I think it is safe to say that Chicago’s craft beer scene is booming, and it is just going to continue to grow over the next few years. But what you might not know is that Chicago’s underground craft beer movement is on the rise as well, and these homebrewers and homebrew collectives will be Chicago’s established breweries of the future. At the helm of this movement is Chef Won Kim who changed things up a bit with his newest homebrew event: The Iron Brew. The difference between this event and his previous events of the brew laughter series (Brew Ha-Hey-Ho-Stein) is that the Iron Brew had a competition component and featured celebrity judges that would choose a beer to be brewed commercially by Stone Brewing Company and Two Brothers Brewing.
Personally, I love these underground beer events where everyone brings their best brews, and each beer reflects the brewers’ heart and soul. It seems that lately when you attend a beer event that showcases established breweries, they only bring their flagship beers. While this is great for those not familiar with the brewery, this gets a tad boring for those of us that attend many beer festivals. Each beer at Iron Brew was unique, whether it was an Apricot White Chocolate Rye, a Blueberry Farmhouse Ale, or a Sour Cherry Stout, the creativity and exceptional execution of these brews is unparalleled.
The whole idea for Iron Brew came about when Stone Brewing Company’s owner Greg Koch and Midwest Stone Brewing Company representative Aaron Tyrell attended the Brew Hey Hey last October. Koch was impressed with the level of craftsmanship that went into each brew and tweeted about his experience, calling out Powell Brew House’s Grapefruit IPA and Corazon Brew’s Ancho Chili Porter. This idea for Stone to be involved with a homebrew event here in Chicago ‘fermented’ for a while until it was finally brought to fruition on August 25, 2012.
And these brewers didn’t just impress us beer drinkers; they also impressed some true legends in the brewing world. Graphic designer, homebrewer, author, and 5 Rabbit co-founder Randy Mosher; Stone Brewing Company CEO Greg Koch; and co-owner of Warrenville, IL brewery Two Brothers, Jason Ebel, all put on their judging hats and deliberated to choose the grand prize winner, as well as the two runner-ups.
Each judge addressed the crowd to announce a winner, starting with beer advocate Randy Mosher who announced the third place prize. According to Mosher, choosing the winners for this competition was “really an impossible task, there are a lot of really nice beers out there.” He congratulated all of the brewers in attendance and requested that all of us give a round of applause to show our appreciation for their hard work. Mosher (or, as my hubby refers to him, “The Mosh”) also explained that the selection for the winner was “complicated by the fact that this has to be brewed commercially.” In other words, there were many other variables that went into the selection of the winners; they couldn’t just choose the best or most unique beer.
Mosher then moved on to the announcement of the third place winner. “The third place beer… It was crisp, it was delightful, it was a refreshing summer day, it was cucumbery.” Once he mentioned cucumbers, I knew the third place winner was the Cucumis Sativus Cucumber Saison by Soma Ale Werks. Tom Gustafson has been working on this beer recipe for quite some time and I was lucky enough to try one of his first batches last September. “This is such a goofy idea, ya know?” said Mosher. “And it’s so great to see somebody pursue it with such passion and getting it to the point where it is really working great. We were all knocked out by this beer. So congratulations.” How awesome is it to get such kudos from a true beer legend? I was so excited for Tom. Well done, sir!
Jason Ebel, Present and co-founder of Two Brothers Brewing Company, was called upon to announce the second place winner. First, he addressed the crowd and, specifically, the brewers and said that he “just wanted to second what Randy said, you all brewed amazing beer.” He explained that homebrewing has come a hell of a long way since he started in 1990. The second place prize gets to brew at the new Two Brothers facility in Aurora; they bought the Roundhouse last year and they are putting in a seven-barrel brewhouse that should be installed by the end of this year. Ebel announced that the “second place is the old-world feel of Gnome Grotto, Saison DuGrotte. Really well done, I think it will do really well at both of our restaurants.” This beer was phenomenal; it was dry and refreshing but full of spicy flavor thanks to Polish hops and a little bit of spelt. Delicious! I can’t wait to try it on tap at Two Brothers early next year!
Finally, it was time for beer evangelical Greg Koch to take the stage. He gracefully appeared on the platform and asked in a low, sultry tone, “How are we doing, brothers and sisters; my brothers and sisters of brewing and homebrewing and beer passionate people?” He expressed his admiration for all of the brewers in attendance, as well as those of us that promote/appreciate craft beer. “Whether you brew beer, homebrew, own a great place to drink beer, write about it, you are all an important part of the community.” He also commented on how the brewing industry in the United States has gone from having the worst reputation (thank you, Bud!) to garnering the respect of every nation. “We are respected across the world because of the homebrewing that happens right here in this country… You guys have changed the landscape of beer collectively in Chicagoland, in Illinois, and the United States of America!” I think, at that moment, I felt some true patriotism for our great nation. ‘Merica!
While this was a great speech and all, the suspense about the grand prize winner was killing me. Koch finally began getting down to the task at hand. “Things converge really nicely for this first place beer. Because a number of things just make this happen. This is just a perfect choice. It turns out that my good friend, Jason Ebel, and his brother are going to be starting something special this year. Well, special to me because I’m an enthusiast of what they’re going to be doing, in addition to what they already do. They will be starting a coffee roasting place later this year and we would like to use that coffee in Heavy Hand’s coffee IPA. Your coffee IPA rules!”
The winning team of Heavy Hand, Jim Moorehouse and Brad Zeller, slowly made their way to the platform. You could tell that they were shocked; I mean, they just won every homebrewers dream! They would be flown to Escondido, California to brew a beer at Stone Brewing Company, and that beer will be distributed throughout the United States! Koch addressed them when they finally made it up on the make-shift stage and said, “we [the judges] all agreed that this was just an amazing beer …the aroma is fantastic, we’re really looking forward to brewing it on our 120 barrel system. Have you ever brewed 120 barrels at a time before?” By the looks on their faces, clearly they had not.
After the winners were announced and awards handed out, a flock of patrons descended on Heavy Hand’s booth to get a taste of the award-winning brew. After the crowd died down a bit, I was able to ask the brewers a few questions. First, I wanted to know how it felt when their name was announced as the grand prize winner of the Iron Brew. “It’s exciting,” said Moorehouse. “I mean, we were comfortable going in, really confident, but skeptical too. I mean, how can you win? Especially with such a broad category. There are literally 15 different styles of beer here. We knew it was accessible, it would be easy to brew commercially, and it is just a good beer.”
I have never brewed with coffee before so I was curious in how they used it. It obviously was not used as a coloring agent as, in appearance, it had the typical golden hue of a standard IPA. The coffee aroma was definitely there, though. According to Moorehouse, they used cold-pressed coffee that did not impart any bitterness to the beer but did come through in the flavor and aroma. But coffee in an IPA? How do you even come up with an idea like that? “We are always searching for new ideas,” said Moorehouse. “Every week, we just bounce ideas off of each other. One of us takes the lead. And then we collaborate on it. We thought we were geniuses and that we were the first ones doing a coffee IPA but then we found out we weren’t. But then we just tried to do it better. And a coffee IPA is not done as often, it’s still somewhat unique.”
If you were unable to attend the Iron Brew on August 25th, never fear; you will get your chance to try this coffee IPA. Sometime in 2013 (an official brew day has not yet been set), this coffee IPA will be brewed at Stone Brewing Company and will be distributed throughout the United States, with plenty of it making its way back to Chicago. And maybe someday, Heavy Hand will be an established brewery right here in Chicago and they can brew their coffee IPA themselves! According to Moorehouse, Zeller and he are working on plans to open a brewery in Chicago proper. “It is a very large financial undertaking,” said Moorehouse. “We can start small and dream big. The next step up is just as important as the first step. We want it to be very food driven, so a brewpub with the possibility of distribution under a different name maybe. But these are all hopes and dreams at this point.” Well, I’m pretty sure that winning this contest and having a nationally distributed beer will help expedite their plans.
This was truly a remarkable event that supported the craft of homebrewing and rewarded it on a colossal scale. Thank you to Chef Won Kim for always putting on awesome events; to Aaron Tyrell and Greg Koch from Stone Brewing; Jason Ebel from Two Brothers; and, of course, Randy Mosher. While I understand the prizes for this contest were expensive, I do hope that we are able to have a competition like this be an annual occurrence.
My hubby completely outdid himself with the pictures. Be sure to check out his photostream on flickr!