.
Thus it has been to the present, with an ever-consolidating brewing industry trying hard to produce beers that, as beer authority Michael Jackson has written, won’t be “rejected by nine out of ten upwardly mobile white males between the ages of 25 and 40 living in Minneapolis.”
What Vince Michael and the other home brewers around the country are producing may very well be rejected by the average beer drinker. But that’s not to say it isn’t good beer. In fact, today home brewers can conceivably brew fantastic beer in their basements.
Home brewing was legalized in the U.S. in 1979, but it took until the mid-80s for the hobby to catch on. By then, Americans had developed a craving for fine beers via imports like Becks, Heineken, and Bass. The new demand for exotic brewing supplies could easily be met thanks to the English, who legalized home brewing in 1963 and had developed a lively market for fancy hops, yeasts, and malts. The availability today is nothing short of amazing.
There are fancy hops, like Saaz from what used to be Czechoslovakia, Fuggles from England, and Hallertauer Hersbrucker from Germany. Those who get really serious can grow their own plants–climbing vines that produce an aromatic green bud resembling a miniature pinecone–from readily available cuttings. There are fancy yeasts–critical to accurately reproducing some fabulous brew from your European vacation–including Whitbread and Nottingham ale yeasts, Pasteur champagne yeast–a strain isolated by the great scientist himself–and even special yeasts for wheat beers and steam beer. And there are grains from around the world as well–some whole, some malted, all with yummy names: caramel malt, crystal malt, black patent malt, chocolate malt.
Not only is it easy to get good supplies; it’s also cheap. Consider the cost of a six-pack of fancy beer: $6, or $7? A home brewer’s initial investment is anywhere from $50 to $100 for the equipment, but the product itself is a bargain; Michael says it costs him about $25 for about 50 bottles. Hauling beer bottles to the recycler becomes a thing of the past, too, as home brewers hoard their empties to fill with their own brew.
Just as important as good supplies, according to the home brew guru Charlie Papazian, is quality information. Papazian himself gets the lion’s share of credit here; no one has done more than he to propagate good brewing technique and proselytize the joys of home brew. Fifteen years ago he founded the American Homebrewer’s Association, which has grown into an 18,000-member organization with a magazine, Zymurgy, whose name means the science of brewing. Today the AHA is but one of several divisions of the Association of Brewers, which also serves as a trade association for microbrewers and brewpubs and runs the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, which gets a certain amount of press for naming the best microbrew in the country every year. Papazian’s book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, first published in 1984, became the bible for home brewers. The second edition, The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing, has sold 350,000 since it came out in 199 1, and, a third edition should be out by fall 1994. Its charm lies in both its simple directions and its periodic exhortation to “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a home brew.”
Watching Michael whip up a batch on the kitchen stove dispels any notions that making beer is a complicated process. In fact, it’s less complicated than Kraft macaroni and cheese, and the colors are nicer. While sipping a home brew, Michael takes these steps: 1) Fill a pan with tap water. 2) Dump in hops and a can of malt extract (barley that has been malted–that is, germinated and roasted–and then reduced to a thick syrup). 3) Bring to a boil, and 4) stir occasionally for about an hour. Michael stirs the tawny stuff and sweet and nutty smells rise up. He could be making candy.
As Michael stirs his brew and quaffs his beer, he imparts a highly satisfying bit of academic trivia. It seems a couple of professors at the University of Wisconsin have a theory that civilization was caused by beer. Some scholars believe that civilization began when people stopped hunting and gathering and took up agriculture, and “these people theorize that [agriculture started] with beer,” says Michael. “They looked at early Cro-Magnon civilizations in Europe, and in excavations they found giant circular bowls that they determined to contain beer, and they assumed the whole tribe would sit around it and drink from big straws until they fell on their heads,” he says. The Beer Theory of Civilization may be a bit controversial, but it seems indisputable that our forebears stumbled onto the concept of beer after finding some grains that had caught a little rainwater and sat in the sun for a few days. Naturally occurring airborne yeast bacteria caused fermentation and produced beer. With the conviviality that results from sipping a few brews, the next thing you’ve got cities and political parties, corner bars and bureaucracies.
Ah, another home brew, drained to the lees. The next steps are simple: 5) Pour the cooked liquid into a big container and add cold tap water and yeast. 6) Let it sit and ferment for five days or so. 7) Siphon it off into another large container, leaving a yeasty sludge behind, and let it ferment for another five days. 8) Siphon it into another container, leaving more of the spent yeast behind, and mix in a few cups of hot sugar water to start a second fermenting process that produces carbonation. 9) Siphon the beer into bottles and cap with a simple device that looks a little like a complicated corkscrew. Two to six weeks later chill, open, and enjoy.
Only a few things complicate matters. All equipment has to be sterile so it must be washed first in diluted bleach and rinsed a lot, as bleach can kill the yeast. And siphoning the fermenting beer from one container into another and finally into the bottles can be a confounding task for most newcomers: you insert a plastic tube into one container and the liquid magically travels the length of the tube and deposits itself into the other container. But getting it started on its journey is the hard part, and many home brewers take the horribly unsanitary route of sucking on the end of the tube. Some say you should gargle with vodka first to kill all the germs. Randy Mosher says he once heard about a guy in New York who figured out a way to start a siphon with his vacuum cleaner.
After mastering a simple beer, you can start to go crazy. Papazian’s recipes in The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing would have melted even Carry Nation’s heart with their sheer poetry. There’s Toad Spit Stout–“it is bittersweet, full-bodied, dry, and typifies the roasted barley character of all stouts.” And Limp Richard’s Schwarzbier–“as gentle as a calm night in the Black Forest . . . a deep, dark, smooth, mild German lager.” And Kumdis Island Spruce Beer–“originally brewed with the fresh spring growth of tall Sitka spruce trees in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia.” And Who’s in the Garden Grand Cru–“in the style of a Belgian White beer flavored with coriander, orange peel, and the spiciness of German hops.”
When many people think of home brew, they don’t conjure up images of luscious concoctions that rival and even surpass commercially made beers. Instead they think of hillbillies sneaking up on somebody’s batch of white lightning. Or the idea that it’s brewed in the tub. Or that it’s vaguely illegal.
Prohibition did outlaw all brewing. According to The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing, when Prohibition ended in 1933, restrictions on home wine making were lifted, but “through a stenographer’s mistake the words, ‘and/or beer’ never made it into the Federal Register.” States were free to legalize home brewing; some did. Then in 1979 Jimmy Carter signed a law decreeing that any adult over 21 could brew up to 100 gallons of beer per year for consumption by family and friends and another 100 gallons for every additional adult in the household.
Until recently, most home-brewed beer was pretty awful. During the Depression, when lots of people were making a little stuff in their bathrooms, there was little in the way of information or materials available, and anyway people were just looking for a buzz. After Prohibition, a lot of practitioners were destitute grad students. My own parents brewed beer when my dad was in medical school in the 50s. They vaguely remember somebody passing on a verbal recipe and concocted their beer with baking yeast and sugar and a can of hop-flavored malt extract made by Pabst and sold nationally in grocery stores. My parents sterilized nothing, and admit they made atrocious beer, but it was cheap.
Beer making also carries baggage from the homemade wine craze of the 70s, when lots of people were making scandalously bad wine in their basements. Randy Mosher explains that there’s a big difference between making your own wine and your own beer. With wine, what separates the good from the bad is the quality of the grapes. If you happen to live in Napa Valley perhaps someone will hand you a couple of bushels over a fence, but for us midwesterners it’s more of a problem. “It’s a republican thing, it’s a land-owning [thing]. You really have to have an estate, you have to have a vineyard to really make good wine.”
With beer, it’s the process that counts. The farmer, says Mosher, “can take the same kind of barley, grow it in any kind of field, and process it differently and create 15 different types of malt from it because of the way it is [dried and processed]. . . . You can make it light or dark or sweet or not sweet.” How the beer tastes then depends on how the home brewer puts the ingredients together. Says Mosher, “It’s like making spaghetti sauce.”
Why is home brewing catching on? The home brewers themselves admit that like everyone else they’re cocooning, staying home more, puttering about in search of a hobby. They’re looking for quality instead of quantity. Says Mosher: “It happened to wine, it happened to coffee, it’s happening to bread, and now it’s happening to beer. . . . It’s acquiring some knowledge and some taste and some sensitivity to your surroundings, saying let’s pay a little more attention to this stuff that’s right here in our daily life.”
Home brewing is part and parcel of changes throughout the beer industry, changes that, in Chicago have also manifested themselves in the rise and fall of a few brewpubs–bars that brew their own beer on the premises. Goose Island Brewery, at 1800 N. Clybourn, is one. There are a few others in the suburbs: the Weinkeller in Berwyn, and the Millrose Brewing Company in South Barrington. Sieben’s River North Brewery at 432 W. Ontario, the first brewpub in the area, opened in 1987 and closed in 1990; the Berghoff Restaurant then took over the site to open its own brewpub, which closed last year (the space is now home to a Persian restaurant). The Tap and Growler (a growler was a tin pail that working men would proffer up for the bartender to fill), which opened at 901 W. Jackson in November 1987, finally shut its doors in May 1992.
And in the face of the daunting advertising budgets of the national brewers, in Chicago local microbrewers have begun to produce and ply their wares. The Pavichevich Brewing Company in Elmhurst has been making Baderbrau pilsner since 1988; last spring it came out with a bock beer. The Chicago Brewing Company, maker of Legacy Lager, Legacy Red Ale, and Big Shoulders Porter, produced its first batch in 1989. And Golden Prairie Brewing Company near Clybourn and Webster, whose flagship brew is Golden Prairie Lager, opened in the fall of 1992. Nationally, there are a number of smaller companies that are getting in on the craze for “handcrafted” beer and produce anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 barrels (one barrel equals two kegs) a year, including Anchor Steam, Red Hook, and Sierra Nevada, and Pete’s Brewing Company (which makes Pete’s Wicked Ale).
Then there’s the Boston Brewing Company, whose 12 different brews seem to be proof of the growing demand for more interesting beers. Boston Brewing Company–which in addition to Samuel Adams Boston Lager produces a cream stout, a Boston stock ale, and six seasonal beers, including a double bock, a dark wheat lager, and a cranberry Iambic, with a triple bock on the way–had annual sales last year of 273,000 barrels, up 64 percent from the previous year. Still, that’s only one half of a percent of Anheuser-Busch’s 87 million barrels last year.
Owner Jim Koch says he started out as a home brewer. In fact, in November he brewed up a batch of beer for his upcoming wedding. “It’s a blond wheat bock,” he says. “I wanted to make something with the same characteristics as my fiance–strong, and a little bit different.”
Even the mammoth brewers we all bonded to in college are taking note. Almost all of them are producing a few beers that hearken to the older, richer styles of beer. Miller has its Reserve and Reserve Lite (both made from 100 percent barley malt as opposed to barley plus corn or rice, adjunct grains commonly used by the big brewers). Coors, which has sold Killian’s Irish Red for years, has introduced a Winterfest beer and is planning to start up a bock-type beer for spring, a wheat beer for summer, and an Octoberfest beer for fall. Ruben Valdillez, corporate communications manager for Coors, says the seasonal beers largely resulted from the efforts of a few “strong devotees of handcrafted beers working in R and D. A small group of people made it their mission to see that these beers didn’t have to meet normal [marketing] criteria for new products.”
Home brewers as a rule get pretty ranrous when commenting on the beers made by the big brewers. They grouse about suspicious additives that brewers aren’t required to label–there was a rumor a few years back that one big brewer was using formaldehyde, which though outlawed in the U.S. is commonly used to disinfect equipment in Germany. Mosher, whose reference guide The Brewer’s Companion will be published in March, says big brewers face the problems confronting all makers of all processed food. “When they do the filtering”–to remove particles of protein and yeast–“they have to do something to put the head back in; when you put the head in, that causes the protein to destabilize; they put protein stabilizer in, that causes something else to happen; pretty soon you’ve got this whole tower of cards of chemicals.”
But Bill Siebel, who runs the Siebel Institute, the largest beer school in the world, with his brother Ron, says the big brewers don’t use all those chemicals anymore. Unknown chemicals in beer did create a major brouhaha in the mid-70s. Royko wrote a scathing column on the subject: “Last year I wrote that most American beers taste as if they were brewed through a horse. . . . I have just read a little known study of American beers. So I must apologize to the horse. At least with a horse, we’d know what we’re getting.” And plenty of other stories appeared following a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that identified several harmful additives in beer.
The stink lead brewers to rethink additives. And according to Seibel, competition between Bud and Miller to see whose product could be the most natural in the eyes of the public drove most of the chemicals from the big breweries. Today, he says, most additives are natural and are limited to “processing aids that don’t stay in the beer” when it’s finished. Nevertheless there’s probably more virtue in your buddy’s home brew, which contains only yeast, hops, barley, and water.
The biggest gripe the home brewers have against the big breweries, not surprisingly, is taste. The big brewers are trying to sell kegs by the millions, and the millions want pale, crisp, highly carbonated lagers–and lots of low-calorie beer. Pleasing the consumer also pleases the brewer, because the corn and rice used to make lighter beers are cheaper than barley. Mosher says comparing home brew to commercially produced beer is like comparing apples and oranges. “They’re just mainstream, branded, marketable products,” he says.
Steve Hamburg, another Chicago Beer Society board member, says that even when the big brewers do a good job, it’s hard to tell. For example, he understands that Budweiser contains seven different kinds of hops, an extraordinary number even for a home brewer (though Paul Koenig, a spokesman for Anheuser-Busch, will only confirm that the brand contains “several varieties” of hops grown in Europe and the northwestern United States). The trouble is, the hops in Bud are doled out in such tiny amounts that when measured in International Bitters Units–the standard for determining the amount of bitterness in a beer–they are near or below the human threshold for taste.
Mosher’s perspective is that the home brew/microbrew scene is “driving [the big brewers] nuts. Their business is flat or falling. Budweiser peaked at 25 percent of the market, and it’s going down. They see this tremendous excitement: people brewing themselves, all these little guys, totally in the face of all reason, taking their life savings to start up little breweries, the economics of which make no sense–they’ll go for five years without making a nickel!
“I talked with a guy at J. Walter Thompson who was working in the group that does the Lowenbrau business. He wouldn’t tell me much, but he said, yeah, were going to capitalize on the microbrewing trend–we think we’ve got some stuff worked out, and were going to try this and were going to try that, and he pauses and says, ‘We haven’t figured out what the liquid is going to be yet!’ And I think that really sums up the attitude of the people in Gucci loafers. [It’s] totally antithetical [to the home brewers]. . . . A lot of people approach this like a religion.”
Mosher may be overstating the case of nerves home brewers and microbrewers are giving the big brewers. Papazian says that while the big brewers are undoubtedly trying to respond to demand with their red lagers and ales, they certainly aren’t feeling any threat from the microbreweries and brewpubs, as these account for only 1 percent of the 195 million barrels of beer sold every year in America. And, says Papazian, their interest is certainly not a threat to the microbrewers. On the contrary, “If Miller comes out with a stout, it’ll make all the other stouts more popular.”
There’s a chicken-or-egg question here: which came first, the home brewer or the revival of small, regional brewing? Home brewers, of course, are among the most enthusiastic supporters of microbreweries and brewpubs. And while the midwest has lagged behind both coasts in terms of the popularity of handcrafted beer, the Chicago home brew scene is among the liveliest in the country.
The reason for that, explains Mosher, is that the hobby has such broad appeal. “No matter what you bring to it in terms of your professional experience and personal interest, there’s something there for you. If you you’re re kind of a geekoid mechanical type of person who loves to solder and weld and hammer stuff around, it’s unbelievable how much junk you can accumulate, and how much fun you can have just putting stuff together. Then there’s the whole historical thing. If you’re into history you can brew authentic porters, for example. You can read about porters and the way they were in 1720–it was different from the way they were in 1750, it was different in 1800, you can follow that along. You can roast your own grains and replicate these old recipes. If you’re into biology and yeast and work in a laboratory and have access to culturing equipment and skills you can get into that. Then, you’ve got art guys like me,” who like to make labels.
Home brewing can also satisfy the thirst for competition. The Chicago Beer Society cooperates with other beer clubs to select a midwest home brewer of the year (this year’s top two contenders appear to be from Milwaukee and Kansas City), and it makes the first-round cut in the American’ Homebrewers Association’s national home brewing competition each July; in April it begins wading through 500 to 600 beers sent via UPS from six surrounding states, and sends the top two from each of 24 style categories on to the national championships. Last year society members rented an Amtrak train to take them to the national competition in Portland, Oregon.
Competition is serious business, with beers judged using a daunting list of style characteristics. Observe the demands placed on a classic dry stout (exemplified by Guinness): “Black opaque. Light to medium body. Medium to high hop bitterness. Roasted barley (coffeelike) character required. Sweet maltiness and caramel malt evident. No hop flavor or aroma. Slight acidity/sourness O.K. Low to medium alcohol. Diacetyl low to medium.” (Diacetyl is a byproduct of fermentation that causes a butterscotch flavor.)
Winners get satin ribbons and a bit of fame, but all entrants get valuable feedback on their brews. Hamburg, an experienced judge, says one of the most difficult and valuable things the judges can do is identify the causes of problems in beer. The skunky smell you sometimes notice when you first open a bottle of Heineken, for example, is caused by the color of the bottles, Hamburg says. “It’s sold in green bottles, because Heineken thinks Americans like beer in green bottles, but this color doesn’t do a good job of protecting the beer from light. It’s called ‘light struck,’ and it’s a flaw.” He continues, “If you’ve got a smell of cabbage, or cooked vegetables,” some kind of airborne bacteria might have gotten into your beer.
At its October meeting, held at the Goose Island Brewery, the Chicago Beer Society held a “Spooky Brew Review.” Among the categories were pumpkin beer, “big muddy” beer–in memory of the floods last summer–and scariest beer. “I got to judge that category,” says Mosher, laughing. “The scariest was a bottle of beer that had bits of moss and junk glued on it, and plastic lizards and bugs and junk all over it. It was very dark and very cloudy. There was junk floating around in there. When we opened the bottle it was beautifully choreographed. First it shot out slowly this stream of nice clear dark liquid, followed by brown foam, and then spurting out of the brown foam were centipedes and cockroaches and all these rubber bugs. Just on the basis of that beautiful choreography, we gave [the prize] to that one.”
Some home brewers have so much fun they decide to jettison their real jobs and start making beer for a living. Tom Sweeney gets little sleep between his efforts as president of the Chicago Beer Society, his day job as an administrator in the Illinois Department of Public Aid, and his job nights and weekends as brewmaster of the Millrose Brewing Company.
Ted Furman, who founded Golden Prairie Brewing Company with two partners–his wife Laura Elliott and David Bouhl–is another home brewer turned pro. A former graphic designer, Furman acts as brewmaster, label designer, salesperson, and keg hauler for his year-old brewery. He says he was first enlightened by a glass of Anchor Steam, produced in San Francisco. “It blew me away,” says Furman. “I started thinking, ‘This can’t be that hard to do.'” He started making beer at home, and found he–and others–liked it. “Even the most brand-loyal Budweiser drinkers would say, ‘Yeah, I can see this.'”
In the mid-80s Furman went looking for a job with a local brewery, only to find out there were no local breweries. Then, in 1987, Sieben’s opened. Furman got a job as host, but he didn’t last. “I just wanted a job where I could be close to the beer making. To finagle my way in in,” he says. “But I hated trying to seat yuppies by the bathroom. They wouldn’t sit by the kitchen or the bathroom. I said, ‘Forget it.'”
As time passed, Sieben’s remained a hangout for Furman. “I was drinking there one Saturday night–I knew everybody there–they told me they had fired the young brewmaster, and hired an old brewmaster, who needed help. His name was Al Busch–same spelling, different family. He’d been brewing 42 years.” Furman took the job. “He taught me everything.”
In 1991, a year after Sieben’s closed, Furman got married. He made a keg of home brew for the wedding reception, held on a boat on Lake Michigan. Bouhl, a friend of his new bride, tasted the beer, liked it, and a year later returned with a proposition that they begin to make and sell beer–or rather, that Furman make it. Bouhl offers “moral and monetary support,” wife Laura does the books, and Furman himself does everything else.
He says Golden Prairie’s flagship beer, Golden Prairie Ale, is an altbier, sort of a cross between an Irish ale and a Vienna style lager–or, to put it another way, between Bass Ale and Anchor Steam. Though he occasionally makes a honey-ginger beer and recently started selling a maple stout, Furman says he’s not into wild experimentation. “I’ve been honing in, working to perfect Golden Prairie Ale for eight years.” This summer he plans to make a blond ale.
Like any artist, Furman has his philosophical base. “I want to create a product not unlike a wine, that can be appreciated for having a full palate of flavors. Most styles of beer evolved from a certain geographic location, and make use of the ingredients prevalent there. One or two ingredients take precedence over the flavor. I’d like to match–or marry–ingredients to a taste, not a style.”
Golden Prairie now produces 30 kegs a month, but Furman has larger equipment on hand that when up and running will expand his capacity to 120 kegs a month. His unpasteurized draft beer is available in 11 restaurants and pubs in the Chicago area: the Blackhawk Lodge and the Marc, both on Superior; Shaw’s Blue Crab, in Deerfield, the Fireside Restaurant, on Ravenswood; Binyon’s, in the Loop; Quenchers Saloon, at the corner of Western and Fullerton; the Blue Iris, near Sheffield and Belmont; the Rainbo Club, near Damen and Division; Puffer Brothers Lounge, on South Halsted; and Zinfandel, on Grand near Dearborn. Furman has no plans for his beer to show up in your local White Hen; he’s a purist, and his unpasteurized beer couldn’t survive on the shelf
Furman is not impressed with the beer habits of his fellow Chicagoans. “Geographically, Chicago’s between Milwaukee and Saint Louis–that’s Miller and Budweiser respectively,” he laughs. “Chicagoans are bombarded with ads from these huge companies. They’re very brand-loyal people who are afraid to be different. But there’s hope, there’s great hope. People are starting to get educated.”
Home brewers like Furman can make the transition to professionals via courses available in their own backyard, at the Siebel Institute. Its founder was a German named John Ewald Siebel, a student of physics and chemistry who immigrated to Chicago in 1866. Two years later he opened Siebel’s Chemical Laboratory, where he conducted scientific research on brewing, eventually publishing more than 200 articles on the subject. In 1872 he and brewer Michael Brand founded a school for brewers called the Zymotechnic Institute on Belden. Classes were taught in German and English, for “maltsters,” bottlers, engineers, and brewers. Today renamed the Siebel Institute of Technology and relocated to 4540 W. Peterson, the school trains brewers from everywhere on the globe; students in a recent course included representatives from major brewers in Italy, China, the Philippines, Colombia, Trinidad, Brazil, and Venezuela. It’s a place where brewers from Miller and Anheuser-Busch find themselves rubbing shoulders with folks like Ted Furman and the more passionate home brewers. Bill and Ron Siebel, great grandsons of John Ewald Siebel, run the school, and Bill is active in the Chicago Beer Society.
“Home brewers are the greatest group of people in the world,” says Steve Hamburg. “We have a joke. We say there’s a taxonomy of home brewers. There’s the beer geeks, who want the coolest equipment. Randy’s a geek; he’s a mad scientist. They get excited about grades of stainless steel. There’s the glutton, who says, ‘The best beer is the beer in front of me, or free beer.’ These guys have large guts. We have a few of them. And then there’s the snob, who hates everything except for the beer he or she made. Most of us are a little of all three.”
So the past, we might say, ferments the present. “Enormous amounts of energies of societies are devoted to creating mentally stimulating products like alcohol,” says Mosher. “All indigenous societies with access to starchy products will ferment them. Everybody brews beer.” And so perhaps it was inevitable that certain of us would eventually reclaim an art so basic to life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.