The Home Brew
Every second Thursday of the month, a group of homebrewers from the northern Illinois region meets at Duke’s Alehouse & Kitchen in Crystal Lake to trade brewing secrets and occasional insults.
The atmosphere, however, is not confrontational. The good-natured ribbing keeps the monthly meetings casual — but make no mistake, the discussion rarely steers from the beer itself.
The club, known as The Midnight Carboys, first started meeting in September 1995. At the time, co-founder Jim Brady and three others met at what was then Duke O’Brien’s.
“For about six months, it was just the four of us,” said Brady, the only founder who remains a part of the club more than 15 years later. “Within two years, we had about 10 guys.”
Nowadays, the club attracts about 16 to 20 members to its monthly meetings.
Meetings start at 7:30 p.m. in a room at Duke’s. Tables are arranged in a “U” shape, with tasting glasses for every seat and pitchers of water scattered around to cleanse glasses after each tasting. For the first 15 minutes, the group discusses new business and upcoming events and competitions.
The real fun begins immediately after, when members take turns passing around their latest creations. Some are classic styles while others are trying for something a little more unique. On this particular night, one member has attempted to make a tiramisu stout.
Members in this club hold their opinions firm, but there is usually common ground to keep any arguments or disagreements from escalating. For example, on this night, one member suggests a beer be entered into an American lager category of competition, while another claims the fruitiness of the batch would not score well based on specific criteria used. After some back-and-forth, with little give from either side, the two agree the brew tastes good, and that that’s the most important part of a successful brewing attempt.
Throughout the evening, members spend a great deal of time scouring the Internet from their phones, looking for information about beer ingredients, upcoming competitions and other information that may be useful in their discussions.
After the tasting, separate discussions may occur. During a recent meeting, a discussion about bottling techniques took place, with some members bringing in bottling equipment of their own.
In addition to hosting monthly meetings, the club holds other brewing events during the year. Members often have their beers judged at various competitions throughout the Midwest.
Experience differs from one Midnight Carboy to the next. Some have been brewing for decades, while others are relatively new to the craft.
Chris Kaszuba has only been brewing for about two years and has been coming to the club’s meetings for the past year-and-a-half.
“This is by far the best way [to improve your own brewing],” Kaszuba said, noting the group is always willing to help newcomers improve their brews. “You need help, you get it here.”
While the club’s long-timers do their best not to hurt feelings, they do give honest critiques of the beers during the tastings. More importantly, however, they give advice about how to improve the beer by making tweaks to the recipe or the brewing process.
“Not every batch is going to be a winner,” Kaszuba said. “Sometimes you know it’s subpar, but you don’t know why. [The club members] offer a critique of what needs [to be done differently].”
While Brady said there is no single mistake new brewers often make, he said anybody thinking of brewing needs to be patient. Rushing through the process often leads to a subpar batch.
“It takes time,” Brady said. “You have to let it age.”
New members must be active homebrewers or work in the craft brewing industry. Membership dues are $25 for new members regardless of the time of the year they join. Membership dues for existing members are $15. A new member can join at the third meeting attended. Returning brewers are expected to join.
Brady said some new members stick around for years, while others will join and show up for a few meetings before losing interest or encountering other obligations.
“I always tell [new members] that five years from now, half of you won’t be here,” Brady said. “But I always will.”
For information on club meetings and events, visit www.midnightcarboys.com.