Holding up a sampler glass filled with a really refreshing honey hibiscus ale, Chris Krueger of Underground Homebrew feels confident. "The city's been talking about this, too," he says. "It's a tourism thing, and the economic development group's like, 'What's unique about Cambridge? What can we hang our hat on?' Well, this."
Krueger is talking about more than just his glass of beer; he's referring to his Underground Homebrew Festival, an annual event for fun and charity that was held until just recently in nearby unincorporated London, Wisconsin. He moved to Cambridge a year ago, and brought the festival with him. It will be held for the tenth year this Saturday, August 17, at CamRock Cafe and Sport in Cambridge. (The event runs from 2-6 p.m., and the suggested donation for beer sampling is $20.)
This little coffee/sandwich/cycling spot is something of an oasis for fans of bikes and craft beer. CamRock holds approximately 150 different beers in its cooler; indeed, the hallways are ringed with more cases of beer yet to be stocked. The coffee is Colectivo (née Alterra, and CamRock expects to stick with the roaster through its name change), the food is made well, and if you need to true up your bike's wheels for a run on the trails, this is your one-stop shop.
Krueger, with the encouragement of CamRock owner Jeff Knops, started a homebrew night at the cafe back in June, inviting brewers and fans of brewing to hang out on the first Wednesday of every month.
He took advice from the brewers who keep the beer flowing at the annual festival. "I have people that'll come up from Chicago, Milwaukee, one up in Rhinelander. They're all kind of Madison natives. Most of 'em are pretty local guys, though," he says.
There's no official club structure to the event. Krueger says when that came up, the response among members was unanimous. "Everybody's like, 'No. Let's not even worry about it.' We're here to socialize, drink beer, talk about brewing, and just have fun with it."
At the monthly meet-up on August 7, there were four beers to sample and a group that eventually swelled to about a dozen, not including the kids running around the cafe. Krueger himself brought a summer ale, which was nice and light. Troy Antoniewicz brought a nutty, pleasant amber ale, and plans to bring upwards of six different concoctions to the festival. Drew Thompson brought the honey hibiscus, as well as a growler of a pale ale featuring Nelson Sauvin hops.
As the evening went on, brewers and fellow drinkers and I chatted about affordable shortcuts for barrel-aged flavor (soaked wood chips versus scrap wood from used bourbon barrels that had been repurposed for decoration), whether juniper tastes like Christmas trees in a good way or a bad way, and the core workout inherent in driving a jittery Smart car to work every day. It was a pretty casual scene.
Interestingly, everybody was talking more about the upcoming homebrew festival than they were about the Great Taste of the Midwest, which was at that point a mere three days away. Whether this speaks to the difficulty of getting Great Taste tickets, or just the center of gravity for the beer passions of these brewers, I don't know. But Krueger expects eight to ten brewers for sure on Saturday, and potentially more as plans firm up.
I asked the brewers about the kits people can buy at places like Bed Bath & Beyond, and how well they can actually perform compared to the bigger homebrewing rigs. Krueger summed it up.
"Think about something that simple. So, what is beer? It's some sort of fermented sugar, and some sort of yeast. So you can use bread yeast, you can ferment, and you can drink something." His tone here indicates that this "something" won't be much of anything in terms of flavor.
"And for some people, that's all they ever want to do, and that's great. And some people will progress, and then you're ending up with kegs, and doing ten gallons at a time, and stainless steel. Everybody's going to find their happy medium at some point, and then that's enough."
At which point Thompson laughed, and asked, "When does that happen?" And true enough, Krueger -- who is currently brewing in 5-gallon batches -- pulls out his phone and shows me a 14-gallon rig he saw at Brew and Grow. "The cat's meow," he calls it. About $7,000. If he's spending that amount of time brewing five gallons of beer, why not spend basically the same amount brewing 14? It's never enough when you love beer.
There aren't a lot of homebrew-specific beer festivals in Wisconsin, largely because the state prohibited taking home-brewed beer out of the space in which it was produced, at least until the law was changed in April. The Beer Barons of Milwaukee have their festival coming up in September, but Cambridge is only a half-hour drive from Madison.
Between CamRock Cafe and restaurants like Burgundy and the excellent Double S BBQ, there's plenty of good food in Cambridge to lay down a base for an afternoon of light drinking. The brewers I met have a good handle on their craft, and are making some genuinely enjoyable beers -- and the guys themselves are a fun crowd. If you make it to Cambridge this Saturday, be sure to ask Thompson to tell you the tale of when a CO2 canister started depressurizing in his truck cab. It's a great story, best told over a beer.