Illinois Adventures : Keg Grove Brewing Co. Collab

Hey guys! Sorry it's been a while....the past few months have been crazy for me outside of the brewing hobby. I changed jobs and had to settle in and determine the best time to blog and....I finally found the time so let me catch you all up on a few things!

As many of you know, I was fortunate enough to experience something many homebrewers dream of, brewing on a commercial system!

Over the summer our Amber Ale, "Antilia" took first place in it's category and second place Best of Show at the For What It's Wort Competition in Bloomington, IL. A few weeks had past and I received an email from Jeff Mroz, one of the founders of Keg Grove Brewing in Bloomington, IL.

He told me that he had the pleasure of judging my beer and enjoyed it so much that he had selected it for a ramp up batch at his brewery. Jeff asked if I wanted to come out and brew the recipe with him, I obviously without a doubt jumped all over that opportunity. I shot over the recipe and started to collaborate with Jeff on scaling up the 5 gallon batch for a 7 bbl system.

Jeff was great during this process. We would email back and forth as he would check his ingredient contracts to see where we needed to make substitutions. It was invaluable for me to get a glimpse into the economics of brewing beer on a commercial level. For example,the yeast strain that I had used for this recipe would cost the brewery $150 as opposed to going with a respectable dry yeast strain for $50...I think I may be brewing more with dry yeast in the future as I make strides towards going pro.

After a few substitutes, the recipe was ready to brew and we just needed to settle on a date and book our flights. The time leading up to this trip seemed to crawl. The day finally came, I packed my brewer's boots and hopped on a plane to Chicago.

Katie and I made a little extended trip and hung around Chicago for a full day/night. I always wanted to check out the city as I have rolled through on tours with the band in the past, but never really spent time downtown.

We had a great day taking in the sights, walking around landmarks and devouring some famous deep dish pizza.

The next morning we caught an Uber back to the airport to pick up our rental car and headed down to Bloomington. The two hour drive was pleasant, but I was also anxious to get to the brewery and meet up with Jeff. We checked into our hotel and called another Uber to bring us to Keg Grove. I nervously opened the door to a bustling tap room with sounds of Sunday football echoing from a TV. I asked the bartender if Jeff was around and he pointed to a man sitting at a table with a stack of papers and a laptop. We walked up to him and introduced ourselves. Jeff looked up with a big smile and reached out with his large hand for a welcoming handshake.

He quickly began to wrap up what he was working on and stuffed a bunch of paperwork into his bag. Before we got to talking, he told us that anything we needed in the brewery was ours. He suggested that we got ourselves some beer so we can get to know each other. We talked for a few hours over some of the beers he created as a homebrewer and swapped stories. The beers were nicely made and I really did enjoy them. His brewing style was really similar to mine and we shared similar tastes in recipe formulation. It was interesting to see his love of using corn in his recipes and the final product was great!

After a few beers Jeff and I prepped the system for our brew day the next day. It was a very real moment for me as I was connecting hoses to between the HLT and Mash tun. We then weighed out the ingredients. Now.....I usually average about 10 pounds of base malt for my 5 gallon batches...scaled up for a 7 bbl system you're talking over 200 pounds of base malt alone....I also found it comical weighing out hop pellets in buckets when I usually use a tiny piece of Tupperware...

After the brewery was prepped, Jeff told his that he wanted to show us around town and visit a few breweries.

The first stop was White Oak Brewing. Once a homebrew shop turned pro brewery was very inviting and has a great small town feel to it. The brewer and tap room manager were both young and had true entrepreneurial spirit. I had one of the best English Mild's at this spot....It was fantastic. If you ever come across it....(Me Llama Llama) do not miss out. As we were enjoying some great beer a couple walked into the brewery. They were actually two members of the Bloomington/Normal Abnormal Brewers Homebrew Club. This is the club that hosted the For What It's Wort competition! It was so cool to run into them and they were really excited to meet us.

We finished up our pints and said our good byes as we headed to our next stop, Destihl. We were headed over there to meet up with Jeff's wife, Jen and their son for dinner. This place was MASSIVE. I asked Jeff half jokingly if their setup was for decoration.....it wasn't. They had fermenters that stretched a city block with small batch fermenters stacked in front of them....It was stainless on top of stainless....This was also a really cool stop for us to experience because this was the venue for the For What It's Wort competition. So on day one....not only did I get to meet Jeff who had judged my beer, but met a couple involved with hosting the competition and visited the venue where the competition took place. It was just really cool to see where it all happened and meet a bunch of people involved.

The next morning was brew day! I sprung out of bed, grabbed my boots and some iced coffee (obviously) and Kate drove me over to Keg Grove for our 8am start. When we pulled up to the brewery the sun was shining and we used the opportunity for a quick photo op. I walked in and Jeff was already there prepping a few things.

The sun was shining through the big glass garage door near the brewing rig. It was really like a dream and I took a moment to soak it all in.The hot liquor tank was already up to temp as we set the timer last night and my first task was to fetch all the grain we weighed out the day prior. I brought all the sacks to the brew deck and we opened the valve of the HLT to the Mash tun. First I dumped in some rice hulls...now when I say some i really mean about a half a sack...I usually use about a half a pound per batch at home. Next was slinking multiple 50 pound sacks of 2 row over my shoulder and into the the opening of the mash tun. My shoulders were on fire! I could not wait to move on form the sacks and onto just regular buckets of grain. Once the grain was all loaded into the mash tun it was time to set the timers. Jeff was amazing with showing me the ropes. He told me what to do and let me execute each step.

The brewery began to fill with the aroma of fresh wort. God, I love that smell....As the mash was resting I started to multi task by helping clean out the fermenter and prepping the pump and hoses between the mash tun and the kettle.

Before long the mash rest was finished and it was time to pump over to the kettle. Going into this experience I really didn't know what to expect in regards to technical brewing application. It was refreshing to see that the process really was not much different at all from my brewing style, just at a much larger scale. It really gave me a boost of confidence.

As the wort was pumping over to the kettle I went in the back to weigh out the pounds of hops. Still....its kind of funny to talk about pounds of hops when really I usually use about 3 ounces of hops for this recipe. Once the wort was transferred it was time to crank up the heat and get it to a boil. It was time to toss in the first charge of hops!

Jeff warned me to be careful as I opened the hatch of the kettle to dump in the hops. I was not expecting the heat from the steam alone to pack such a big punch. I ended up slightly burning my hand (no injuries) and ended up dropping the bin of hops on the brew deck. I got most of them in the kettle! haha. It was a little embarrassing, but Jeff assured me that things happen like this all the time and it was fine.

We now had some time to kill before the next hop charge so it was on to cleaning out the mash tun. I always wanted to do this! I say this now...but, Im sure once I do eventually go pro it will be something I hate. Kate swung by the brewery just in time to watch me in action. I opened up the hatch and started to rake out the hundreds of pounds of spent grain.

Once the grain was all raked out I climbed back onto the deck and started to hose down the plows and clear the mash tun of all debris. Jeff then instructed me how to remove the false bottom and from there the job was complete.

After a lunch break one of the guys from White Oak Brewing Company swung by to say hello and check on our progress. I really enjoyed the small town feel in the community. The brewers seem to be a very close knit group and it was nice to see. Before I knew it, the boil was coming to an end and it was time to cool down the wort to pitching temps.

This is the step of the process that takes much longer than what Im used to at the homebrewery....It makes sense though when you are comparing five gallons vs a little over 200 gallons. As the wort was cooling, we made sure that the fermenter was all sanitized and ready for the wort transfer.

We got the wort down to temp and took our gravity reading. The reading came in a little on the low side, but not by too much. I was happy with the final outcome. We transfered the wort over to the fermenter and Jeff gave me the honors of dumping in the yeast. The job was done minus a little cleaning! I had the biggest smile on my face as I was guiding water down the drains wrapping up the final stages of the brew day. I did it....I brewed one of my recipes on a commercial scale and I felt confident doing it. From start to finish the brew day was about 9-10 hours...about double that of what Im used to on my rig. This was expected due to the scale, but at no point did I want it to end.

I can't say it enough....but Jeff was amazing. He was a great teacher (fun fact: before opening the brewery, Jeff was actually a school teacher for many years). I have had this dream of opening up a brewery for a while now. I have been putting in the time and energy in educating myself and trying my hardest not to skip a step or get ahead of myself. This was a really great opportunity for me to see if this was something that I really wanted to do or if it was something that I might just want to keep as a hobby. Going into the brew day I did not know what to expect. To be honest, I was a bit intimidated and wasn't sure if there were going to be technical aspects throughout the brew day that I may not have the knowledge for. My biggest fear was to look like an idiot and have people question how I even finished that high in a competition. It's all in my head.....I do this from time to time. Needless to say, this was not the case at all. Everything I did during the brew day was something I was comfortable with and felt as though I had enough knowledge to execute. This is something I want to do.

Kate and I planned to celebrate with a nice dinner. We said our goodbyes to Jeff and Jen. Jeff told me to reach out with anything that I may need during my journey to going pro. I feel as though he is going to play a big part in guiding me in the right direction when the time comes. I really made a good friend on this trip and Im truly grateful for the experience.

Jeff kept me posted on the fermenting process. When it was time to keg up the batch he told me that the beer came out great and it was time to present it to the public. The Keg Grove crew made an announcement over social media about the release of this beer, which we ended up calling "Jersey" and informed everyone that it was brewed by me after my competition accomplishment. The beer was tapped in Keg Grove Brewing Company's tap room and also was distributed to a handful of bars and restaurants in the area. I quickly took to Untappd and watched the check in's flow in. The overall response was very positive and it was surreal to see strangers taking pictures holding a pint of something that I created at my house in New Jersey 900 miles away in Illinois...

Jeff and I continued to chat back and forth figuring out how to send me some of the final product. He had a sixtel keg in the brewery that he wasn't using and filled it up for me.

We just needed to figure out how to get this keg from Illinois to New Jersey safe and sound....As luck had it...a patron of the brewery was heading to Queens, NY for Thanksgiving and offered to bring the keg along for the ride. Kate and I took a trip out there and picked up the keg, tasted a few local Queens/Long Island City beers and brought it home.

I sent out a few texts to the group of friends who have supported me throughout the TC journey to come and enjoy this beer with me. We had a great turnout, everyone loved the beer and we killed that sixtel!

OTHER UPDATES:

There was something that happened as a result to this experience that I didn't really expect...I have been hesitant to make the final jump into 100% kegging my beers. I was always just nervous about the quality suffering due to the lack of my knowledge around the kegging process and I just wasn't sure what setup to get. Chris, the president of my homebrew club (Glen Ridge Homebrewers Assoc.) helped me rig up a dispensing solution for the keg that Jeff sent me. It was the experience of just hooking that up myself that pushed me over the edge. Chris has been awesome during this process and has been great answering any questions I have had recently on the topic of kegging.

On Black Friday this year, since I had off from the new job, I wanted to brew since it was a little while since the last time I was able to do so. I had a bunch of left over grains and had this year's harvest of homegrown Nugget hops. I made a simple single malt beer with Nugget and Citra. This beer wrapped up fermenting this past weekend so I brewed a new Porter recipe (Port Nove) that I hope to test out in competitions for 2019. I had two kegs that I had got a few months back and the "Jersey" keg party inspired me to finally buy the kegging setup. I wanted to test kegging a beer with the IPA I made on Black Friday. I also picked up an SS Brewtech Keg Washer (God is this way better than cleaning bottles!) and transfered the beer to the keg. I hooked up the regular and tank to the gas post, but I wasn't getting any gas.....I texted Chris and asked for some help..

.He then asked where I got the Co2 tank and I had told him that I ordered it online and there was my problem...It's illegal to ship full Co2 tanks! That was a minor detail that I forgot.....Chris saved the day though and drove over a spare tank he had! I plan on going to fill mine this weekend so I can continue to keg my beer.

In regards to upcoming new beers I have a few ideas....The Amber and Red Ale recipes are both ready to go for this year's National Homebrew Competition. I'll have to have these ready for February. For 2019 I want to continue building my beer lineup by trying new recipes and developing new winners. The first beer as mentioned above is our new Porter, "Port Nove", I also have a new Stout recipe I completed that I will give a shot called "Vila Franca" and Im also finishing up a Belgian Trippel called "Tripel Junction".

In-between competition beers I plan on brewing some beer to fill kegs at home! I hope you all have a great Holiday and New Year! We'll talk in 2019.

Cheers!

-Mark

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