Over the last four years, the commercial craft beer industry has emerged as both a prominent feature of Metro Lansing’s social scene as well as a budding force in the improving economy. Brewing begets capital equipment purchases, real estate development, employment opportunities and retail beer and merchandise sales. It also enables the rise of side industries, such as home brewing shops, beer festivals and suds-centric podcasts and websites.
The latest addition is REO Brew School, a one-day beer class created by two middle school teachers. REO Brew School was designed to appeal to curiosity seekers and potential brewmasters alike, teaching the basics of home brewing and cultivating an appreciation for beer culture.
“We’re not looking to quit (teaching), but this works out well as a part-time job,” said Ari Levinsohn, who founded the business with his Holt Junior High School colleague, Andrew Alexander. “I’ve been brewing for a few years, and I tend to get obsessed with things and go all in. Opening a brewery wasn’t in the cards, so this is a good outlet for me.”
Levinsohn, 36, and Alexander, 47, learned of each other’s interest in home brewing at a staff party; Levinsohn teaches math and science and Alexander teaches social studies. Alexander said that the two of them have a natural chemistry that makes for a good balance, with Levinsohn focusing on the science of the brewing process, while Alexander gets more into the history and the stories behind the different types of beers and ingredients.
“We’re the artist and the scientist,” Alexander said. “Ari has temperature control down to a tenth of a degree and built his own fermentation chambers. I just use a turkey fryer and a hope and a prayer. The great thing about brewing is that you don’t really need a lot of equipment and it can still come out good.”
The duo launched their venture out of an empty storefront in REO Town’s growing retail district. Levinsohn’s brother, Reuben Levinson, owns the building, and allowed them to use it before the new tenant, Blue Owl Coffee, moves in later this summer. (More info on that coming soon). They’ll continue to use the space when Blue Owl opens.
“We got lucky with that,” Levinsohn said. “We do the actual brewing outside in the back, and the fermenting is all done in the basement, so we really don’t take up that much space. It’s a pretty good business model.”
They held their first class in March and have held three more since then, including a demonstration at the Lansing Beer Fest last month. For now, they only offer one class per month, which runs $99 for a student brewer and $49 for each additional friend, with a limit of four. That fee covers the price of all ingredients and the lesson itself. Levinsohn and Alexander go over the basics of home brewing, including what role each ingredient plays in the brewing and hints and strategies for customizing a particular beer. Then they walk the students through the creation of the wort (the liquid mash that makes up a batch of beer), which takes about two hours.
“It’s good for someone who’s looking to get into brewing but is hesitant because it seems daunting. But it’s also good for someone looking for a fun outing with their friends,” Levinsohn said. “Andrew and I have a lot of fun with this, and we try to share that. Everyone keeps saying how much easier and fun this was than they thought it would be. The phrase we keep hearing is, ‘I don’t know what I waited for.’”
Classes are held outside under a tent in a shared outdoor space with business neighbor, Saddleback BBQ.
“When the beer starts brewing and the barbecue starts smoking, it smells incredible back there,” Levinsohn said. “It’s been a little hot this summer, but it should be a lot more comfortable in the fall and winter. It’s much nicer to brew when it’s a little colder.”
At the end of each class, the batch is sealed and taken to the basement, where it’s left to ferment for two weeks. After that, students return to learn the bottling process. If they can’t make it back, Levinsohn and Alexander will bottle it for them. Either way, participants get to keep the batches they helped make. Alexander hopes the classes inspires students to buy their own gear and start brewing at home.
“It’s kind of a weird business model, because you don’t get repeat customers,” he said. “Our goal isn’t to make money, though. We just want to spread this idea of home brewing to get more people involved.”
Alexander said he and Levinsohn have already been contacted by local breweries about holding onsite classes. They’ve also received sponsorship from Red Salamander, the Grand Ledge-based home beer- and wine-making supply store. Red Salamander offers all REO Brew School participants 10 percent discounts on all equipment, ingredients and other in-store purchases.
“Lansing has a really good brewing community that doesn’t get enough credit,” Alexander said. “Eventually, it would be neat to do something more in-depth with this, but with Ari’s and my background, teaching seems to be the best way to be involved. For now, we’re just seeing what happens, having fun, and making beer.”
REO Brew School
1149 S. Washington Ave., Lansing
Classes by appointment only
(517) 204-7428, facebook.com/reobrewschool