The Archaeologist of Beer | Our Town | Chicago Reader

The Archaeologist of Beer 

Home-brewing star Randy Mosher is out to rediscover the history of the world's best beverage.

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"This brewery right here is probably the most flexible and technologically capable brewery in town," says Randy Mosher. And what's more, since the laundry machines are on the second floor of his Rogers Park Victorian, it has the whole basement to itself.

To tour Mosher's Buckapound Brewery, you step past the litter boxes on the stairs and duck low-hanging pipes. Almost every piece of equipment is surplus or salvage, scavenged over the years by Mosher for about a buck a pound--hence the name. On top of a battered restaurant stove there's a mash kettle, for boiling grain, that's wrapped in yellow insulation. To see what's happening in the kettle, you need a flashlight.

This setup may not sound like much, but if home brewers were ranked, Mosher would be among the best in America. British beer expert Michael Jackson has called him a home-brewing genius. Craft breweries are often structured to create relatively simple, and similar, beers, but Mosher brews a ridiculously wide range, from the modern to the obscure and extinct. The Buckapound can handle both an ultrahoppy India Pale Ale, today's hottest style, and a hop-free gruit ale, the it beer of premodern Europe. Inside the mash kettle today are the beginnings of a sample summer pale ale for a startup brewery in Cleveland, whose owner has hired Mosher as a consultant; he'll tap the ale at a picnic this Saturday for the annual holiday known as National Homebrew Day. Fellow Chicago brewers call Mosher's backyard the best place in America to drink beer that afternoon. Last year, Mosher's sixth throwing the invite-only party, about 50 people--most of them members of the Chicago Beer Society--sampled 30 different brews between morning and midnight.

A full-time graphic designer who's created labels for regional brewers like Lakefront, Two Brothers, and Three Floyds, Mosher also teaches at the Siebel brewing academy at Goose Island and is the author of a pair of home-brewing books. He's prone to sayings like "It's a small thing, beer, but it's our civilization." He began brewing his own in 1982, just a few years after Congress decriminalized the practice (the law was a holdover from Prohibition). On the wall of the basement there's a photo from that year of Mosher, bearded and already bald at 30, and a friend sitting on a kitchen floor in Cincinnati surrounded by bottles and plastic hose. Mosher's grinning wildly. "We're drinking batch number two, which was god-awful horrible, and bottling batch number three," he says. At that time in America, the craft beer movement was still in its infancy; the cult beer of the day was Coors, which was only distributed out west. If you wanted good beer, you had to make it yourself, but information on amateur brewing was scarce. So Mosher and his pal hit the library and eventually unearthed some professional guides to the process. "We brewed lots of kinds of beer that we'd never tasted," says Mosher, including recondite, complex Belgian beers then unavailable in the States. When they finally tasted actual Belgians, their reaction was, "'Yeah--this is pretty much it.'"

Mosher calls brewing "one of those things that hooks people hard." After only a couple of years mixing his own mash he'd started work on his first home-brewing book. While he was still chipping away at it, he moved to Chicago to take a job as an art director for a small advertising agency. Then, in 1989, he sold the rights to a device he invented called the Amazing Wheel of Beer to Charlie Finkel, a pioneering Seattle beer importer. (The wheel simplifies calculating beer's gravity, or its density compared to water, a key brewing metric.) When Finkel asked if he had any other ideas, he was ready. His first book, The Brewer's Companion, was published by Finkel's press, Alephenalia, in 1991, the same year he quit his job to freelance full-time.

Although Charlie Papazian's home-brewing books dominated the market by then, Mosher's sold well; to date he's moved 20,000 copies. "What I was trying to do," he says, "was take the great world of professional brewing information--from all these thick 1,000-page books--and pull out what was most essential for small-scale brewers." Through eBay, library research, and friends who share his interest, Mosher's collected a sizable archive of beer literature over the last 24 years. The books and photocopies fill 15 shelves in his office: an 1819 "Practical Treatise" on beer; an English book of recipes called Mackenzie's 5,000 Receipts; a beautifully bound German history of brewing; an 1888 London collection ("almost all poems") titled In Praise of Ale; a French book from about 1820 that Mosher calls the "most miserable, horrible, nasty bunch of recipes you ever saw in your life." He reads the French and muddles through the German.

Over the course of his research, Mosher became more and more interested in forgotten oddball beers of yore. Ten years ago he called up Michael Jackson, with whom he'd become friendly, and said, "I've got an idea. I've been working on these obscure, antique beer styles that don't exist or are hard to find. How about if I brew them and you talk about them?" He puzzled out the formula for a rare Finnish sahti, possibly the last primitive beer still produced, and the now-extinct Grodzisk, a Polish smoked beer. Mosher had never tasted either, but Jackson, who describes Mosher as a beer archaeologist, had. "It was absolutely staggering," Jackson says. "It's like making a three-dimensional sculpture based on a black-and-white photograph." Even if you can find a recipe, he continues, "you still can't really tell how to make the beer: the recipe says, you get half a ton of Mr. Smith's malt and half a ton of Mr. Jones's malt. Well, the brewer knew what he was getting from Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. We don't."

If Mosher can find an approximate recipe--and since brewing has always been a competitive and secretive industry, he often can't--he'll work off the proportion of grains and his best guess at a beer's final gravity and taste. "You have to make a lot of guesses," Mosher says. "You wouldn't necessarily want to use a 17th-century recipe with 20th-century malts and technique."

In 2004 he published his second book, Radical Brewing: Recipes, Tales, and World-Altering Meditations in a Glass, on the subject of lesser-known and extinct beers. Jackson contributed a foreword. Mosher is quick to point out that it isn't definitive. "My point of view is, let's romp around and have a little fun. Let's see if we can put ourselves behind the mugs of the people who were drinking this beer."

After a stall in the mid-90s, craft beer sales in America have taken off. Last year they rose almost 10 percent while mainstream beer sales fell. Ironically, with the increase in craft brewing, home brewing's popularity has declined. "Home brewing begat brewing and now there's all this beer around," Mosher says. His latest book project, tentatively titled "Tasting Beer," is intended as a complement to Jancis Robinson's classic wine guide How to Taste. With it he hopes to change how beer drinkers--not just beer brewers--think about the beverage; he's currently shopping his proposal to publishers outside of what he calls the "home brew ghetto."

Mosher is also slated to be a talking head on an upcoming History Channel special on beer, and he's being filmed for a documentary produced by Ken Burns's Florentine Films. The History Channel program is sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, and when Mosher arrived on the set he learned that the thesis was, in his words, that "modern industrial technology saves humanity from the nightmare of dark, cloudy ale--that technology made beer better. And it's like, you know, guys, this is just not true." Anheuser-Busch and the other industrial breweries are panicked by their slipping market share, he says. They're trying to leverage the only advantages they've got: size and technology. "Beer companies love habitual behavior," he says. "Once you get people off those unconscious choices, they don't go back."

A book like "Tasting Beer" may never sell to consumers who only care whether their beer is cold or cheap. But Mosher thinks it'll appeal to the same demographic that buys artisanal cheese and bread. After all, the modern rhetoric of food is about the traditions and stories behind it, and Mosher can talk plenty about those. "There's nothing wrong with industry," he says. "But it's not good for culture."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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