Chicago’s Underground Homebrew Counter-Culture
Chicago’s Underground Homebrew Counter-Culture
By Jessica Murphy (firstname.lastname@example.org )
There is a certain allure in attending an event that is outside of the mainstream; to being one of a select few who are in the know. This attitude has been present for years in the realms of underground music and art but has just recently occurred in the world of craft beer. While the craft beer scene is booming in Chicago and beyond, so too is the independent and creative spirit of homebrewing. And if you have had a chance to attend one of Chef Won Kim’s homebrew events over the last year, you know that Chicago is a hotbed of small-batch brewing talent. While Chicago has a long history of homebrewing spearheaded by clubs such as Homebrewer’s Pride of the Southside (HOPS) and Brewers of South Suburbia (BOSS), homebrew events have not expressed the indie spirit quite like Won Kim’s Brew Laughter Series.
These events had their origins in February 2010, when homebrew collective Low Dive Brewing approached Kim to see if he would be interested in pairing their beers with hisfood. They started hosting intimate beer dinners with each course paired with a Low Dive beer .That culminated in a few barbeques with Kimmanned the grill and Low Dive passed out their beer. In July of 2011, Chef Kim and about five homebrewers and homebrew collectives came together to participate in the first of the official series of homebrew events, Brew Ha Ha. “It all started with such a simple idea to pair good beer (that you can’t find anywhere) with food and has escalated into a full-on curated fest,” said Kim.
So, why have such events become so popular? According to Josh Garrett of Powell Brew House, the reason any indie scene is interesting (whether it be music, art or beer) is because established producers end up stamping out creativity in their attempt to appeal to a large customer base. “I think more and more people are insulted by these companies suggesting that their tastes can be reduced to such common denominators,” said Garrett. “So they are all about craft beers and spirits, rappers that say ‘f you’ to Def Jam and release their albums on a Tumblr site, and higher quality, more unique experiences across the board.” According to Andrew Lautner of Low Dive Brewing, this underground movement is a community at its purest. “Craft beer is obviously a booming market right now; there’s an interest in quality and uniqueness in many aspects of life, and that goes for beer as much as anything else.”
But Chicago is undergoing a craft beer renaissance right now with established breweries popping up at a record pace; why the desire for these underground homebrew events? Well, it goes back to wanting to feel a connection to the brewing community and a desire to support local, homegrown initiatives. “It’s refreshing to be able to experience the possible future of beer as some of these homebrewers are on the cusp of turning professional,” said Kim. Most (if not all) brewers at established craft breweries started their careers as homebrewers, and the homebrewers and homebrew collectives that have participated in the Chef Won Kim events will be the established breweries of tomorrow. Or sooner.
Ryan Burk participated in the Brew Ho Ho event under the moniker 2nd Story Brewing and now he is a cider maker for Greg Hall’s Virtue Cider. “I’ve reached my aspirations, for the time being, and I credit Won [Kim] for getting me excited enough about this culture to make it my life,” said Burk. Jason Klein and Brad Shaffer participated in the Halloween-themed Brew Hey Hey and are now almost ready to begin brewing professionally as Spiteful Brewing. And Heavy Hand, the grand prize winners of August’s Iron Brew, will be brewing their coffee IPA at Stone Brewing Company for distribution throughout the United States. Just remember, you had it at a Chef Won Kim event first.
There are many benefits for these brewers to participate in such events, most importantly to get their beer in the hands of thirsty Chicagoans. “We never had the chance to pour our beer for more than 10 people outside our beer geek circle of friends and family. The homebrew series gave us exposure to hundreds of new people and additional critical feedback from people outside our circle,” said Mark Levy of Bent Grid. But these events mean so much more than just serving their beer at a fest. “Being involved in a large, vibrant culture of homebrewers is definitely my favorite part of these events,” said Garrett. Similarly, Burk said:“My favorite part has been meeting so many inspiring people that I now call friends. I feel like we’ve been creating our own culture here in Chicago and it seems to be growing; it’s really exciting.”
As amazing as these events are, they are in danger of going by the wayside thanks to conservative interpretations of the liquor control laws. Earlier this year, festival goers were astounded to learn that event organizers of the Peoria Jaycees 20th Annual International Beer Festival were told by the Illinois Liquor Control Commission (ILCC) that they needed to exclude the homebrew tent that had been a part of the festival for the last 19 years. While the legalities of late have been providing barriers for homebrewers to participate in festivals, I have no fears that these events will continue to grow and flourish thanks to the creativity of festival planners in how these types of events are organized and marketed. “We can exist in the legal gray area of private clubs and events,” said Garrett.
Ashley Brandt, an attorney who writes the Libation Law Blog, offered some guidance on this issue. “The bottom line is that if these statements reflect some policy, it would seem that the state may be interpreting the Illinois statute in too narrow a fashion with regard to where homebrewers can let their family and guests drink their beer,” said Brandt. He further discusses that most states and even Federal Regulations contain specific language allowing one to transport homebrew to contests and events where the general public may imbibe. The fact that the law is being interpreted so conservatively, and that other states, such as Wisconsin, have successfully challenged this interpretation and can now pour homebrew without fear of persecution, I feel it is time for the homebrewers of Chicago to band together and get the law changed.
These underground events exude an independent spirit and a ”down-with-the-man” mentality that has been evident in other creative realms but just recently has appeared in the world of craft beer. It’s about freedom; even the smallest, most unconventional craft brewery still has to consider commercial issues such as label approval and whether their beer will sell. Not so in these events; the brewers brew what they like to drink and utilize exciting ingredients not normally found in beer. “I do it for the love, creativity and passion behind these brewers. It does get a little overwhelming, but in the end becomes worth it when I see happy, well-fed drunks. It brings an Asian tear to my eye,” said Kim.