Christopher and Katherine Valleau won two first prizes in last week's 2nd Annual Battle of the Brews for their pomegranate American wheat beer and milk stout brewed with coos nibs and vanilla beans.John Rice/Contributor

The 2nd Annual Battle of the Brews was held on July 28, at Green Home Experts in Oak Park. The winners of four awards, including “Best in Show” and “People’s Choice” were a Forest Park couple, Christopher and Katherine Valleau. They operate Exit Strategy Brewing Co. LLC out of their home in the Grove.

“We were giddy, it was crazy,” Katherine recalled, “It was first time our beer was tasted by total strangers. People were blown away.” The competition was organized by Forest Park’s Maria Onesto-Moran. 150 tickets were sold, raising $4,000 for the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry.

Over twenty brewers competed in the Battle and the Valleaus won in light and dark beer categories. “We received a very favorable reaction,” Christopher said, “We were elated at Sunday’s competition.” Their standout brews included pomegranate American wheat, which Katherine calls Persephone. Unlike many fruit additives, pomegranate provides a subtle sweetness that doesn’t overpower the taste buds. Their Milk Stout was also a big hit with the crowd.

Christopher first discovered great crafts beers a decade ago, when he sampled Bell’s from Kalamazoo and IPA’s from Seattle. “There was an explosion of craft beers for every palate,” Christopher noted. Home-brewing was first permitted in 1976 and all fifty states now allow it. He sees beer drinkers seeking alternatives to bland American beers and people getting away from the, “Big Box consumer mentality.” The giant breweries, though, still control 93% of the market.

When he started his own brewing operation, Christopher used kits. Now, he brews his own original recipes. Each batch begins with a trip to Brew & Grow, a home-brew supply store on the north side of Chicago. The Valleaus purchase bags of different grains, barley, hops and yeast. “We mad-scientist it up with different selections,” Katherine said, “Chris decides what style and how strong.” They like to keep their beers in the 5.0 to 6.0 range of alcohol content.

Back home, they sanitize all the gear before putting the grain into a Mash Tun. Theirs is a converted Igloo cooler with a screen on the bottom. They heat water, add it to the grain and stir it up. Mashing the grain starts the germination process. The resulting product is called wort. Hops are added to provide bitterness, though they are no fans of excessively “hoppy” beer. They also add spices and perhaps an orange peel. They boil the wort for an hour.

“There’s nothing that’s not precise about the process,” Katherine said, “Chris is methodical, taking temperature readings.”

They later cool the concoction with a wort chiller. This coiled device looks like something a moon shiner would hide from the revenuer. “The coils sit in the wort,” Katherine explained, “And we cool it down lickety-split by running cold water through it.” They pitch in some yeast and place the wort in a five-gallon fermentation bucket. “We stir it a lot and seal it up,” Katherine said. The trub, or solids, settle to the bottom.

They let it sit for a week, while it cold ferments. Then they transfer it to a glass carboy and add additional flavors and hops. After two weeks, it’s hold bottling day. The Valleaus use only recycled bottles that have been donated by friends and neighbors. “No green, no clear, no twisties,” Katherine cautioned. They also add boiled corn sugar to their brew. This reactivates the yeast and causes carbonization. The brewing process takes six weeks from start to finish. They produce five gallons per batch, which equals two cases of beer.

“My love of beer started this passion,” Christopher said, “To make a product from raw ingredients and everyone loves it. It’s creative.”

Christopher is presently working at a law firm that specializes in civil litigation. Katherine is the Differentiation Coordinator for District 91. She calls it a “dream job.” She is also huge fan of her husband. “Christopher doesn’t fail at things. He has drive, character and loyalty. He’s as solid as a rock.” After meeting at Ohio University, they’ve been married thirteen years.

Katherine and Christopher have also fallen in love a community called Forest Park. They hope to someday open a brew pub in this area. Katherine envisions Christopher in the back brewing ales, while she greets the customers and draws them a stein of Persephone.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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