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Let's go to the BOP

EDITOR'S NOTE: Chicago B.O.P. has closed since this story was written, but a BOP has, in fact, opened in Peoria, Ill., and Ron & Sue have been there to brew beer.

Brewing beer can't really be this easy, can it? You make an appointment and arrive to find steam rising from the brew kettle. You walk out a couple hours later with plans to return in two weeks for two more hours of "work," after which you will be the proud parent of nearly six cases of beer you brewed yourself.

You may even decide to wander around your place of work the next day, handing out cigars with labels that read, "It's a beer." Or, if your employer is forward thinking, perhaps beers with labels that read, "It's a beer." Soon everybody you know is humming, "Let's go to the BOP."

"Brew on premise" establishments, or BOPs, offer average people the chance to be brewers for a day. Running a BOP, however, is not as easy as brewing at one; the BOP craze that was supposed to sweep across the nation hasn't.

It has been more than four years since the first brew on premise opened in the United States. "I had people telling me that after five years, there would be more than 500 of these," said Diana Shellenberger, who writes the nation's only regular column about BOPs for The New Brewer.

Instead, she counted 58 open at the beginning of August. While new BOPs continue to open, eight closed during the first half of 1997, and Shellenberger expected more to follow. Among them was the Modern Brewer in Boston, which gave up its brew on premise to focus on marketing beer it popularized as a BOP/microbrewery. "I still think they are a good idea," said owner Jeff Pzena.

Unfortunately, most of the general population doesn't understand what the heck a BOP is. "This is not one of those deals (where) you'll open your doors and they'll come," Patricia Spiritus, a partner in Hamilton Gregg Brewworks in Hermosa Beach, Calif., told a group at the 1996 National Craft-Brewers Conference in Boston. "It takes 12-22 minutes on average to explain to a potential customer what we are. ... That's tough to put in a small ad."

BOPs are a high-priced form of entertainment, and their owners are still trying to figure out who their best customers should be. BOPs were born in Canada because of tax advantages that don't exist in the United States, and many have been opened by entrepreneurs long on work ethic but short on beer knowledge.

"I think in the long run there will be more, but it's not reaching anything like the numbers people were predicting," Shellenberger said. The concept looks great -- brewing beer with a minimum of knowledge and hassle -- but as wise men asked in the days of vaudeville, and again in the Nixon White House, "Will it play in Peoria?"

Since Peoria doesn't have a BOP (although, in mid-summer, one was rumored to be in the works), All About Beer Magazine dispatched two Peorians to Chicago to answer that question. Ron and Sue Widdows are not typical of customers at Chicago Brew on Premise, the oldest of two Chicago BOPs. Ron works as a millwright at Caterpillar Inc., while Sue has been a teacher and has worked for several art organizations. They have one son, a sophomore in college, but no e-mail address, and advertisers haven't targeted them as consumers of flavorful beer. Their tastes, however, illustrate how inclusive the craft beer renaissance has become -- they prefer their chocolate truffles served with North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout and put New Glarus Belgian Red Wisconsin Cherry Ale on their Thanksgiving table last year.

Making their own beer interested them, but they had visited the house of friends while homebrewing was under way. "We saw it's really kind of a hassle," Ron said. "Leaving the mess there seems like a really good idea."

Chicago B.O.P.'s brewing guide includes 10 steps to complete the initial visit:

1. Pick a recipe.

From nearly 100 choices, Sue and Ron decided on a beer with the unlikely name of "wheat stout." The recipe sheet describes it as a "delightful recipe in the style of Kulmbach, Germany -- sort of a roasty porter-like lager. The roastiness balances the maltiness, to make a well-integrated beer." Each recipe sheet includes specs for the beer, such as its color, the gravity of the beer, its final alcohol content and how bitter it is. It also lists commercial examples that are similar, in this case Sprecher Black Bavarian, a dark lager and one of the Widdowses' favorite beers. They also liked the idea they could call the beer Black Widdows Stout.

2. Find your kettle and equipment.

Equipment includes a variety of bowls, measuring cups, spatulas and a timer. The heart of the BOP is six shiny kettles, each of which makes 50 liters of wort. Because BOPs began in Canada and most U.S. BOPs get their equipment from Canadian fabricators, the standard brewing size is about 13 gallons, a bit less than the standard U.S. half-barrel keg but considerably more than the typical homebrew size of five gallons.

3. Have a staffer heat the kettle.

Customers who make an appointment can expect to see water already boiling in their kettle when they arrive. That doesn't mean they are free to strike out on their own, however; this is, after all, a brewery, with boiling water at times under pressure. "When you have these guys come in here in large groups, you have to keep them in line," said brew helper Joanne Thuna.

Eighty percent of the Chicago B.O.P.'s customers are men, most of them between 28 and 48. "They are professionals, live in a rehabbed brownstone. They come in with friends to have a few giggles and want us to make sure they don't mess up the beer," said owner Hal Radtke. "They don't want to know too much. They're here to have fun, drink beer, and they learn something by default."

Thuna's sometimes bawdy manner of dealing with such men would probably appeal more to Ron and Sue's 20-year-old son than to his parents. "I think half the experience is the people there," Ron said, later. "Maybe that would have appealed to me more 25 years ago ..."

Instead, when he asked serious questions he didn't get serious answers, so he quit asking questions. The Chicago B.O.P. gives brewers a handout that nicely summarizes the brewing process, from malting to bottling, but is hardly interactive.

"There's certainly an educational opportunity," Shellenberger said. "Helping people improve their beer makes for loyal customers. ... Frankly, I haven't seen a whole lot of emphasis so far on education."

4. Measure out ingredients.

Most of the beer that comes out of BOPs is made from malt extracts, although some offer customers the opportunity to create all-grain mashes. That takes more equipment and, more important to most customers, additional time and expertise. While some all-grain homebrewers turn up their noses at extract-based beers, several brewpubs that use primarily extracts have won medals at the Great American Beer Festival.

The wheat stout recipe calls for two-thirds Edme stout extract and one-third Edme wheat extract. It also includes solid doses of wheat malt and roasted barley, which Sue and Ron measured out, crushed and placed in a grain bag. Hops were put in three different bowls, since they were added at three different times during the boil.

"This is like going to the beer grocery store," Sue said, looking over bins of malts.

5. Add extract syrup to the kettle.

Ron poured the extracts from pitchers into a diffuser basket at the top of the kettle, while Sue stirred and scraped the goo from the sides of the basket. The grain bag was not added until the next step. Most homebrewers who do a partial mash, and some BOPs, change the order. Dedicated homebrewers will treat their grains much like an all-grain brewer does, steeping them at different temperatures in order to create more nutrients for the yeast and to develop fermentable sugars and unfermentable dextrins (the dextrins contribute body to the beer). Of course, this will add about an hour to the brewing process.

6. Add bittering hops, specialty grains.

The wheat stout recipe calls for Perle hops at two different times and Tettnanger at the finish. The brewing guide instructs customers to set the timer for 15 minutes if specialty grains are used, 30 if not, and Thuna told the Widdowses to open the kettle every few minutes and stir off the scum that forms on the top.

There's only a few minutes work for the novice brewer to deal with in the next hour, and how a BOP fills that time is important. Brew coaches "have to know how to entertain people an hour and a half at a time," said Modern Brewer's Jeff Pzena. All of the helpers at Modern Brewer had professional training in brewing, and it attracted a higher percentage of customers who were already homebrewers (about 20 percent) than most BOPs. "Understanding what it takes to keep customers happy is a big part of the job," Pzena said.

7. Remove grain bag. At this point, most homebrewers would be preparing for the rest of the process while drinking a beer from a previous brew. BOP customers don't have to worry about the former, but can't always enjoy the latter. Some BOPs double as brewpubs, so serving beer is no problem. At the other extreme, New Jersey does not permit any beer to be consumed at the BOP; in fact, customers there can't legally taste their beer before taking it home.

Chicago B.O.P. was licensed by the state of Illinois as a brewery, but the city of Chicago required a package liquor license. That means the BOP can sell beer it brews and labels for consumption off-premise, but can only give away four-ounce samples to those who want to drink in the building.

While it's hard to imagine an Eliot Ness lookalike breaking down the doors of a BOP to arrest customers, the ATF has a specific set of rules for BOPs. For instance, once yeast has been added to wort, BOP employees are not supposed to help with the beer -- including transferring it from a primary fermenting vessel to a secondary fermenter, filtering and carbonating the beer. In theory, a customer must return to the BOP between brewing and bottling to do this, or assign another customer to do the work, but in fact, these things often get done by BOP employees. The ATF even has BOPs keep a log of how much beer each customer brews, so that he or she does not exceed the annual yearly limit for homebrewing, 100 gallons per person.

State laws can complicate things further. In New Jersey, customers at The Brewer's Apprentice in Freehold must first apply for a state homebrewer's license. "Homebrewers come in here and have never heard of the license," owner Barbara Hamara said. You can't buy such a license at a homebrew store -- the only place in the state with application forms is The Brewer's Apprentice.

8. Add flavoring hops.

The second round of Perle hops were added to the wheat stout. The instructions note that customers should be 30 minutes into the boil, and emphasize that a staff member should take charge of opening and closing the kettle. Such precise rules are necessary, but they may leave customers feeling like they are just pouring in ingredients when the time comes to push the next button.

"We can say we brewed beer, but what did we really do?" Sue asked, later.

Pete Slosberg of Pete's Brewing Co. could tell them. He has taken Pete's Wicked Ales distributors and retailers to BOPs across the country, where he thinks they get a better sense of the brewing process than at large breweries. Slosberg fills the time when the wort is boiling by offering those involved with selling Pete's beers a quick seminar on tasting beer.

9. Add aroma hops, prepare yeast starter.

The aroma hops, in this case Tettnanger, were added 45 minutes after the boil began, and the lid of the kettle was left open. To prepare the yeast starter, Sue and Ron added dry ale yeast to a measuring cup half full of wort. They covered it with a paper towel and waited for it to cool to about 100F. Many BOPs, including Chicago B.O.P., offer liquid yeast for an extra charge.

A basic batch of beer at Chicago B.O.P. costs $109 to brew, which is about average and substantially more than most homebrewers spend to make a similar amount of beer. With bottles, the price is $144; with bottles and labels it climbs to $174.

Because customers haven't been beating down the doors simply to make beer, BOPs have found other ways to make money -- from helping customers design labels to brewing and selling beer. The success of Modern Brewer's Fat Cat ESB made it easier to decide to shut down the brew on premise part of the operation. Of course, that meant giving up the kettles Fat Cat was made in, so now Modern Brewer has the beer contract-brewed.

Equipment manufacturers promote the fact that BOPs may also be brewpubs or microbreweries, but Shellenberger isn't so sure. "What I've seen is that one aspect of the combination may overwhelm the BOP," she said. She points out that Doug Oclassen has opened three branches of The Beer Store in the Boulder, Colo., area by focusing only on the brew on premise concept. "That's not going to work unless you market it," she said.

"The place I had the most fun was Brewmakers (in Mountainview, Calif.)," she said. "It's a whole entertainment thing. They put you in a lab coat when you brew, you wear goggles when bottling ... it's kind of this whole fantasy thing."

Group brewing has been a particularly effective marketing tool, in part because it lowers costs. The price of a 13-barrel brew "is a lot of cash and a lot of risk to take on something you don't know if you'll like," Pzena said. Chicago B.O.P. hosts everything from bachelor parties to corporate outings. "You get people from all levels, bosses and secretaries," Thuna said. "Employees who don't interact on a social basis, they'll find something in common." Radtke said brew-and-boils, in which five kettles are set aside for five different kinds of beer and a sixth for crawfish, are particularly popular.

In Virginia Beach, Va., B.A. Brewmeister holds brewing courses for women and sets aside evenings for women to brew together. Others BOPs have organized pub crawls and invited brewers from local breweries to evaluate customers' beer.

10. Chill beer, add yeast.

It can be particularly harrowing for a homebrewer making that first batch of beer from a kit to coordinate the cooling of the wort with the preparation of the yeast. In a BOP, the brew helper tells a customer when to turn a valve, and the wort goes hurtling from the kettle through a pipe, then a heat exchanger, and on into the fermenter. The brewer pours in the yeast, gives the fermenter a few fond goodbye shakes, and the brew helper takes it off to the fermentation room.

At Chicago B.O.P., ales spend one week in a warm fermenting room and a second week in a cold conditioning room. Lagers and quasi-lagers are treated much the same, and are bottled in two weeks. "We'll start them at 70 degrees (F) to get them going, and once fermentation is about 15-25 percent done we'll move them to the cold room," Radtke said. At Chicago B.O.P. the beer remains in the same vessel for fermenting and conditioning, but many BOPs transfer the beer to another vessel for secondary fermentation.

Radtke was a securities salesman with no brewing experience when he discovered BOPs were booming in Canada and decided he wanted to open one or more. Brew on premises began in Ontario and British Columbia, the only provinces where they are legal, as a response to high taxes on beer. Although BOPs have since lost some of those tax advantages, about 300 operate in those two provinces.

Radtke took a course at the Siebel Institute of Technology before opening the business, but calls himself a master of his brewery rather than a brewmaster. "Sometimes, I can make a better beer because I know less," he said.

Can we drink it yet?

Customers book a bottling date before leaving Chicago B.O.P., and if they call in advance to confirm, they can expect that their beer will already be filtered, carbonated and ready to bottle when they arrive. "We found most people like to have a filtered product," Pzena said, although customers had the option to skip filtration and bottle-condition their beer. Any homebrewer who filters and force carbonates beer qualifies as advanced.

Ron and Sue brought bottles with them, prewashed but not sanitized. At Chicago B.O.P. they washed the bottles quickly with an iodine spray and placed them on a bottle tree to dry. The carbonated beer passes through a glycol chiller so that it won't foam during bottling, but on the day the Widdowses bottled, the chiller wasn't working right, so Ron spent a lot of time fighting foam while filling the bottles. Sue capped the bottles with caps taken directly from a bowl sitting out in the brewery. They loaded their cases of beer into their van less than two hours after arriving.

Little about the bottling process was up to the sanitary standards of many homebrewers, so it wasn't surprising that when members of the ABNormal Brewers homebrewers club tasted the wheat stout a few weeks later, the beer got mixed reviews. Some of the bottles popped with carbonation when the caps were removed, while others sat silent. Some of the beer tasted as good as it had at the brewery, while other bottles had taken on undesirable tastes.

"These are actually from the same batch?" one homebrewer asked.

Fresh, the beer was quite drinkable, with the roasted barley coming through nicely. However, it was neither as rich nor as crisp as a Sprecher Black Bavarian. "More like a black and tan," Sue said.

Four weeks after the beer was bottled, Ron opened one. "It's good, a nice thick head. It makes me want to have another," he said.

But are they ready to brew another batch? Will it play in Peoria, once one of the top U.S. test markets? Sue and Ron don't plan to drive 300-plus miles roundtrip to Chicago to brew beer, but they would be happy to see a BOP open in their hometown. "It would make a great spot for a family reunion," Sue said.

This story orginally appeared in All About Beer Magazine in 1997.

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