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Matt Kosloski and Ted Perez stir the grains during the mashing process.


Loosened state laws spark more homebrew hobbyists

by Elena Schneider
Aug 14, 2013


Elena Schneider/MEDILL

Perez displays Mt. Hood hops, a flavoring plant that is often used as the base for Imperial beers.


Elena Schneider/MEDILL

Kosloski mills grains outside of his garage in preparation for the brewing process.

Greg Shuff tried homebrewing beer for the first time for a research project while he was a student at Purdue University in Indiana. Ted Perez got a Mr. Beer kit as a present from his wife. Houston brewery owner Ryan Soroka made beer while in college in New Orleans. For each, a love for handcrafted, homemade beer started with the first taste.

“I am obsessed,” said Perez, president of the Evanston Homebrew Club, which he founded in 2008. The club launched a mere four years after he tried out that first beer kit.

Craft brewing and homebrewing often go hand in hand and tap a rising trend. They are building on the popularity of the organic, farm-to-table and environmentally green movements that are driving the rise in farmer’s markets, city bike exchanges and food trucks.

“It coincides with a lot of American youth ideals that, as a culture, we’re going to value more local and sustainable things,” said Shuff, who turned a college kick into a business. He opened DryHop, a brewery and restaurant in Lakeview this year. “As long as they grow, then craft beer will continue to grow. It’s an affordable luxury item.”

“We’ve been committed to making our craft brewery a community hang out and contributing to a growing neighborhood,” said Soroka, who started homebrewing beer in college in New Orleans and now owns 8th Wonder Brewing in Houston, Texas.

For all those reasons, craft beer and homebrewing are rebuilding an old American tradition, advocates say.

“It’s here to stay,” said John Zbesko, a decades-long homebrewer and Evanston resident. He said craft beer is self-sustaining now that the Internet can connect brewers with ideas and supplies, along with the glamorization of certain vintage brands.

The numbers back him up. This year, Mississippi became the last state to legalize homebrewing, while Illinois lawmakers loosened restrictions on homebrewers just this summer, allowing them to take their brews away from home base and share it with others. Illinois residents can also buy a $25 permit to provide homemade beer at public events, with samples limited to 2 ounces.

In Texas, craft brewer’s efforts to gain a foothold in the Texas market also got a boost this year with the biggest state legislative overhaul the brewery industry has seen in 20 years. Lawmakers approved a legislative package that allows small, packaging breweries to sell their wares directly to customers for consumption in the brewery’s tasting room. The old law prohibited any direct sales by a production brewery—requiring samples to be free. Now, these breweries can sell up to 5,000 barrels at in-house bars and beer gardens.

“If [craft brewing] continues to grow at the current pace, it could end up being 10 percent of the overall marketplace, which is pretty significant,” said Rick Donley, executive director of the Beer Alliance of Texas, which represents beer distributors in the state. “We’ll have to see, craft brewing is still in its infancy.”

Hobbyists start with homebrewing. But that process begins at a factory. Beer begins with barley seeds, the grain that serves as the ingredient base. Barley is soaked in water, and then dried before it is shipped to the brewer.

For homebrewers with a sophisticated operation of equipment, the first step at home is milling—various grains are run through a small mill that “fractures them to an accurate size in preparation for the mashing process,” said Keith Lemcke, vice president of the Siebel Institute, the oldest brewing school in the United States. It’s a technical school in the heart of Lincoln Park that teaches the science of brewing for both industry and homebrewers.

In Wilmette, Matt Kosloski said he begins his brew days by parking his car on the street to empty out his garage. Then, he rolls out his brewing set-up, a three keg system complete with a sliding burner underneath. He even hand-stitched a cover for it this year.

“Yes, it gets pretty loud,” he acknowledged as cracked grains fell into an orange bucket. Kosloski pours the grains into his “hot liquor” keg – one of the kegs in his set up. Perez, who joined Kosloski on a recent brew day, said sometimes he suffers from “equipment envy.”

The next step, “mashing,” involves very little violence, despite its name. Rather, the mash refers to the hot water mixed with the milled grains. Depending on the brewer, the mash can reach 120 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat excites enzymes in the grains to break down from a starch to sugars and proteins—a feast for the yeast during fermentation. For this recipe, Koloski holds the mash at 157 degrees Farenheit for 10 minutes, and then heats it up to 165 degrees.

The remaining crushed grains are separated from the mashed syrup, or wort, by traditionally draining it through a steel strainer. Then the wort is transferred to the brew kettle to be boiled.

What happens to the remaining grains? For some, it’s the trash or garden compost. Other brewers send the wet grains to local farms as animal feed. Kosloski trashes his leftovers, but hopes to start composting the waste.

Now in the brew kettle, the wort heats up to a fast boil. For extract brewers — those hobbyists with less professional brew set-ups — this requires only a stove top and pot.

But now the creative work really begins—step one for Perez, who uses ready-made wort. “Instead of having to do all the grain part, that’s where a lot of the complexity comes in, so I do extract brewing,” Perez said. “You don’t have most of the equipment and your brew day is much quicker, but you don’t have as much control with it.” 

Kosloski noted that extract is often more expensive, costing upwards of 40 or 50 dollars.

During the 60 to 90 minute boil, the brewer adds the hops. This is where the flavor and body of the drink come alive.

Depending on the recipe and the brewer’s creativity, hops can be tossed in throughout the boil. Hops are the flowers of the hops plant, and they have a flavoring and stabilizing effect on beer.

“Usually the earlier you add hops, the more bitter they make the beer,” Perez said. “The later hops add aroma to the brew.” Kosloski throws in two varietals—Mt. Hood hops with a well-tempered bitterness and Columbus hops, which lays the bitterness foundation for most India Pale Ales and Stouts and adds an herbal, earthy flavor.

For the Evanston Brew Club, homebrews feature a vast range of flavors—from a chili pepper to salsa beer to pizza beer. “They’re not always good,” Perez said.

Steam released during the boil cleanses the liquid of unwanted flavors left over from the mash, and the heat kills off germs.

Following the hour or more boil, the wort cools to the desired fermentation temperature, usually around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, yeast—the essential ingredient for alcohol production—kicks off the fermentation. That means “sugars are consumed and by-products of alcohol, carbon dioxide, organic acids, flavors and aromas are produced,” Lemcke said.

During fermentation, wort becomes beer. Some breweries filter their beer after fermentation, but it depends on preference. Sugar is also added to finish off with some carbonation.

But not everyone is satisfied to keep the brews amongst friends. With his sojourn into homebrewing in college, Shuff wanted to reach a larger audience. He started as an intern at a brewpub in St. Louis, but then left for brew school in Munich, Germany.

“No one knew more about how to make beer than the Germans. They understand the process,” he said. “But they didn’t use that information for any interesting gain, they were only interested in making the three beers they’d only made for 1,000 years. But American brew craft is very adventurous.”

For brewers of all stripes, the hobby or the profession provides room for individuality and passion. “The chemistry is here with the mashing. The biology is with the yeast. Then you have the engineering with the equipment,” Zbesko said. “That’s part of the appeal. People can take the hobby in different directions in terms of their interests. You can always do more.”