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Something’s brewing in the Corridor

Kirkwood Community College, NL business capitalize on home brewing popularity
BIY owner Joe Williams weighs and measures grain to be used in the brewing process. (photo by Jen Moore)

CEDAR RAPIDS– When Kirkwood Program Developer Matt Murphy first started brewing his own beer two years ago, he had a lot of questions.
In search of answers, he turned to YouTube, and found dozens upon dozens of videos produced by a young beer enthusiast who went by the handle, terpsichoreankid.
“He was one of my biggest resources starting out,” Murphy said.
“This one guy” turned out to be someone right in his own backyard; Joe Williams, a home brewing expert and owner of the Marion and North Liberty home brew supply stores, BIY (Brew It Yourself).
“I had no idea he was someone around here,” said Murphy.
Williams began making the videos after he realized there was a shortage of resources for those wanting to get into home brewing. He began making step-by-step instructional videos for beginning brewers. As more viewers showed interest in learning about home brewing, he expanded his content from simple reference materials to longer, more in-depth productions. Williams’ followers have now grown from about 20 when he first started to over 11,000.
Now, Williams is expanding his teaching to more than just videos. He and Murphy are teaming up to offer home brewing classes provided by Kirkwood Community College’s continuing education department. The idea was the brainchild of Murphy, who wanted to see a home brewing class at Kirkwood for years.
According to both Murphy and Williams, home brewing has been steadily increasing in popularity and many people see it as a creative outlet, a chance to experiment and create something that is uniquely their own.
“It’s super rewarding and you feel empowered to add your own twists and angles,” Murphy said. “The more you do it, the more rewarding it is.”
Murphy and Williams started home brewing when they were both given supplies as gifts. It’s now become a huge part of both their lives.
For Williams, it was so important to him that when his fiancé, Nikki Scheel expressed an interest in moving from Chicago back to her hometown of Cedar Rapids, he hesitated.
“I joked, ‘Gosh, I don’t think I want to move there, they don’t have a home brew store!’” Williams said. “So, Nikki said, ‘why don’t you just start one?’”
Williams began contacting brewing supply distributors and researching the idea. He noticed that while there were several home brew clubs in the area, there were no local shops for supplies.
Therefore, he and Scheel opened their first BIY location in 2012, and in April of 2014, they expanded to a location in North Liberty.
“All the biggest homebrew shops are online,” Williams said. “Our trickiest thing was getting in front of people and letting them know they have a homebrew store [locally].”
One of the perks of having a home brew supply store in the area is simply having someone available to answer questions, Williams said.
Home brewing can be daunting for someone first starting out; it’s a lengthy process with numerous options. But it’s not as complicated as one might think, Williams said.
“Brewing is a lot like riding a bicycle. You’re going to be real shaky at first and you’re going to think, ‘I don’t know what’s going on here,’” he said. “And then after a couple of times you don’t even think about it.”
That’s one reason Murphy was so interested in starting a home brewing class at Kirkwood. A lot of his first batches were done by trial and error, and some of the results were less than impressive.
He also worked in the tasting room at Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids and often heard customers say they wished there was a place they could learn to brew their own beer.
“So I thought, ‘OK, why not put that interest to use and offer some classes at Kirkwood?” he said.
When trying to figure out curriculum, Murphy thought about what he wished he would have known starting out, then worked with Williams to develop the different courses that offer a thorough look at what really goes into the brewing process.
Held at Kirkwood’s Culinary Kitchen in Cedar Rapids’ NewBo City Market, classes are offered both as a one-day intensive learning session or a staggered, three-weekend-long course. The first session kicked off on March 28 and will continue throughout the summer and fall.
The first three-session long course teaches the basics: how to develop a recipe (plus a little beer tasting), creating a batch using malt extract, which is simpler to use than only grain, and how to bottle the results. Later, advanced classes will go even further in depth.
“It’s a lot of help being in front of someone who’s done it before,” Murphy said. “It will make a huge difference and will show in the final product.”
Murphy said getting the course approved at Kirkwood was easy, though there were a few legal loopholes the college had to go through with the state.
Kirkwood cannot have possession of the beer once it’s been fermented; otherwise they are considered to be distributing beer, for which the college is not licensed.
To stay compliant, students will take home their unfermented beer after the second class and add the yeast at home. After that, the beer will stay in their possession.
“They’ll still come back for the last class and learn how to finish up, the product just stays at home,” Murphy said.
And though home-brewed beer cannot be legally sold, according to Iowa law, it can be given away to friends and family over the age of 21.
In fact, that’s one of Murphy’s favorite parts of the process.
“When it’s done you get to share your work with friends. It’s a very rewarding process,” he said. “It’s just awesome.”
The growth of the brewing industry and the increasing availability of craft beer have also contributed to the rising popularity of home brewing, according to both Murphy and Williams.
In 2010, Iowa food and beverage laws changed to allow beers with greater alcohol content to be distributed and brewed in the state. This, Williams said, sparked an interest as people were exposed to more varieties of beer.
In turn, this also made people want to experiment with their own creations.
Williams is happy to cater to those looking to try something new. BIY carries over 40 types of hops and grains, so that people can get as creative as they choose.
And sometimes people get really creative.
Williams had one customer tell him about a beer brewed with actual pieces of lobster.
“I don’t know if that’s something I’d want to try, but it’s crazy what people will come up with,” he said.
In the cases of those specialty beers– not lobster, specifically– it can often be more cost-effective to brew it instead of purchasing it from a store, he said.
But, Murphy warned, saving a couple of bucks shouldn’t be the main reason to get into home brewing, unless you plan to keep your operation small, a task that’s not easy with the amount of options out there.
“It’s a slippery slope, once you get started,” he said. “You always want to keep updating your system at home and look for the next best thing.”
Williams said he’s had customers who have planned their entire house around their brewery in the basement, spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on state-of-the art equipment.
Others, like Murphy, have just a small area in their kitchen or basement designated for their brews.
Williams added that is possible to home brew on a budget, and you don’t have to have the latest and greatest equipment.
“I always say, ‘you can buy a Maserati, but the Honda is going to work great,’” he said. “As long as you can read and boil water, you can do it. You don’t have to get fancy,”
BIY Homebrew Supply Store in North Liberty is located at 7 Hawkeye Drive, #105. Hours Tuesday through Thursday are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
For more information on signing up for Kirkwood’s home brewing classes, contact Kirkwood’s continuing education department at (319) 398-1022 or visit Kirkwood’s their website at Kirkwood.edu/ce. You must be 21 or older to register.