The craft of draft: A deeper look into one of America’s favorite beverages

Beer Flight 1
Close-up of the Beer Flight at Smylie Bros. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

By Mackenzie Evenson
Medill Reports

In a booth at his Evanston brewpub he runs with his four brothers, Smylie Brothers Brewing Co., owner Mike Smylie talked about lagers, dark-roasted stouts, ales, and aged porters — all while sipping iced tea. A mission for the 42-year-old connoisseur: to make sure young adults know about beer beyond natty light.

The Beer Flight at Smylie Bros that includes six popular beers of the guest’s choice, with a paper labeling each beer. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

What does a stout fall under?

Typically, an ale. Stouts are pretty dark. A classic Irish stout like Guinness is a very dry beer; it’s very crisp, dark and roasty, but not heavy. There’s not very much residual sugar in the beer, so it’s lighter than most ales, it’s just black. We have an applewood-aged porter here. We take applewood staves and toast them, then the beer rests on those and it brings up a smoky, sweet flavor.

Do you ever have time to play around with creating flavors?

If you bake a batch of brownies, you know what a brownie’s gonna taste like before you bake it. You know the ingredients that you’re using every time like cocoa powder, sugar, eggs and oil; you get a consistent product. Might vary from batch to batch, but the same thing goes into making beer. Instead of flour and eggs, malted barley is what we use. The malt gets kilned, meaning it’s spread out and dried, then heated until it reaches a certain temperature and color. You know the flavor that’s associated with a very dark-roast coffee? You can have a light-roast coffee and a dark-roast coffee, and have a different flavor profile on that wheel all the way through. Same with grain, you have a lightly and darkly toasted grain. Lightly toasted grain is going to taste biscuity and sweet. Whereas darker roasted grain is going to have a bitterness and a roasty-toasty flavor. The darker kiln the malt is, you get into porters and stouts. The flavor profile and the color match up pretty much: light and biscuity to roasty and dark.

Do new flavors usually work out?

We designed a popular beer that we’ve won some medals for; it’s a summertime seasonal — The Purple Line. It’s dark lavender wheat beer, nothing new about that. Wheat beer’s been around forever. We had this blackberry, blueberry fruit component to the beer and decided to add fruit to it; we wanted something to balance out the sweetness of the fruit, so we added hibiscus cause it has a tart, tannic quality to it. I don’t know if we invented that, but we’re definitely brought it to the forefront for this area. Down in the Deep South they have a lot of fruited, sour beers. We’re thinking, how can we do something along the lines of that but still make it palatable for the people that live up here? And that’s how that beer came to be.

Mike Smylie, one of the owners of Smylie Brothers Brewing Co., standing behind the bar in front of his brewery. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)

Where do flavors like grapefruit come from in beers?

When you’re making beer, you have malted barley, water, yeast and hops. Yeast ferments the sugar from the barley to alcohol. We add hops to provide balance to that; a background of bitterness. Later on during the boiling process we add more hops; that will give the beer flavor and aromatic qualities. Much like, how wine grapes — depending on where they’re grown — have a specific “terroir”. It’s a French term for grapes. It describes having the flavor of where it’s produced. Same for hops. Hops are cones that grow on vine plants. Depending on where or how they’re grown, they express different qualities. Pacific Northwest hops can have a tiny pineapple flavor profile, minty. Whereas if you take hops from New Zealand or Australia, we’re getting much more tropical fruits and lush mango, papaya-esque flavors.

The flavor that goes into the beer is natural, not added?

It is. Depending on how you hop the beer, it can be expressed very upfront or it can be reserved. Some hops have a grassy or flowery smell. If you have a delicate pilsner and you don’t want it to be overwhelmingly hopped, you just need enough there to keep it crisp and clean. If the hops weren’t in there, you’d just have this sweet liquid. It would just be like sugared sparkling water. You add the hops for flavor, aroma and bitterness. That’s where you get that pineapple, tangerine, grapefruit flavor from.

How long does making beer take?

Generally, there’s two specific types of beer: ale and lager. That refers to the yeast strain that we ferment the beer on. You can have an ale turn around and ready to drink in about two weeks. You’re talking more around four weeks to produce a nice, clean lager.

What type of beer is easiest to make?

Our Farmhouse Ale is one of the easiest beers to make. Most of the flavor comes from the esters, which are the flavors thrown off during the chemical reaction when yeast is converting sugar into alcohol. Spices like clove, black pepper; fruity flavors too, like bubblegum, banana, apricot. You don’t really have to put any temperature controls on the fermentation so you get a solid beer every time.

How would you describe the atmosphere that your brewery tries to create for the guests?

I like wooden timbers, leather and concrete. It just has a rustic but yet kind of modern sensibility. It’s calming, not too intense. You want it to be a warm setting that’s comfortable to be in; we want people to hang out, enjoy themselves. We want this to be an extension of your living room. That’s what breweries have always been. They were always like community centers. That’s what we’ve always tried to be here in Evanston. People come here for birthdays, weddings, for funerals. All stages of life come through these doors.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Close-up of the Beer Flight at Smylie Bros. (Mackenzie Evenson/MEDILL)