Monday, July 15, 2013

CHAOS Brew Club bids farewell to its home with the Summer Brew-BQ

Posted By on 07.15.13 at 02:00 PM

The obligatory tasting-glass shot. This is Sun Goddess, a wheat ale with lemongrass and tarragon.
  • The obligatory tasting-glass shot. This is Sun Goddess, a wheat ale with lemongrass and tarragon.
In my capacity as the Reader's music editor, I've gotten to know Jamie Proctor, director of marketing and digital media at Thrill Jockey Records. Last week I learned that Proctor is a member of a local home-brewing collective called CHAOS Brew Club, and has been since fall 2011 ("CHAOS" allegedly stands for "Chicago Homebrew Alchemists of Suds," but I suspect a backronym). How did this come up? Aware of my propensity to write about beer in public, he invited me to the CHAOS Summer Brew-BQ this past Saturday—the club's final event at its current location behind 1329 W. Grand Avenue. The lot has been sold, and the building CHAOS uses is due to be demolished.

CHAOS members poured more than 26 of their own beers at the Brew-BQ (as well as commercial beers donated by Aleman, Atlas, Haymarket, Spiteful, and Beverly brewpub Horse Thief Hollow). Burnin' BBQ—aka Rabid Rabbit drummer Mike Tsoulos (also of Brimstone BBQ) and pastry chef Rae Hill—carved and served nearly 100 pounds of smoked brisket and pork shoulder, plus some nicely spicy coleslaw and alarmingly bacony barbecue beans. It was a private club event, but civilians could register for a $25 two-month trial CHAOS membership to attend.

Founded in April 2011, CHAOS is far from the biggest or oldest home-brewing club in Chicago—other prominent organizations include the Chicago Beer Society, Square Kegs in Lincoln Square, and HOPS!, which stands for Homebrewer's Pride of the Southside—but as far as I know it's unique in that it maintains a fully equipped brew house that its members can sign up to use.

Inside the CHAOS brew house: Brew kettles at left, mash tuns at right. Most of the mash tuns are being used outside as water coolers.
  • Inside the CHAOS brew house: Brew kettles at left, mash tuns at right. Most of the mash tuns are being used outside as water coolers.

"Fully equipped" in this case means access to a temperature-controlled fermentation room, a filtered water supply, two gas stoves, several natural-gas burners (including a Blichmann TopTier Burner), brew kettles, mash tuns, powered grain mills, immersion and counterflow wort chillers, March brand pumps, aeration wands, hydrometers, refractometers, and lots of other gear. (I don't brew—in fact, people in small apartments like mine are perfect candidates for CHAOS membership—so I had to look up some of that stuff.) One batch is five gallons, and it's possible to make 20 gallons in a night if you've got the brew house to yourself.

The heavily insulated, temperature-controlled fermentation room, which admittedly doesnt look like much from the outside.
  • The heavily insulated, temperature-controlled fermentation room, which admittedly doesn't look like much from the outside.

Fermentation carboys in repose
  • Fermentation carboys in repose
The club currently has 43 "brewer" level members (with full access to the brew house), 23 "apprentice" members (access if accompanied by a brewer), 46 "friends" (who can attend classes and events but can't brew), and 550 Web-only members. Those 43 brewers (who pay $26 per month) include a few professionals, among them cofounder and board member Dave Williams, head brewer at Horse Thief Hollow, and vice president Pete Alvarado of the nascent Marz Brewing in Bridgeport. CHAOS members have made good showings in the Bell's Brewery Homebrew Expo and Competition, in which the brewery gives each contestant an identical supply of wort to work with; they placed second in 2011 and third in 2012. But in accordance with the law, no one making beer at CHAOS uses it for commercial purposes.

CHAOS is a not-for-profit corporation, and membership dues cover all its expenses. Fund-raising events such as the Brew-BQ help the group do out-of-the-ordinary things—buy new equipment, offer classes, move its brew house. It has a total of 14 executives and board members, but according to president James Lewis it's not an especially hierarchical organization—everybody pitches in and learns from everybody else. "Brewing with others is by far the best way to learn," he says. "Mostly us home brewers learn from reading books and the Internet, but the brew house allows people to watch and learn from others, ask questions, et cetera."

Williams and Erick "Iggy" Ignaczak (one of the folks living in the two-flat that shares the Grand Avenue lot with the brew house) started CHAOS in the basement of an artists' co-op in Humboldt Park, but within a couple months they'd moved to the space they now occupy, formerly a community-center workshop.

The crowd in the side yard. Theyre pouring beer under those tents. Not pictured: High-level multiple-dog foolishness.
  • The crowd in the side yard. They're pouring beer under those tents. Not pictured: High-level multiple-dog foolishness.

Theyre pouring beer under this tent too!
  • They're pouring beer under this tent too!
Alas, they don't have a new home lined up yet. And relocating a brew house presents some special challenges—CHAOS has a shit-ton of various ales aging in oak barrels on-site, and full barrels are of course humongously heavy. The obvious solution is to drink all that beer. If I were you, I'd keep an eye on the club's events calendar in August. Maybe you can help!

I managed to try eight CHAOS beers and three commercial brews before it was time to go play with a cat named Mr. Nice Guy in a tree house and then see the Oblivians. Among the latter were Aleman's the Hammer, an imperial blond ale aged on white cedar, and a New Albanian imperial red called Elector, which someone had brought to share.

So how was the home brew? Some of it was damn fine. Some of it, thanks to the freedom home brewers have to indulge in bonkers experimentation without risking their livelihoods, was assertively and memorably strange. My tasting notes are pretty sketchy, on account of the Brew-BQ was a powerfully convivial gathering and I had no particular desire to avoid being drawn into conversations just so I could keep writing stuff down. But I'll do my best.

I drank two of Proctor's beers: an amber ale called Burning the Amber and something hoppy called Epitome III, which I think had wheat in it. The former was thickly toasty and nicely dry, with a flavor like the crust on a creme brulee, sans the sticky sweetness; the latter smelled of pine resin and honey, with plenty of caramel from the malts.

Five CHAOS beers on tap at this table. Not pictured: The goofy Buc-ees beaver mascot on the T-shirt to the right.
  • Five CHAOS beers on tap at this table. Not pictured: The goofy Buc-ee's beaver mascot on the T-shirt to the right.

Devil's Cut Porter, by board member Conrad Fuhrman, smelled of sour-mash bourbon and tasted a little like a bittersweet chocolate brownie made with pecans. (Fuhrman used Jim Beam Devil's Cut in its brewing, but I wasn't able to determine how.) Ignaczak contributed Sun Goddess, a wheat ale made with lemongrass and tarragon; it was distinctly herbal, with a fluffy mouthfeel that made me think of lemon meringue. Board member Lucas Morris brewed a blueberry wheat beer that left a ring of pale purple fruit sediment in my glass and tasted like a barely sweetened cobbler.

I wish I'd had Rusty's Smoked Scottish Ale, by Daniel Barker, before I finished my brisket—its mesquite-smoke flavor and toffeelike malts would've complemented the barbecue wonderfully. Horse Thief Hollow's 64-10, the third commercially brewed beer I drank, was a creamy wheat ale with a huge juicy hop profile; rather than bitterness, the hops imparted notes of passionfruit and honeydew.

Rae Hill (with knife) presides over the Burnin BBQ spread.
  • Rae Hill (with knife) presides over the Burnin' BBQ spread.

If I were forced to pick just two favorites, they'd be Chris and Jessica Murphy's Golden Glacier and a Berliner weisse by Ken Getty brewed with strawberries, kiwi fruit, and dried hibiscus flowers. Golden Glacier was an English-style SMASH ("single malt and single hop") made with Golden Promise malt and Glacier hops; refreshingly dry and beautifully balanced, it had a honeysuckle and mango nose, a body that combined blood orange and caramel malt, and a white-grapefruit finish. The Berliner weisse was sour and spritzy and almost as red as cranberry juice; underneath the tart berry flavors and melonlike kiwi were notes of cherry and apricot and an intense, astringent funkiness like buckskin leather and Parmesan vinaigrette.

I could carry on at some length about what a stroke of genius it is to run a nonprofit whose members' ordinary activity produces more than enough beer to lubricate a huge backyard party for seven hours—I can't think of a better way to turn your club into a big friendly community. But this post is pretty dang long already, and I haven't gotten to the metal yet.

Proctor told me that Burning the Amber is named after Yob's "Burning the Altar," the lead track on 2009's The Great Cessation. I know I posted it when I reviewed Founders Doom, but I don't care. This video cutting together several Black Lodge scenes from Twin Peaks didn't exist on YouTube then.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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