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Interview: Square Kegs Founder Rich Forsythe

By Alexander Hough in Food on Jan 31, 2012 9:20PM

2012_01_31_SquareKegs.jpeg In Lincoln Square, beer has become a civic priority. Pet store owner, Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce board member, and avid homebrewer Rich Forsythe helped found Square Kegs, the Chamber’s homebrew club, in early 2011. Forsythe’s and other beer lovers’ advocacy led to last summer’s Pairings in the Plaza and last Saturday’s Winter Brew. As we mentioned in our recap, the Chamber is also planning a Summer Brew, a three-day outdoor beer festival on the last weekend of July.

Forsythe has lived in Chicago, and Lincoln Square specifically, for most of the past twenty years. A biking enthusiast, he worked for Cannondale before opening Ruff Haus Pets (a great spot to get high quality, ethically- and environmentally-friendly-produced pet food, by the way) by the Rockwell Brown Line stop in 2001.

The Saturday prior to Winter Brew, we met Forsythe for a beer at Rockwell’s, a quiet neighborhood bar just across the street-level L tracks from Ruff Haus, to discuss Lincoln Square, Square Kegs, and Winter Brew.

A quick note to current and prospective homebrewers: To be honest, prior to this conversation - which occurred the same day that Chuck was in Wicker Park covering Brew Ho Ho and when Maria’s tapping of rare kegs brought in hoards of beer nerds, many of whom were members of Homebrewers' Pride Of The Southside - we didn’t realize that Chicago had caught homebrewing fever so badly. If you’re making beer, check around; chances are there’s a homebrewing club nearby.

Chicagoist: Your dad was a homebrewer. Was that unusual for the time?

Rich Forsythe: He was part of that mid- to late-'80s homebrewing renaissance. That’s what led into that first wave of craft beer in the States. I don’t know if it was unusual. My dad’s a bit of a hobbyist. He likes beer and is into doing. It’s a DIY mentality. Thriftiness. I think homebrewing is a great hobby because it combines cooking, science, and gear, which are all things that I like.

C: How did Square Kegs come about?

RF: Square Kegs was created because we were at a [Chamber board] meeting, discussing the wine strolls that they do in the neighborhood, which are really successful. They’re essentially wine suppliers setting up shop in local businesses. Businesses provide an appetizer and you get groups of people that just move down the street, head business to business, get in, drink some nice wine, get some nice hors d'oeuvres. It’s just a way to very informally introduce people to the businesses.

So we were in a planning meeting and someone posed the question, “Why do we always do wine? Can’t we do beer?” So we decided to try to do something beer-related. That was the creative moment of Square Kegs.

C: Why did you start Square Kegs rather than immediately do something like Winter Brew?

RF: We wanted to do a lot of different things. We wanted to do something like a beer stroll, but we also wanted to have events. And I always wanted to do a homebrew club. I’ve gone down to the Chicago Beer Society meet-ups at Goose [Island]. It was alright, but that, I have old ‘80s Zymurgy magazines from when I was brewing the first time with my dad, and there are pictures of those dudes in those magazines that many years ago. It was their club. It wasn’t the new wave’s club. I felt that it had gotten to the point that it didn’t have the spirit that I wanted from a homebrew club.

It’s like when I race bikes. When you go out on a training ride, there’s a guy that’s faster than you, there’s a guy that’s just your speed, and then there’s a guy that’s always slower than you. And you need to ride with all three of them to get good. You need to be able to chase that fast guy to get better. You need to have that competition back and forth with that person at your level. And then you need to know how to be a leader with the guy below you and help him bring him up. And that teaches you a whole different way. So that’s how you become the complete rider. To me, that’s anything that’s craft. When you’re learning to do something, you benefit from all three of those people.

Anytime that I hang out with someone that’s a way better brewer than me - which happens a lot, I’m intermediate at best - I want to glean everything I can from their process. When I brew with guys in my group, it’s a free flow of information. There’s no posturing. We just kind of do our thing. We’re not chasing, we’re not leading, we’re just brewing together, and free-forming. And then anytime I’m asked to bring someone through their first process, it’s always a challenge. I can’t go by the seat of my pants anymore. I gotta break it down and look at the process through their eyes and I’ll usually discover something that I used to do but that I don’t do anymore. I didn’t think that was happening at that particular meet-up.

Around the same time that [the discussion of beer at the Chamber board meeting] happened, one of my brewing friends comes in [to Ruff Haus Pets], we’re chatting about what we’re going to do next, and someone overhears us, and they’re like, “Oh, you guys homebrew?” And then we start talking and find out that they live right over there. And before I knew it, there’s like 10, 15 people within a stone’s throw of the store that are homebrewing. Why aren’t we talking more? So that’s Square Kegs. It’s kind of an umbrella that could cover the craft beer enthusiast and the homebrewer. And from the Chamber’s perspective, it's an umbrella to do events like Pairings in the Plaza and Winter Brew.

C: What other activities is Square Kegs doing?

RF: We started a monthly homebrew meet-up on the last Thursday of every month. Much like the wine stroll, it’s always a business, and the business changes.

C: Do you just hang out and talk shop?

RF: Yup. We try to do a little 15-minute program where we talk about something that’s been on people’s minds. We’ve done temperature control, yeast starters. We did a competition. And then we did a group brew where there was six of us that all brewed the same recipe with different variations. Base recipe with all grain, then with extract. Then the same recipe with the changing of the yeast, all grain, then extract. So we had two yeasts that we used, then we also did an all grain version of each one. Then we met up at Fountainhead and we had the beers so we could go head to head. This is the same recipe with just a different yeast. So I actually brewed 10 gallons, split it up and pitched two different yeasts. So the only thing different in my beers was the yeast.

C: And you could taste the difference?

RF: There was a decided different between the two beers. I boiled all 10 gallons in the same pot, fermented them in two car boys but in the same room at the same temperature. Everything between those two beers was really consistent. I used an English yeast and a Scottish yeast, and the English had a lot more fruity esters and the Scottish had a more malty profile. And the Scottish was not as clear as the English. The English ales really flock out and clear up. The Scottish ale didn’t. Historically, Scottish ales, they’d kind of would lager them a little bit so they would store them and then they would clear them. So the Scottish ales that I’ve brewed, if I wait long enough and I crash them, they’ll clear up. But it takes that crashing-

C: Crashing?

RF: Dropping the temperature to freezing. It was kind of interesting to see that experiment. I learned something because I’ve used both those yeasts and I was always wondering, had I done something wrong? Why wasn’t my Scottish ale clearing the way my other ones would. Now I know, that’s just what the yeast does.

So we did that. It was really two meetings, because it was the brewing meeting and then it was the recap. We try to keep it informal. Most of our meetings, the good stuff is just drinking each other’s beer and asking what you did. You learn a lot that way.

C: That sounds pretty collegial.

RF: It’s a really good group. The people that have been showing up, it’s the full gamut, from first time brewers to guys that have over 100 batches to their name. It’s a very free, friendly exchange of information.

C: How many people are in the club?

RF: We don’t do dues, so the only way to really gauge it is how many people like us on Facebook. But I can tell you on any given meeting, we get about 30 people or so.

C: All guys?

RF: No. We probably got a dozen girls that show up from time to time. Some of them are hard core - they’re there every time - which is a big difference from the first time I was brewing. It was a total dude’s thing. But now the women are getting involved, which I think is excellent. Really, in many ways, women were the first homebrewers. You used to brew for your house, and that was under the cooking thing. It wasn’t this hobby. It was, “You want beer? Make it.” There’s no liquor store, you know? So a lot of those farmhouse ales? That was the farm wife that brewed those beers just like she made the food.

C: How did Winter Brew come about?

RF: There are two components of Winter Brew. On the homebrew side, we wanted to host a BJCP-sanctioned contest.

C: How do you get it sanctioned?

RF: You sign up, and you have to have BJCP judges. The reason we wanted to do that is because we wanted meaningful feedback for the people who entered, and you’re going to get that when you have an official homebrew contest, with guys that are trained to give good feedback. It’s one of those things that really helps people with their process, so we thought that would be the most valuable thing to the homebrewers that we were talking to.

On the craft beer end of things, we wanted to template a festival for future events. As we look to summer, we’re going to have a three-day larger event. Working on details, on location. We’re not at the point where we can tell people it’s going to be here, but we’re looking at the last weekend of July, three days, local beer, local food. [Author’s note: Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melissa Flynn has since said the summer festival will take place in the parking lot across the street from the Old Town School of Folk Music.]

We want to create a more refined festival mentality. One that’s about quality over quantity. It’s about what you’re drinking not how much you’re drinking. That’s the niche in this neighborhood. So with Winter Brew, we wanted to template a craft, local festival that targeted that demographic which we’ve been successful with. Which ties right into our farmers market, our Thursday concerts, it’s that same sort of person that’s hitting the farmers market, they’re also into the beer that’s brewed down the street. There’s a sense of ownership and pride and community that I think comes from that mentality. And we’re really lucky that we got Half Acre, Metropolitan brewing [here in the neighborhood]. And we got Fountainhead, Bad Apple, the Grafton. I’m so happy that I can go drink good beer. Even now, these guys [Rockwell’s] used to have two beers on tap. They got a new owner, the guys that have been here working since the beginning with the old owner got a little more opportunity to express themselves and their desires for the place. And now we got a pretty good tap list here, and it rotates. When the stuff rotates, it means the people are drinking it.

C: For the competition, how many judges will there be?

RF: In the neighborhood of 35 judges.

C: How many will be BJCP judges?

RF: Almost all of them. We also have some brewers. You can have so many non-BJCP. Doug [Hurst], the brewer from Metropolitan, will judge. We got Randy Mosher, who’s judging best in show. You just have to have enough BJCP judges that you’re getting feedback. James Lewis is our BJCP judge on hand who’s organizing that element of it. He has judged a lot and had helped put on a homebrew competition up in Wisconsin.

And then Tony [Black], he actually went and stewarded at Spooky Brew to learn about the stewarding process. Stewarding, those are the guys that organize the beer and get them to the judges. The judges just sit, they’re brought a flight, they judge the flight, and then they go get another one. It’s the stewards that make sure they got what they need. He’s been getting all the beers in and organized by their styles, getting them ready to transport.

And Brew Camp, that was the drop-off point. Right when Square Kegs started, Brew Camp opened, which is the homebrew store over on Belle Plaine, and Jared [Saunders] and Whit [Nelson] have jumped in feet-first and been totally supportive of Square Kegs. They got really involved with this homebrew contest. They hosted the registration site on their website. Their background is in web development so they were really helpful in tweaking stuff and making sure everything was working the way it should. They were the drop-off point so they’ve been carefully taking care of over 1,000 bottles of beer.

C: Are there other neighborhoods that have this much beer activity going on?

RF: I don’t know. To me it just seems like, there are so many in this hood. I don’t know if it’s more guys living in houses where you got a basement, you know, because there’s a fair amount of gear. I don’t know why, it’s just like that. I’ve been brewing at my house, and I’ve found that there’s maybe five to six brewers on my block and the block over. It’s crazy. Everyone who’s coming to these things are coming from the hood. There’s just a lot of homebrewers in this neighborhood.