Brew Camp: A Candy Store for Home Brewers

By Roger Kamholz in Food on Aug 26, 2011 7:00PM

Under dozens of kitchen sinks and tucked behind countless closet doors, something is brewing in Chicago. It's beer. More precisely, it's home-brewed beer. And with more and more beer enthusiasts adopting the hobby of fermenting their own suds, Chicago home brewers Jared Saunders and Whit Nelson realized the community begged for a place to gather, learn, talk shop and gear up. From that idea, Brew Camp was born.

Saunders and Nelson deliberately located Brew Camp in the home-brewing hotbed of North Center, where a heavily German-immigrant population still thrives and several commercial breweries have cropped up as of late. The storefront shop sells everything aspiring and experienced home brewers need to make, store and enjoy good beer - ingredients, equipment, how-to literature, bottles, high-quality beer glasses, you name it. To complement Brew Camp's retail efforts, the team also offers introductory home-brewing classes on weekends, which cost $20 or are free with the purchase of one of Brew Camp's well-curated equipment kits. (Saunders and Nelson only stock what they consider to be the best versions of each essential home-brewing tool.)

Brew Camp has the atmosphere and charm of an old apothecary. The shelves are stocked with mason jars filled with unfamiliar roots, botanicals, spices and other flavoring agents. A fridge keeps vials of yeast healthy and happy. Behind the counter, large bins hold bulk quantities of grains, a primary component of any beer (along with water, hops, yeast and water). All but one of the grains are American-grown, and most hail from a farm in nearby Wisconsin that also malts on the premises. Customers can bring in the ingredient lists of their own recipes for Brew Camp to source, or select from pre-packaged ingredient kits, including several that Saunders and Nelson have put together themselves. Currently, Brew Camp's house beer kits are leaning toward fall flavors with an Autumn Leaf Ale, Pumpkin Pie Porter, Sweet Potato Lager and S'mores Belgian Tripel. They also stock the makings of hard ciders, meads and sodas. (Home winemakers can even find clarifiers and other useful chemicals for their hobby.)

Besides the thoughtfully chosen inventory and formal lessons in beer-making, Brew Camp also traffics in on-site experience - a crucial advantage over online suppliers, according to Saunders and Nelson. All the staffers are longtime home brewers themselves, so customers have a local, human resource to turn to when snags or questions arise. Plus, once you've turned out a home brew you can be proud of, it's hard to toast the spoils of your work with a computer.

Brew Camp is located at 2039 West Belle Plaine Avenue.