By Staff Blogger Ryan Hieronymus
When I was a kid playing baseball in little league, I dreamed of playing in the majors. It’s not an uncommon dream and there are plenty of camps aimed at giving me, and every other person who had big league dreams, a chance to get on the field.
As a homebrewer, the big league dream come true is the chance to brew on a professional rig. It’s a great opportunity to get a little bit of the experience of someone who gets paid to make beer.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to brew with Mark Tilley of Destihl Brewery at their Restaurant and Brew Works location, after my mother bid and won on the experience at a local fundraiser for The Tee it Up for GFPD. (If you’d like more information on the fundraiser or the rare genetic condition, please follow the link.) The Restaurant and Brew Works in Normal, IL was the first of three locations. They currently have another brew pub and restaurant in Champaign, IL and production facility just up the road from the Normal space.
After arriving and finally meeting Mark in person I got a run-down of the system and an overview of our brew day, a double batch of their Normal Blonde Ale. The current system at the Brew Works location is a German made Beraplan 10 HL (8.5 bbl) system. It is a 3 vessel system with a whirlpool. The system was originally built in 1997 and Destihl purchased it in 2007 for the Brew Works location.
Mark climbed up the ladder to the control panel and with the turn of a few switches and push of buttons we were soon under way. The whole system was brought to life and the strike water was being primed for mash in. For any homebrewers who haven’t taken a brewery tour or brewed on a commercial system, the overall process is the same as at home, but the tools are bigger and better. The all-steam system has permanent piping for transferring between all vessels, rakes in the mashtun for stirring and cleaning and hatch for grain clean out. The grain hatch was a new one for me. I’ve always know grain clean out to involve a shovel, a bucket and the manway. This system has a built in drain that pipes out the used grain to a cart picked up by a local dairy farmer. (The cheese curds at Ropp’s Dairy are delicious.) Each of the locations where Destihl brews has an arrangement for local farmers to use the spent grain.
I was hopeful I would get to be more hands on during this experience than my previous day at a brewhouse and I wasn’t disappointed. Mark let me add grains, hops, yeast and do a little cleaning for grain out and after the first whirlpool for the first batch. Just like homebrewing, professional brewing is about 3/4 cleaning. If my homebrew rig was a permanent set up, with clean in place capability and in floor draining, I might not complain as much.
As with all brewing, there is plenty of time in between steps to chat about beer, tattoos, beer and other random stuff. Mark filled me in about his brewing background and how he ended up with the current gig. He was introduced to craft beer in 2004 during a ski trip to Colorado and started homebrewing in 2008. After getting hooked on craft beer, Mark worked hard on his skills which earned him several awards for American and Russian Imperial Stouts and Belgian Saisons. When the opportunity arrived, Mark began volunteering at Destihl in 2009 and worked his way up to a part time Cellarman position and eventually a Brewer position in 2012. Mark continues to hone his techniques and looks for ways to keep the beer innovative.
During another little lull I had time for lunch and to sample some beers. What trip to a brewery would be complete without a few pints? On the mid-day special was the pork tacos with a suggested pairing of the Nutty Brown Ale. The chefs did a great job as I was left wanting more, but I figured I should save room for beer. The Nutty Brown was aptly named with a smooth toasty caramel malt finish.
I also had a small pour of the St. Dekkera Dry-hopped Blonde to finish up my lunch. If you enjoy sours I’d definitely recommend getting anything from their St. Dekkera series if you get the chance. The dry-hopped Blonde was outstanding. A little later in the day we had a Snowtex IPA. Mark explained this hybrid beer used the malt from their White IPA and the hops from the Vertex IPA. I apologize for not taking better tasting notes, but this was a solid easy drinking IPA.
Later in the little lunch break we found out the owner, Matt Potts, was going to do a little tour for some of the staff from the production facility at the new location later in the day. They are currently building a new $14.5 Million production with taproom in north Normal. The new 47,000 square foot space will allow them to increase output from 15,000 barrels to close to 150,000 barrels when at full capacity. The new production facility is being installed by Sprinkman and will feature a 60 bbl brewhouse, with a 240 bbl sour kettle. Also being installed is a 10 bbl pilot system for beers that will be sold on premise only.
My pictures don’t quite do it justice. It’s going to be an amazing space when complete. Check out the new facility here. While I already enjoy going to Normal to visit family, I’m definitely looking forward to checking out the new production facility and taproom when it’s complete later this year.
I’m lucky to have been able to brew on a couple big league systems now. Every time I brew with a professional, my homebrewing skills and techniques make another improvement. While I’m not living the dream of getting paid to play baseball or brew beer, I do get to watch the Cubs and enjoy a finely crafted homebrew.