Bill Cross of McHenry loves to cook, and he loves beer.
A trip to a craft brewery inspired him to bring them together to create a most flavorful union.
“My kids took me on a tour of Gray’s Brewery in Janesville, [Wis.], and the guy gave an excellent tour,” he says. “When it was over, we came home and I said, ‘I’m going to start doing that.’”
Cross purchased a homebrewing equipment kit and an ingredient package to brew an Irish stout.
“I like dark beers, and the guy at the brew shop recommended it,” Cross says. “He said dark beers hide a lot of faults, and he recommends them to beginners.”
That experience got him hooked, and Cross has since expanded his brewing equipment collection and branched into more exotic varieties such as a sweet potato stout.
“It was a pain in the neck because you had to bake the potatoes,” Cross says. “It was delicious, but without much sweet potato character. I won’t do it again.”
Cross also serves as president of the Midnight Carboys, a homebrewing club that meets monthly at Duke’s Ale House and Kitchen in Crystal Lake. The club always welcomes new members.
“There’s a whole social aspect to homebrewing, too,” Cross says. “We ask people to bring a sample of their homebrew, but it’s not necessary.”
As an enthusiastic homebrewer, Cross is quick to encourage others to give it a try.
“If you can boil water, you can brew beer,” he says.
According to 2012 statistics from the American Homebrewers Association, there are about one million homebrewers in the U.S. and more than 1,000 homebrewing clubs.
Though not allowed for many years due to a clerical error that omitted beer from a post-Prohibition law that legalized home winemaking, homebrewing has been legal since 1979. Alabama and Mississippi are the only two states that do not permit homebrewing.
Making beer at home is a multi-step process that takes approximately a month from start to finish. Brewers can work from recipes using bulk ingredients purchased at a homebrew store or online, or use a kit of premeasured ingredients the beer equivalent of cake mix.
Beer begins with a sweet, grain-based product known as wort, which comes in liquid or powdered form. Wort is added to water and boiled. Then, hops are added and boiled for another hour. After the mixture has cooled, it is poured into a carboy or bucket and yeast is added. The beer then ferments for about two weeks. When fermenting is complete, the brewer adds a small amount of sugar and bottles the beer. After about two more weeks, the homebrew is ready to drink.
A five-gallon batch of beer produces about two cases of 12-ounce bottles.
Homebrewers pick up the hobby for a variety of reasons, but like Cross and John Beystehner, purchasing agent with Brew and Grow in Crystal Lake, they are usually motivated by a love of great beer and the creative aspects of making it themselves.
“Over the last five to 10 years, it’s really caught on as craft beers have gotten bigger, and [people] find out they can make it at home,” Beystehner says.
Beystehner started homebrewing in college.
“Growing up in a German family, I was used to good beer,” he says. “I wasn’t happy drinking Budweiser, but as a college student, I couldn’t afford anything else. I decided to try brewing something better and discovered that I could.”
Today, Brew and Grow’s website sells a basic homebrewing equipment kit for about $70. Ingredient kits start at less than $20 but can exceed $50 for exotic varieties such as Russian imperial stout.
As brewers gain experience, many enjoy experimenting with different recipes, ingredients and techniques.
Beystehner’s most unusual brew was a coconut porter with vanilla beans.
“It was great,” he says. “I took it to the National Homebrewers Conference, and it was one of the first to go.”
His dream is to open a microbrewery and pub, though he’s at least two years away from pulling the first draught. He estimates the cost to be approximately $1.5 million, and he still needs to find investors, a location and navigate through considerable local, state and federal red tape.
“Because you’re dealing with alcohol, there’s a lot of regulation involved,” he says.
However, he does have a name – Gambit Brewing Company.
“It was something my wife and I came up with one night,” Beystehner says. “It means ‘tripping’ in Italian, so we thought it was appropriate.”
Crystal Lake resident David “Dos” Nabong, who works in sales support for Brew and Grow, also began homebrewing in college but stopped when he was unable to find supplies. A conversation with a neighbor a couple of years ago rekindled his interest.
With a background in biology, he enjoys the scientific aspects of homebrewing and likes to formulate his own recipes.
One of his brews, a light lager similar to Anchor Steam, earned second place at the 2012 McHenry County Fair’s homebrew competition.
Nabong says the competition, which is relatively new, was small but is a good fit for the fair, right beside the county’s best homemade jams and pies.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie among brewers,” he says. “Yes, we’re talking about beer, but for all intents and purposes, it’s guys talking about cooking.”
But it’s also productive time, Nabong adds.
“We’re not just drinking beer, we’re getting something done.”
• Brewer’s Best Beer Brewing Equipment Kit includes 6.5 gallon “Ale Pail” fermenting bucket with grommetted lid, 6.5 gallon “Ale Pail” bottling bucket with spigot, Easy Clean No-Rinse Cleaner, Siphon and Bottling Set-Up, “Home Beermaking” instruction book, Hydrometer, Liquid Crystal Thermometer, bottle brush, capper, airlock.
• Five gallon stockpot
• Two cases of bottles (not screw-top)
• Bottle caps (also included in some ingredient kits)
• Brewing Guide: “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing” by Charlie Papazian is one of the most popular. David Nabong recommends “How to Brew” by John Palmer. For recipes, Bill Cross likes “Brewing Classic Styles” by Jamil Zainasheff.
• Beer ingredients or kit
• Products for sterilizing, muslin bags and twine for straining
Sources: www.brewandgrow.com, David Nabong, Brew and Grow, Crystal Lake
For more information about the Midnight Carboys, visit www.midnightcarboys.com.