I’ve arranged to be at the brewery at 9 am. The Goose Island brewery, that is. We’re brewing a wet hop beer. Never done that before, so it should be fun.
The breakfast is mobbed. The very friendly Asian hostess tells the party in front of me that there will be a 10-minute wait for a table. That could bugger up my plans. But, as there’s just me, the hostess asks if I’d like to sit at the bar. Fine by me, as long as I get my fried fix quickly.
The taxi driver takes a very different route to the brewery, joining Fulton Street as soon as possible. It takes us through a big industrial section, low workshops and factories on either side. At least there’s still some industry here. Unlike in most British towns.
Mike Siegel is already at the brewery. Obviously. It is his job, after all. He takes me for a quick spin around the brew house. It looks much the same as before. Then he shows me their new mash filter. You know, I’d never seen one of these devices before, then on both this and my last US trip I bump into one. I’m not really sure how the things work. Only that they’re very efficient.
Downstairs, there’s a brand new 2-barrel pilot plant. Which is where the wet hop beer is being made. Mashing is almost done and the wort is recirculating nicely. Tim, whom I met at the Brettanomyces Festival in Amsterdam, is looking after the brewing. While the wort froths merrily, he’s busy filling sixtel kegs from the miniature conicals. It’s the sort of brewing setting I’d love to have in my luxury shed. (The shed I dream of, not my actual shed. That’s held together with string.)
The wet hops should be along any minute. They’re being supplied by Hop Head Farms, a Michigan grower. They were picked in the early hours and are being rushed to several Chicago breweries. You don’t have much time with wet hops. They can start to mould in less than a day.
By the time the man with the hops arrives, the wort is boiling and the mash tun has been cleaned. It’s going to be used as an improvised hop back. The hops – Chinook – look very impressive: green and fresh. They smell even better. Citrusy and intense. As we rub them to release the aromas, our hands are covered in sticky resin. The hops Dolores picked last week in Amsterdam looked very similar. But were nowhere near as sticky to the touch.
There are only 50 pounds, but the hops will the mash tun almost to the brim. The boiling wort is then run over them via the sparge arm. As they become soaked, the hops turn brown and compact a little. But the still almost fill the tun.
It’s fun hanging around the mini brew house. We try a few samples drawn from the conicals. And a few bottles are cracked open to try. But I’m not my usual chipper self. Feeling a bit knacked, to be honest. A couple of hours standing around isn’t what my body wants.
After the wort is run off from the wort and cooled, Mike takes me to pick up some lunch. A sub from Italian deli Bari. We eat them in a deserted taproom. It isn’t usually open on Monday, which is why my talk is scheduled for today.
Nosh noshed, Mike suggests we take a look at the barrel warehouse. No longer over the road as it was on my last visit, it’s now a short ride away. The building is a single storey, with no indication on the outside of what’s going on inside. Which I’m pretty sure is deliberate.
It’s even more cavernous than the former location, which I guess was the idea. Mike says that he thinks they have around 20,00 barrels in total. Split pretty evenly between whisky and wine in their origin. There’s still plenty of room for more.
One thing has changed. No longer are there just stacks of barrels. Lurking behind one such rack is a pretty row of vats. Or foeders, as everyone calls them here. That gets me thinking. Especially when Mike tells me most are empty. I’ve an idea what could fill them. A couple of ideas, actually.
Feeling totally Donald Ducked, I ask Mike if I can rest a little before tonight’s do. I need more energy than I currently have to do my talk justice. No problem. He drops me back at my hotel, where I chill for a couple of hours. Before returning in a cab.
It’s a little before 6 pm, when the taproom will be opening, and I’m surprised to see a clutch of punters waiting outside. I’m let in and check everything has been set up properly for my presentation. It’s all looking good. All I need is a beer in my hand and I’m ready to go.
There’s a pretty decent crowd. And a well-behaved one. They’re quiet and attentive. Not that I, armed with a mike, give them much opportunity to interrupt. I rattle through the presentation at a fair old pace. Must be thinking of my bed.
Once finished, I hang around to chat and shift a few books. I easily move all the copies of Bitter! I’ve brought along. The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer is another matter. I only sell a couple. It seems most people of the home brewing persuasion in the audience already own it.
There’s a food truck outside doing Belgian frites. I order a Philly cheese steak and am surprised there’s no bread involved. Just chips with meat and cheese poured over it. Like poutine, but posher. It’s rather nice.
The event finishes at nine, which is fine by me. I fancy an early night. Being stroked to slumber by the soft hands of Laphroaig.
Hop Head Farms
4630 W Hickory Rd,
Hickory Corners, MI 49060.
1120 W Grand Ave #1,
Chicago, IL 60642
Goose Island Taproom
1800 W Fulton St,
Chicago, IL 60612.
Disclaimer: my trip was paid for by Goose Island as part of my consultancy fee.