Childhood Friends Reconnect Over Home Brewing
By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service
Chris Wilson stands in front of a television screen mounted on a wall at Central Bottle Wine + Provisions at 196 Massachusetts Ave. that displays a PowerPoint about how to brew your own beer. Wearing a button down gray shirt, jeans and a black sports watch, the dark-haired New Hampshire native also dons a boyish grin as he talks animatedly about the science behind home brewing to a gathered group of eight.
“Brewing is arguably humanity’s greatest achievement,” Wilson says with a dimpled smile, gesturing to a slide depicting the elements of beer—water, malted barley, yeast and hops. “It’s science and art working together, benefitting together.”
Ed Guild, a Boston home brewer and friend of Wilson’s with wildly curly sandy brown hair, black-rimmed glasses and a black t-shirt depicting a parody of Darwin’s “Evolution of Man”—the ape turns into a man, which turns into a robot—stands near the center of the store, showing guests what beer looks like at every stage of the brewing process.
“I just do this for fun,” Guild says, gesturing to the wide spread of beer-making essentials splayed on a metal table.
Plastic two-ounce bags stuffed with bundles of green hops lie next to a one-pound bag packed with tiny tan ovals of malt rye. Beside the bags, sits a five-gallon plastic fermenting bucket filled with happily churning brown liquid. Large blobs of cream-colored yeast swirl around the murk, some settling at the bottom of the bucket. Wilson and Guild brewed it last night.
“Looks pretty gross, doesn’t it?” Guild asks a woman.
“Yes!” she says, as Wilson laughs behind them.
Beer has played a significant role in Wilson’s life—not only did it introduce him to his wife, Hillary, but also it reconnected him to his childhood friend, Guild, who coordinated the event “Exploring the Art of Beer Making” with Central Bottle Wine + Provisions for the annual Cambridge Science Festival.
While Guild poured guests samples of his favorite Belgian-style Saison recipe into small plastic Dixie cups, Wilson walked the audience through the process of home brewing with the patience of a kind chemistry teacher who truly loves his discipline, pausing as he described each step to make sure his pupils “get it.”
He carefully explained how a brewer first mashes water and grains, and then boils the sugary water from the mash with hops. After cooling the hot mixture (called wort), he or she ferments the liquid by adding yeast and extra water to an airtight bucket, then adds corn sugar for sweetness, and finally, bottles and caps it, Wilson says.
“It’s important to educate the public about what’s going into your beer,” Wilson says, “why it might taste a certain way.”
Wilson and Guild, both 35, have been friends since third grade, and have always “complimented each other,” Wilson says.
“He’s an artist,” Wilson says, describing Guild. “He’s always come at things with a creative angle, and I’ve always come at things from a scientific, engineering angle. Together, that’s where you get innovation.”
Guild agrees with Wilson, and recalls playing Legos as kids—he says he would slap the blocks together haphazardly, hoping for an interesting result, while Wilson would always build structures by following the directions.
They grew up in New Hampshire, but lost touch when they left for college—Guild went to Rochester Institute of Technology in New York for graphic design and Wilson went to Georgia Institute of Technology for bioengineering.
While at graduate school, Wilson got a part-time job at the Atlanta Brewing Company—now called the Red Brick Brewing Company, thanks to a friend named Hillary who he’d later marry. Working there, Wilson says, inspired him to learn how to home-brew.
“There’s lots of innovation about different ways to brew now,” Wilson says. “The lines are blurring and it’s really exciting.”
Guild eventually ended up in Boston, working first in graphic design, then the audio industry where he currently tests music software synthesizers. Wilson, after graduating from Georgia Tech, says he spent years working in bioengineering labs, but recently relocated to Boston from Michigan to work at Bioventus, a bone healing company.
A year and a half ago, Guild noticed on Facebook that Wilson would be moving nearby, so the pair reconnected and met for dinner in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. Over drinks, Wilson says he told Guild about his growing passion for home brewing and suggested Guild try it, so the graphic designer did after his wife Christina bought him a starter kit for Christmas. Guild says he was instantly hooked.
“I love to cook,” Guild says, “And brewing is very much like cooking. I learned the rules and framework—then I broke the rules.” He smiles.
For Wilson, the allure of home brewing comes mostly from his background in biology and chemistry, he says. He’s fascinated by what makes beer unique—what separates a pilsner from an amber, an amber from a stout.
He points to a slide on the TV that shows a cross hybrid chart he made illustrating how four factors—aroma, taste, appearance and mouth feel—can be affected at different stages of the brewing process through slight adjustments of chemistry. For example, the proteins in the grains dominate the appearance, or color and foam, of a beer, he says.
“Taste, on the other hand, is affected by all four elements,” Wilson says. “Hops are bittering agents but have florally, citrusy notes.”
With Wilson’s pinpoint precision—he documents all their concoctions in a lab notebook, and Guild’s ingenuity—he recently recreated a Finnish beer called Sahti he liked by adding boiled juniper berries throughout the whole brewing process—the pair have come up with some pretty innovative beers, Guild says. His favorite so far has been a tomato basil beer he got the idea for when his wife canned an excess of summer tomatoes.
Guild crushed the tomatoes to remove excess water and tossed the pink mixture into a fermenting beer. For his wife’s last birthday, friends and family drank five gallons of it, enjoying the “basil aftertaste,” he says.
“It doesn’t taste like V8 juice,” Guild says, laughing. “It’s subtle, almost wine-y.”
Today, Wilson and Guild regularly meet up in each other’s garages to try out different beer recipes, Hillary Wilson said after the event.
The petite brunette, wearing a bright turquoise jacket, munched on bruschetta while talking about her husband and his friend’s home brewing pastime. She said two of their “biggest hits” have been a pumpkin beer and a cherry wheat recipe that calls for real Michigan cherry juice.
“Friends and family hope we make a business from this, but when you make your hobby your work, it becomes less fun,” Hillary Wilson says, nodding.
Home brewing has taken off in general—the American Homebrewers Association now has around 37,000 members, up from 8,700 in 2005, according to Stateline, and some brewers are trying to make a living off it. Three guys working in the Financial District who got together to brew every evening after work started Night Shift Brewery in 2011 in Everett, Mass., Guild says. They quit their banking jobs and focused on developing a brewery that offers innovative craft beers.
Wilson and Guild both say they are currently satisfied with brewing as a hobby.
“My family says, ‘Give up your day job! Brew some beer!’” Wilson says. “It’s tempting but it would be so challenging. You have to plan for four to five years of zero profit, minimal revenue.”
Guild agrees, saying that it’s very difficult to get a license to sell your brew in Massachusetts. He pauses.
“I wish there was a special bar that allowed me to sell them a keg,” Guild says, scratching his chin, looking down. He looks up. “That would be cool to have your stuff on tap. That’s a cool idea.”