This month, we're collaborating with Expedia and their Viewfinder site, with a specific challenge in mind — "show us what Oktoberfest means to Chicago." At stop number four, we’re sharing one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets, the harvest party at CHAOS Brew Club, one of the nation’s best and most ambitious homebrew clubs.
The Chicago Homebrew Alchemists of Suds (CHAOS) is one of the most important educational resources in Chicago brewing, playing a fundamental role in creating new drinkers, aficionados, and brewers. The group owns their own space, a bit of a converted garage and storage bunker, on the edge of Chicago’s West Town neighborhood near the commuter rail lines. Behind an unmarked, windowless door, a playground of brewing equipment and friends await even the most novice of new members.
What looks like relic of the by-gone days of a Hamms bars in Chicago, or the dusty, piece-together basement set-up of a frat house, is actually a very tightly-run ship under the current stewardship of club president, Ken Getty. Underneath that off-the-grid vibe is an online booking system for brewers to reserve on the of the four brewing bays. And that old bar in the front of the house? A donation from the famous Heineman Bar Company after they couldn’t get rid of the thing on Craigslist. “They were about to cut the bar in half so it’d be easier for someone to take,” said Getty. “That’s when we stepped in.”
But Oktoberfest season is Harvest season for this crew. Spilling out of the garage space and into the back lot, CHAOS sets up the big tent, fires up the grill, and puts on one of the best parties of the year. Dozens of homebrewed beers, ciders, and self-made sausages are spread around the compound. There were beers brewed with your favorite breakfast cereal, a myriad of single-malt, single-hop (SMASH) beers, and plenty of ciders and perrys at the ready, but the wild black bear sausage made two ways was a bit of a show-stealer.
Perhaps the best part of the event is that this space, which typically provides a bit of friendly solace for those focused on dialing in their skills, throws open its doors and welcomes family and friends to see the results of so much time and effort spent in an otherwise mysterious world. The vibe is a bit like an open house at a fire station, or the department picnic for a police department, and without resorting to hyperbole, I think it’s fair to say that homebrewers are an important part of any community. So often, homebrewers are also tinkerers, fix-it people, and the general contractors in our lives. It just seems to attract that type of person, and you can see it in the DIY quality of the CHAOS garage space. Everything seems to have its place, and serve a function, no matter how old or run-down. With a little ingenuity, an old refrigerator could easily live out the rest of it’s happy life here, serving as a make-shift kegerator.
So what’s so important about a homebrew club? Well, in only its third year, it’s already turned a few hobbyists into professional brewers. One of them, Eli Espinoza, was on hand pouring a pho-inspired beer he recently helped brew at Marz Brewing, a new start-up in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. Savory and spicy, it’s one of the most inventive and evocative beers I’ve ever tasted. And some might say, only a homebrewer would even think of it.