Walk down an industrial stretch of Hubbard Street just west of Western Avenue and look closely at a storefront between a shuttered coffee shop and an unremarkable warehouse. You might notice an open door. Over the clank and roar of the trains pulling into the Western Avenue Metra Station half a block away, a few bars of music might drift out from the doorway. On a Saturday, you could hear bottles clinking or the sound of a heavy pot being heaved onto a stove. It doesn't look like it from the street, but inside, something special is brewing.
This is C.H.A.O.S. Brew Club, a three-year-old homebrew collective that is—according to the American Homebrewers Association—the only of its kind in the country. The Chicago Homebrew Alchemists of Suds has what members of most other homebrew clubs could only dream of: ownership of its own brewing space. The narrow, garage-style building at 2417 W. Hubbard St. houses four brew bays that members can reserve through an online scheduling system. Each bay is outfitted with the pots, mash tuns and tools an amateur brewer needs, and C.H.A.O.S members have access to a temperature-controlled fermentation room and lagering refrigerator. That shared equipment is a huge draw for avid homebrewers with small apartments.
"I had been homebrewing in my apartment, which is maybe 600 square feet with a small sink and a normal stove. When I heard there was a club where I could brew in their space instead of having to clean this [grain] stuff out of my floor and have my girlfriend complain about the smell of hops all day, the appeal was pretty obvious," said Jamie Phelps Proctor, 32, of West Town, who has been a member of C.H.A.O.S. since 2011. The club has 75 brewer-level members who pay $26 each month for 24/7 access to the equipment, as well as 34 apprentice-level members who pay $45 every three months and may only brew on the equipment while supervised. Additionally, the club has 79 friend-level members who pay $21 every three months to attend classes and parties at C.H.A.O.S. and receive discounts at more than 30 Chicago homebrew shops and bars.
For some, it's access to the physical space that's the draw. But members say they also value the skill-sharing aspect of the club.
"I really liked the camaraderie of all the beer geeks in one area, and the tidbits of knowledge you take from watching them homebrew," said Eli Espinoza, 34, of West Lawn, who joined the club in 2011 and is now a professional part-time brewer with Bridgeport's Marz Community Brewing. Though he had never brewed before joining C.H.A.O.S., Espinoza says he picked it up quickly with other members' help. "I did my first all-grain beer shortly after joining the club and I was always a part of somebody else's brew. I'd be one of those guys who would stop in and bring a bunch of beer for people, then jump in with their brew and they'd teach me about the style."
Espinoza isn't the only homebrewer-turned-professional to come out of the club: co-founder Dave Williams is now the head brewer at Horse Thief Hollow in Beverly, former C.H.A.O.S. brewer Ed Nash recently opened Arclight Brewing Company in Michigan and two other C.H.A.O.S. vets also brew with Marz.
But not every member has professional ambitions. For some, it's just about becoming better at a hobby.
"All of us are at all different levels, but everyone is really supportive. I love that we're social and educational," said Nancy Rockwood, 38, of Ravenswood, secretary of C.H.A.O.S. and a member since last year. Rockwood said she brews once or twice a week, usually "really weird" beers such as a blueberry-basil saison and a peppery kolsch that's meant to mimic the flavors of a bloody mary.
Members have plenty of opportunities to share and critique each others' beers at one of the club's quarterly parties or sitting at the bar located in the brewhouse's front room. That bar, by the way, is a solid, dark wood specimen donated to C.H.A.O.S. by the Chicago-based Heineman Bar Company—and valued at about $50,000.
Because the club is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit as of last year, donations to C.H.A.O.S., including equipment, are tax-deductible. Plenty of the club's gear has come from donations or loans from members, including a Blichmann Engineering Tower of Power three-tiered brewing system that only the most experienced brewers are allowed to use. The club delivers on its non-profit mission by emphasizing education through classes and workshops, which recently have covered topics from yeast propagation and maintenance to brewing with spices.
"We've really taken education seriously," said club president Ken Getty, 34, who lives in Lyons. "It's the core component of our 501(c)(3), and we found out that it's really what brought a lot of people to our meetings. "
Since its founding in 2011, the club has moved locations twice as membership has increased. Its expansion has tracked alongside increased interest in craft beer in Chicago, but Getty said he also sees C.H.A.O.S. as a product of DIY culture and the rise of the sharing economy.
"Recently homebrewing has started trending younger. I think it's indicative of the makerspace movement as a whole. Younger members don't want to own a [brewing] pot because they know they'll only use that pot twice a month," Getty said. "It's part of a generational shift where people just realize it makes more sense and costs less money the way we're doing it. It made sense to a lot of people in urban areas, like ridesharing does."
Despite being run completely by volunteers, most of whom have full-time jobs, C.H.A.O.S.' organizers hope to do even more in the coming year. Select beers brewed by members will be on tap at Gino's East in River North once the pizzeria's brewing equipment is fully installed, offering the Chicagoans a chance to taste what C.H.A.O.S. can brew. But Getty expects the club's reputation to expand beyond city and Midwest.
"My number-one goal is to be the national homebrew club of the year [at the National Homebrewers Conference]," Getty said. "A lot of people within our club share that goal. Next year the convention is in San Diego, so hopefully we go down there and come back as the club of the year."
firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeatdrink
See it for yourself
Check out the C.H.A.O.S. brewing space during the club's open house Sept. 13 from 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. See more of the brewhouse in our short video.Copyright © 2015, RedEye