Home crafted beer and wine can deliver on a number of things – value, variety, quality, pride. The practice is more popular than ever, and a growing number of “make-your-own, brew-your-own” artisans are proving one can concoct great-tasting juice and suds, without leaving the house. Richard & Gail Chilman (Le Sueur-vintners) and Kevin Laird (New Ulm-brewer) represent a few in Southern Minnesota doing just that.
Richard and Gail made their first wines in the fall of 2014, and currently, the couple owns circa 500 bottles. In a nutshell, the process is to initially press the fruit (done in the garage). Then the primary and secondary fermentation occurs in the kitchen, the dining room, or a spare bedroom. It is vital, during fruit fly season, to use an area that can be quarantined, since fruit-fly invasion can cause wine to convert to vinegar. Finally, the aging takes place (in the basement), where it is cool and dark.
The Chilmans thoroughly enjoy occasional tasting parties, where they can share their hobby with friends. “We’ll open one or two dozen different bottles of wine and people can taste the different varieties that range from dry to dessert wines,” said Gail.
Richard’s cousin is a winemaker, which is what got the Chilmans excited about becoming vintners. They like to partake in wine tasting tours in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa; and they have learned a great deal by visiting with the various artisans. In Richard and Gail’s initial year of production, they had too many apples on their tree, to know what to do with. Richard had access to some wild grapes, and Gail’s favorite wine has always been cranberry. “We used what we had available to us, so those were our first three kinds: apple, wild grape and cranberry. Since then, we have made primarily fruit wines, as we did not have access to many grapes,” Gail explained. Neither of the two had any experience in making wine. They purchased an equipment starter kit from Brew-N-Wine in Mankato and found some recipes to use as guidelines.
The Chilmans enjoy sharing their concoctions with others, and they are not afraid to experiment. One of their more unusual wines is a cucumber flavor. “You know you have a good batch of wine when you start planning on making more batches of it as soon as you’ve tasted it. We’ve had an amazing Pinot Noir kit wine that we are making our second kit of since everyone enjoys it so much. We are also known for our various renditions of cranberry wines such as Straight Cranberry, Cranberry Melange, and Cranberry Margarita,” Gail said.
Richard said that the hardest thing about winemaking is getting the correct acid balance in some of the wines. “We made a cherry wine that we fought with and weren’t happy with when we finally bottled it, but we have learned so many new things since then, that now when we open a bottle, we are able to adjust the wine, and now it’s one of the more popular choices at wine tastings,” Richard said.
Most home winemakers will admit that if they like the wine they have made, then it is a good wine. So much about the alcohol is subjective. Some people only like dry, others prefer only sweet. Some won’t touch a white wine because they’ve only been exposed to reds. There are those winemakers who, like Richard and Gail, like to experiment, while certain other fabricators will work with only kit wines. “We had one person at a wine tasting that said she would only choose about three of the wines to drink. Richard told her we were going to broaden her horizons, and he had her sample all of the wines. She did not find one that she disliked and was excited that she was able to experience all of the wines, many of which she would never have tried,” Gail said.
As self-taught winemakers, the Chilmans like to network with other winemakers. They joined a wine club in St. Paul and found it invaluable to know that if they are experiencing a problem with their winemaking, there is someone within the group who can help them. It is encouraged for members to bring their wines to the club meetings, for evaluation.
“With our membership in the wine club, we now have access to many varieties of grapes and juices, and we are still on the lower end of the learning curve for grapes. We are also learning what we need to do to have our wines balanced before fermentation, rather than struggling with them when it’s time to bottle,” Richard said.
The Chilmans advise that anyone interested in trying to make wines, is probably wise to start with a wine kit; they are fairly foolproof. Don’t be afraid to experiment; the recipes are mostly guidelines. Networking with other winemakers and suppliers are excellent resources, and there are also a lot of online sources and forums. Some wines tend to be best consumed within the first couple of years, however, some reds don’t reach their prime until the five-year mark. “We want the wines that we bottle to be balanced, so they can all be good when they mature. The hardest part of the entire process is not being able to drink them until they are mature!” Richard exclaimed.
“I’ve always enjoyed the occasional beer, but I got bored with the mainstream commercial beers. There had to be a better tasting beer, and when I tasted my first home brew or craft brew, I was hooked. That’s what beer was meant to taste like. It’s like canned vegetables versus fresh vegetables; no comparison. And when I found out about all the neat equipment and gadgets to help make the brewing process easier and more accurate, that totally convinced me to start brewing.”
That’s Kevin Laird. Kevin has been personal brewing for several years and he had no formal training or classes. He learned the process through friends that were seasoned home brewers. Laird said that the best way to learn home brewing is by trial and error and a few good books. “When visiting some of the microbreweries in Minnesota, I like to strike up a conversation with the master brewer. It’s surprising to discover just how many of them started out as home brewers,” Laird explained.
In the initial stages of production, Laird bottled his beer and would yield about six to 12 cases per year, but bottling became tedious and a little too much work. Circa two years ago, Kevin switched over to kegging, rather than bottling his beer. The kegging method proved to be easier for cleaning, sanitizing, and executing final fermentations. “I’ve been averaging about two kegs per year. I just make what pleases my palate and what my friends will try,” said Kevin.
He uses no automated procedures during his brewing process, which provides him a lot of exercise, especially when an unplanned accident in the kitchen occurs. As is true with nearly anything, the more time spent perfecting a craft; the better and more efficient the procedure becomes. And in Kevin’s case, the better his brews become. “With practice, I can streamline the procedure and save some time, but I still spend the better part of a day brewing. I’ve done a lot of small, one-gallon batches, which allows me to experiment with yeasts, grains, hops and different equipment. It’s a great way to practice and improve on the entire operation,” Laird advised.
When asked if he ever made a bad batch of beer, Kevin said that there is no such thing as a bad batch of beer. However, he admits that he has produced a few batches that had some “off” tastes and strange aromas. His solution is a simple one. He gathers his home brewer friends together at his place on a Friday evening, and with the help of his wife, Jan, throws a bunch of fish in the fryer, maybe bakes a couple of pizzas, serves up an array of cheeses, and tops it all off with some chocolate desserts … Oh, and then discusses the horrible problem he encountered with his latest brew. Kevin says this is the best part of the home brewing experience (and it may take another batch or two before the issue is resolved). Kevin’s current concoctions include a Cream Ale and a Kolsch. Both are light beers with a clean, but slightly “hoppy” taste and aroma. He grows some of his own hops, which are used during the final stages of the brewing process.
He said that one of the best components in the home-brewery hobby is attending social/business events. “I’ve attended several festivals in the Minneapolis area, usually when the brewery is introducing a new seasonal beer. I have visited many microbreweries throughout the state: Surly, Four Corners, Breu Bros., etc. It’s a great way to get some good tips.”
Probably the most popular of Kevin’s brews is the Bourbon Barrel Porter. It’s more likely to be what everyone expects a home brew to be: a beautiful dark red color, very strong aroma, with very strong after effects. He used oak chips in the fermentation stage and said the result was scrumptious. One of Kevin’s future hopes is to experiment with fruit in his brews. For those who can’t decide whether or not to take-up home brewing, be assured that with all the information and equipment available these days, it’s difficult to make a bad brew.
One of the great aspects of the home brew process is that when you first tap into a new batch, you taste it, your fellow home brewers taste it, and you all agree that it’s great, but you immediately start thinking you can improve it. The hook is set … the game is afoot!
Story By Pat Garry
Photos By Philip Weyhe