Homebrewing is—spoiler alert—traditionally done at home. While that’s part of the fun, it’s also part of the challenge, as it’s not easy to accommodate brewing equipment in all homes, particularly in cities, where most folks don’t have a basement or garage. Spouses and roommates may not be thrilled with the smells and messes of the brewing process, while pets can get a little too interested. At best, homebrewing is a logistical challenge.
A Chicago brew club is offering a new paradigm for urban homebrewing by taking it out of the home entirely. The CHAOS (Chicago Homebrew Alchemists of Suds) Brew Club offers a permanent space for brewers to make their beer, eliminating the hassles of brewing in a cramped living space. Like other brew clubs, CHAOS members share recipes and learn from like-minded folks. Unlike other brew clubs, members are getting an intensive, collaborative brewing education—and creating a model worth emulating.
The defining feature of CHAOS is the brewhouse. Just as it’s easier to join a gym than buy expensive exercise equipment, members have found it’s cheaper and logistically easier to join CHAOS and use its brewing equipment—especially in a big city like Chicago, where space is at a premium and rarely cheap. The brewhouse provides everything for members except a fermenter (members bring their own) and ingredients: Among other equipment, members can use mash tuns, measuring cups, kettles, filtered water and, most importantly, a temperature-controlled fermentation room that makes the entire process possible.
To a nonbrewer, the sprawling brewhouse might inspire a few Breaking Bad jokes. The various tubs, measuring equipment and other paraphernalia look like something out of a Walt and Jesse lab. There is at least one legitimate comparison to the antiheroes of the Breaking Bad cable-TV series: CHAOS has switched locations several times to allow for growth. Just as Walt and Jesse started in a trailer and ended up in a pristine cooking facility, CHAOS has had several locations since its inception in 2011. The club started in a basement in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, which it soon outgrew. Then it found an industrial garage with about 1,200 square feet of space before moving to its current and largest space (located in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor), which is about 2,000 square feet and includes a full bar for parties.
Club President Ken Getty explained that among the many advantages members enjoy, the brewhouse eliminates the need not only for equipment, but also for air conditioning during the fermentation process. Members also never need to hear the words, “Your house literally smells like a brewery.” Getty described a board member whose wife bought him a homebrewing kit, seeking to support his hobby. After living through the first batch, she said, “Never again!” Though the brew club allows members to spare significant others the potential yuckiness of brewing, there might be another motivation. A spouse of a brewer mentioned that the club is also a great excuse for members to get out of the house.
CHAOS also allows members to tackle projects that would be impossible otherwise. For example, the club currently has eight ongoing barrel projects. Getty noted, “Obviously, as a homebrewer on my own, I would never be able to do something like that.” Member James Chochola elaborated, saying barrel aging “requires a lot of beer to fill a 55-gallon barrel, something which can’t be done alone at home but needs a bunch of brewers working together.” Such experience bodes well for the future of CHAOS members, and the club already has distinguished alumni, such as Dave Williams and Ed Nash, who are brewmasters at Horse Thief Hollow in Chicago and Arclight in Michigan, respectively.
CHAOS has about 300 members, with 60 at brewer level. The rest are friends, apprentices and alchemists—founding members who kept the group afloat in the early days when there weren’t many members to share the costs. After three sessions with a member—in which the basics of brewing, safety and cleanliness are taught—you can brew on your own. Even if you don’t know a hop from a hoop, CHAOS is willing to teach you to brew if you have the interest. The group pays for costs with its parties, such as the popular Stout and Chili Night in January. With 40-50 kegs on tap, such parties can put even a great beer bar’s selection to shame.
CHAOS is part of a nationwide trend toward younger homebrewers, but it is ahead of the curve when it comes to creating its own brewing space. While most brew clubs are great places to learn about brewing and find like-minded friends, the CHAOS brewhouse is an innovation. The closest thing to it is probably Portland’s U-Brew & Pub, a microbrewery that offers brewing opportunities to the public. But CHAOS is more of a grass-roots development: your brewers helping themselves.
Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, is very impressed by CHAOS.
Of the CHAOS brewhouse, Glass said, “I’ve never seen anything like it, and there’s huge potential for it to be emulated.”