February 28, 2009

Well, if you have to go to a meeting on a Friday night...

The meeting will please come to order...

It was Friday night, and I had -- unquestionably -- the best seat in the house.

To my right was the food table. People kept bringing it in -- cheese, bread, warming trays of whatever, a couple of pizzas, kringles. I lost track. I hadn't come for the food.

In front of me, on the bar, two open cases of beer and an unending flow of random bottles of home brew. "Here, try this," someone would say. "And this." "And..." I lost track. That's why I was here.

Covering local government has its appeal (for the moment I can't remember what it is), but it doesn't hold a candle to the biweekly meeting of the Belle City Homebrewers and Vintners Club, in the basement of DP Wigley. Well, it's not really the basement: when the building was built this room with a bar and the back room with a cast iron stove was the first floor, but then the city came along and raised up Wisconsin Avenue -- ah, but that will have to be a story for another day. Today, let's talk about the important stuff.

Alcohol abuse. Yes, there was alcohol abuse. The words came out of the mouth of one of the chief perpetrators. Jim Olen, one of the brewmasters at Sprecher Brewing Co. -- better known for its root beer -- was talking about the dizzying variety of seasonal beers that comes from Sprecher. And then he made a startling admission to me: "I ran out of ideas of what to put into the beer."

And so -- Your Honor, it's an open and shut case; you must convict! -- he made (please, remove the women and children from the courtroom) ... pizza beer!

Let the words sink in: Pizza beer.

Granted, it was made on contract, for a couple from Chicago (probably Cubs fans!) who don't know any better, but still: Beer brewed with Roma tomatoes, garlic, basil, oregano. "But no meat!" Olen said, as though that would lessen the offense.

He made 40 barrels of it, and for some reason, even though it was early in the evening, we had trouble doing the math, until finally figuring out 2 1/2 cases per quarter-barrel, 5 cases per half-barrel... 400 cases of pizza beer! The mind boggles. "It doesn't taste bad if it's supposed to taste that way," Jim offered in his own defense.

Still, I was willing to let it slide; it was for Chicagoans, after all, so what's the harm? But Jim, having started confessing, had to go on about his latest product: beer soap.

Clearly, a career criminal. His accessory in this crime, Christina Ward, said she'd been making soap at her grandmother's knee in Osseo, up near Eau Claire. "She taught us all the old ways: oils and ashes and..." Ward puts soapmaking in contemporary context: "There's a movement in the U.S., a return to quality and hand crafts. We're looking for products that reconnect us with our roots, with quality."

Well, when you put it that way... why not beer soap? I'll tell you why: Christina reveals the most common question she hears about their beer soap: "Can we eat it?" Her answer? "Sure, but it tastes like soap!"

Ward and Olen mix creativity with soap's two basic ingredients: oil and water. Instead of water, some stout, weiss or pale ale. (Ah the inhumanity!) And then you see what comes out, maybe add some fragrance. "Weiss beer made me smell like a banana," Jim said, moving on. "Oatmeal soap smells like a cookie." That works better Then came the fun part: coming up with names like Hop in the Shower, which actually does have hops in the brew, and Clean and Sober, a peppermint blend.

Chris Flynn, co-owner of DP Wigley, said of the Oatmeal soap, "I actually licked it." She made a face. "I don't recommend it." The tasting, she means; it works fine as a soap. It's a hard soap -- lagered, even -- so it won't melt away in the shower. But enough of these distractions: Neither soap nor beer pizza is what the 40 or 50 members of the homebrew club came to hear about.

Somehow, Jim Olen held their attention...

Olen held court in front of the roaring fire, cases of beer in front of him. He'd reach in, hold up a bottle of amber something-or-other, describe it briefly and say, "This is one of my favorites." Then he'd pick up a bottle of a Weiss something-or-other, describe it briefly and say, "This is one of my favorites." Then something-or-other aged in Russian bourbon barrels. (I kid you not.) Another of his favorites. There was even a Triple XXX root beer. I lost track after a while, but the crowd was rapt. Someone told me later Olen had named about ten beers as his favorites, but most were too busy tasting to keep count.

When he was done, it was time for questions ... and the first question from these homebrewers hung in the air, like a group of Little Leaguers meeting Mickey Mantle for the first time: "How'd you go pro?" Olen had been a home-brewer, while working in an employment agency. But then he lost his job. "I had nothing to lose," he said, so he enrolled in the brewmaster course at the Siebel Institute of Technology "& world brewing academy" -- the Harvard / MIT / Stanford all rolled into one of this crowd, with tuition to match: the 10-week master brewer course costs $20,000.

Two weeks after graduating, Olen got a job at Grey's Microbrewery in Janesville. He followed that with one at Titletown Brewery, then the Milwaukee Alehouse and now Sprecher where root beer
pays the bills, but beer feeds the soul. Despite the economics, "It's not called the Sprecher Soda Company," he said.

And so -- just to be hospitable -- I held out my glass. Someone at the bar poured in an amber liquid. Delicious. Empty glass.

Jennifer Zygmunt poured me some homemade liqueur, made with oranges and coffee beans. "Of course it's good for you," she said. "It's made with herbs." Lovely, but try as I would, I couldn't taste the coffee. So I tried again.

Dan Demers poured me some tangerine wheat beer he insisted he'd made for his wife. As in, "Happy birthday, honey. I bought you a shotgun." Dan said he'd used 15 tangerines. "Probably coulda used less," he said.

Jeff Norton was explaining how he made sake, a Japanese wine whose creation involves moldy rice. "The key is knowing when the mold is just right; get the timing wrong and ..." I got the picture. Norton brought three sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Station to the meeting: He'd met them on the train coming to Racine to get tattoos, and convinced them -- I'm sure it was very difficult -- that they'd have a better time with the homebrewers.

Ooops, my glass was empty again... Ahhhh!

DP Wigley, perhaps better known as a grain mill since 1849, is now the heart of the homebrewing movement in the area, with its Hop to It brewing and winemaking supplies threatening to catch up with traditional items like grass seed, concrete and ice melt. The homebrewers meet there twice a month. I was having too much fun to nail down the dates: call Chris or Mark Flynn for details: 633-8239. Bring home a bar of beer soap for the wife; it's just $5.

And if you see me there, and my glass is empty ... well, you know what to do.

And these are a few of my favorite things...


  1. The solution to all of Racine's problems is more alcohol consumption!

  2. Isn't that what recessions are for?

  3. Robert Roehre3/02/2009 8:31 AM

    As a member of this fine club, it's not about beer "consumption" but rather beer "appreciation". If anyone would like to learn more about the home brew craft, I'd like to invite you to one of our meetings; the business meeting is the second Wednesday of the month and the social meeting is the last Friday of the month. All the meetings take place at D.P. Wiggly, 234 Wisconsin Ave
    Racine, WI. At these meetings you'll find a very friendly, knowledgeable group of people, who have a passion for brewing quality beers and wines, engaged in sampling each others latest creations, offering critiques, having lively discussions and sharing their knowledge and techniques. In other words, it's just plain fun and a good time is had by all!

  4. Great story Pete ! Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to attend the meeting and write the story ! Mark and Chris are another example of the diversity of our unique downtown. They are active and involved in bringing downtown Racine back to its full potential and are cherished business neighbors and friends.