Homebrewers Overwhelm at Under the Influence

by Michael Kiser

It was chef Won Kim's birthday. 

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While most people know him as the Wholefoods chef and homebrewing enthusiast behind the BrewHaHa event, others know him for his sly smile and bracing sense of humor. Surrounded by his family, friends, and a few of his favorite things, Kim and his collaborator, Ed Marsewski of Maria's Packaged Goods, bolted together an event called Under the Influence, a celebration of food, beer and art at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport on Chicago's South Side. 

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It was the homebrewers that truly made this event, and alone were worth the price of admission. Like the BrewHaHa gatherings, Kim clearly knows how to reach out to some of Chicago's finest and most ambitious weekend warriors. Ryan Burk of Virtue Cider (which just broke ground and pressed its first apples in Fennville, Michigan in November) brought a series of bottles from his aging collection of farmhouses and obscure ales. Working with a variety of yeast strains collected from Belgian bottle dregs over many months, Ryan repropegates his yeast until he has enough to re-pitch into his own recipes. A well-known, but rarely mastered technique of advanced home brewers, repropegating takes patience, diligence and a little luck. 

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Ryans's offerings included some rare styles, such as Grisette, a lightly tart French saison fermented with wild yeast from a brewery in Greensboro, Vermont,. He also poured a farmhouse with some brett, and the “Farmier Farm House with a little more funk in the trunk.”  Even more unique was the Harvest Scoth Ale, a smoky ale blended with fresh apples then fermented together. Yeast manipulation is at the heart of Ryan’s recipes, which he develops with years of experience, an incredible palate and nose, and a gut instinct for each strain's likes and dislikes.

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On the other side of the room was a homebrewing trio including fellow Wholefoods team member Robert Lange, Blake Hedlin, a software development business analyst, Dustin Wakeman, and stem cell biologist, collectively known as Dudevel, a play on Duvel who occupied the booth directly adjacent. Although they emphasize their amateur status, they’re passionate in their pursuit for innovative, high quality beer recipes. 

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Dustin studies yeast strains from a scientific perspective, carefully monitoring growth and development under the microscope. Pulling dregs of yeast straight from the bottom of the bottle, The whole team works together to cultivate and tweak their strains toward a certain flavor and activity level before its time to pitch. Dustin explained: “We often ferment 3-5 batches of wort before the desired effect has been attained, pushing temperature and growth nutrients in a way such that the yeast population actually drifts genetically over time. Artificial selection at its finest.” 

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According to Dudevel, it’s their unique dynamic that makes the team click. Each person brings their own background and specialties to the table. Building a recipe is a bit of an art, part learned and in my opinion part inborn,” Dustin explained. “This is where Robert and Blake really shine. Those two just make it work. It’s rare that I have any major changes in their recipes. Within a few batches, we are pretty comfortable with the end product. Its not everyday you meet a fellow brewer that has a vessel dedicated to maintaining Cantillon dregs.If a brewer leaves yeast in a bottle, there is a good chance it will be. Even those crafty bastards at New Glarus can’t filter every single cell, and all I need is one cell to add it to my ever growing yeast library.” 

“Right now we’re developing Al Buck’s East Coast Yeast strain “Bug County” and hoping to unleash it all over Cook County. Al’s yeast and wild bug blends are incredibly complex and extremely hard to attain, and for good reason as commercial players like The Bruery are even using them. In this case, we started our initial fermentation with a simple low gravity, low IBU, golden ale to expand our cell count and allow the fermenters to attain a healthy profile without generating hop aroma that could carry-over into the next batch brewed. Ultimately, we collect different samples of wort and fermenting beer as it develops, then plate it out onto agar-based petri dishes or slants for long-term keeping. We can then utilize a variety of techniques to select specific colonies and maintain the selected strains that have desirable attributes. Ultimately, we want great beer, so those particular strains will be propagated further and make it further down the innovation pipeline. It sounds fancy, but really it’s just a lot of record keeping and basic statistics.” 

Dudevel’s brews at Under the Influence were mighty, and they blew through seven kegs before most other brewers kicked even three. I would describe them all here, but really, I don't want to rob you of the stunning way in which Dustin describes it all himself. Click below to hear the professor as he walks through a couple of his more ambitious recipes.

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The fellas from Dudevel offered up two Saison’s (7% abv), sharing a common pilsner, pale, and wheat malt bill. Saison number one “Muscles from Brussels” was bittered at the higher end of the style with warrior hops, and then dosed heavily with loads of Czech Saaz hops late in the boil and in the dry hop. Saison number two, “Vandaminator” was an Illinois farmhouse ale with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves added to the boil along with Saaz hops, then lightly dry hopped with organic new Zealand Motueka and Nelson Sauvin hops. Fresh kefir lime and lemongrass tea was infused just prior to packaging. Dudevel decided to up the ante and ran this beer through a beer Randal filled with more fresh lemongrass and kefir lime leaves. This beer truly defined how Robert, Blake, and Dustin strive to innovate and expand beyond traditional practices. Yeast built up from Brasserie Phantome’s Noel offering was utilized in combination with a commercially available French Saison strain to impart spicy flavors with a hint of funk. “The French yeast is utilized not only for flavor profile, but also as a natural flocculation enhancer,” said Dustin. “I got the idea from Chris White actually, who genetically modifies specific amino acids to change the charge on certain strains of yeast and blends them to achieve high flocculation. It is absolutely brilliant what Dr. White is doing for the brewing industry. While I am not actually performing any genetic modification in this case, we are utilizing the “sticky” high flocculation capacity of the French yeast to grab ahold of the highly attenuative Phantome strain. We also apply relatively high fermentation temperatures in a temporally regulated manner to enhance specific qualities we tend to prefer in each strain.“

In addition to the saisons, Robert, Blake, and Dustin poured three IPAs. The first, an American IPA (7.3% abv), was composed of Pale, Pilsner, Wheat, and carafoam malts, bittered with Warrior hops then finished with Cascade, Chinook and loads of Citra hops. This brew was fermented entirely with Brettanomyces Bruxellensis, which produces spicy flavors reminiscent of a Belgian saison, along with some very subtle funk, tartness, and tropical fruit esters. Next up was another American IPA (5.95% abv) composed of Marris Otter, Vienna, Munich, Honey and Crystal malts, first wort bittered with Warrior hops to balance the copious amounts of Amarillo, Citra and Simcoe finishing hops. This beer was correctly named “Unsustainable IPA” as it is nearly impossible to find these highly sought after aroma hops year round. Apparently the guys thought it needed more grapefruit, citrusy notes so they filled the beer Randol up again with 4 ounces of whole cone Citra hops. Blake also brought along an Imperial IPA (8.2% abv) he originally brewed for his wedding guests. Pale and Crystal malts were bittered with Warrior hops then bombarded with Citra, Galaxy, and Amarillo hops at the end of the boil. Blake then dry hopped the beer twice with more Galaxy and Citra for a surprisingly dry and easy drinking passion fruit taste bomb. And of course, they ran it through the Randall stuffed with even more Citra hops. 

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The final offerings from Dudevel were even more outside the box. Dustin described them jokingly as part of their “barrel reclamation program,” a by-product of Goose Island’s extensive barrel program. Awhile back, Dustin and homebrewer friend Taylor Dunlap acquired two used bourbon barrels that previously housed the coveted Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. These two particular barrels also contained 30-60 lbs of cherry and raspberry respectively, the latter of which was used to blend the “Bramble Rye” variation of BCS. Dustin explained, “When we bought the original raspberry BCS barrel, we quickly realized it was still full of fruit and dregs. Instead of dumping it down the trash, I had the idea of collecting the liquid sludge into sterilized carboys and bins. We then dropped the temperature to around 37 degrees and waited for 3-6 months, allowing the thick sludge to separate out to the bottom and the rich velvety beer to remain at the top. The rest was just patience and some simple siphoning equipment. We kegged about 2.5 gallons from the barrel and aged it for another 3 to 4 months before it was ready to drink. It worked so well, we took a cherry BCS barrel shortly thereafter and applied the same simple gravity filtration technique. The beer is far too strong to bottle condition effectively, so we simply used a beer gun and bottled it off the keg prior to the event.”  

“It was definitely a memorable experience serving John Laffler his own beer reclaimed from the dead. It is also a great example of why craft beer drinkers should not be afraid of Goose Island. Those guys support local craft and home brewers as much as anyone in the community. I found out later that we weren’t the only guys reclaiming BCS from barrels. The crew at Limestone brewery pulled a decent amount as well.” 

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Robert, Blake and Dustin said the event wouldn’t have been as much fun without brewers like Laffler who lent them the beer Randall and supported a community buy back program for used barrels. Dustin added, ”These are the unique conditions found within Chicago’s craft beer community that facilitate innovation at all levels. There is something very special happening in Chicago.”

Just recently, Dudevel took third place honors at Middlebrow homebrewing contest with a spiced dark Belgian ale (7% abv) consisting of a base of pilsner malt, hefty amounts of dark German and Belgian malts, and several types of sugar added to the boil. What makes the beer truly unique is a blend of spices including thyme added to the boil. Robert added, “homebrewing allows such a tremendous amount of freedom for experimentation at a relatively low cost. If I want to ferment a sour beer with goji berries then I’lldo it. I have nothing stopping me, and I like that freedom.”

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There was a lot going on around these homebrewers. In the back, a couple of guys were making a live batch to commemorate the event. Out front, Mash Tun journals we being handed out, Scotch was being served for some reason, freshly screen printed Ts and towels were being run off a hand press, artists were taking turns painting on each others canvases (that's not an innuendo I don't think), oddly wet bacon sandwiches were being sold (okay, this is getting weird), and of course, there was the gallery show. 

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A small number of artists, myself included, submitted beer-related artwork for the event's gallery portion. A mix of paintings, sculpture, prints and posters lined the space, some clearly beer related, some clearly not. For the next Under the Influence event, this would be an area that we can certainly do more with, but it was a great start. Many pieces looked back on childhood memories, like a father with his canned beer of choice by his side, literally and metaphorically. While others used the intoxicating effects of our passion as a leaping off point for some artistic exploration. Three of my own prints, plotted on large paper at 30"x40" and 40"x60" hung against the main back wall, featuring the tangled keg lines of Greenbush Brewery in Michigan, the elegant and statuesque first pour in the Solemn Oath taproom in Naperville, and a stoic portrait of Metropolitan's Doug Hurst tearing down a jockey box at midnight in the middle of a field during one of City Provision's farm beer dinners. I was thrilled to sell the Solemn Oath piece to a young couple looking to outfit their new apartment. 

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Under the Influence was a first for me, mostly because I haven't told very many homebrewer stories here on Good Beer Hunting. I love the intersection of design and business through the lens of beer, so I tend to get interested when all those forces align to form some sort of economic and aesthetic vision within brewing. But after encountering the level of talent, commitment and passion clearly present in the efforts of people like Dustin, Robert, and Blake, I'm looking forward to many more substantial run-ins with homebrewers while I continue the hunt for great beer and beer cultures around the globe. 

Note: if anyone is interested in their services, Robert and Dustin offer custom yeast propagation and other laboratory services.