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What’s Brewing at Duke’s?

Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen — home to a well-informed and passionate bar manager — is leading the local craft beer revolution.

When Toby Keith sang the lyrics “Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses,” some might have been disappointed that the horses got the beer. Tom Dycha is one of those who would have preferred the drink selection the other way around.

Dycha, the bar manager and beverage director for Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen in Crystal Lake, is serious about his preference and passion for beer. He wears it for all to see and carries it with him. When we met for this story, he was wearing a black Great Lakes Brewing Co. shirt and carrying the definitive book on beer: “The Oxford Companion to Beer.”

A thin, self-described “beer geek” with a shiny shaved head and a beard that resembles (maybe even one-ups) Scott Ian’s from the band Anthrax — he’s not your typical guy behind the bar, and Duke’s is not your ordinary bar and restaurant.

He calls the tin-ceilinged, wood-and-brick-walled domain a beer bar. And he’s emphatic about that because he is proud of the selection and knowledge he and his staff have to offer customers. He normally has 150 different beers available at any given time, but at times, it climbs up to 190. The assortment also changes with the seasons.

Dycha’s passion is striking the right chords. Duke’s has been voted The Best Tavern Pub in McHenry County by Northwest Herald readers for the past three years.

“The craft beer world is blowing up,” Dycha said. “What keeps me interested is all the new product coming in and seeing the excitement on my customers’ faces when I tell them what I have coming.”

Brewing Up a Change

Located at t110 N. Main St. in downtown Crystal Lake, it saw an extensive remodel and rethink in 2004 when the location transformed from Duke O’Brien’s to the current gastropub. Those changes gave Dycha the freedom to pursue what was an emerging trend: the rise of craft beer.

“I was worried about the concept in the beginning,” he said. “We lost a lot of our regulars and we were hurting due to the lack of business.”

Times have changed and so have the palates of beer drinkers. According to the Brewers Association, a trade group of breweries and beer wholesalers, craft beer sales increased by 13 percent in 2011 while overall beer sales were down 1.3 percent.

Since the renovation, Duke’s has developed a strong reputation as an authentic beer bar, one that gives it access to beers other bars can only dream about. Dycha gives as an example a Stone Ruination IPA anniversary beer. He said

Duke’s will be the only bar in the area to get one of these rare kegs. Once word gets out that they have a hold of highly sought-after beers, he says they fly off the shelf (or out of the tap).

Finding the Right Style

“Craft beers have been gaining fans in the past 20 or so years as beer enthusiasts have learned there’s more out there than what comes in red, white and blue cans,” said Deborah Pankey, food editor for the Daily Herald newspaper. “

People are learning that beer is complex, with background notes and varying levels of carbonation. Beer, be it an ultra-hoppy IPA or a rich, deep stout, is something to be savored and appreciated, not chugged during the seventh-inning stretch. When people, generally women, tell me they don’t like beer, I tell them they haven’t found the right style yet.”

That’s one of the reasons Dycha spends so much time training his staff. He considers his bartenders to be guides that lead patrons through the beer spectrum. He said they all have an inherent passion for beer, but also get lots of training. “They are always learning and exploring,” he said.

They have to be able to answer every question that comes their way. Duke’s staffers are trained to “always ask what you currently like to drink and then try to gently move you off that style so that you try something different,” Dycha said. “They know the different beers and their taste profiles.”

Dycha’s staff offers samples off the taps so people can try before they buy. He says it typically takes about three sips before a person gets a true taste of the beer and determines whether they want to try a full glass.

He says a safe stepping-off point for people new to craft beers is a hefeweizen, which is a wheat beer with a light, easy and mellow taste. Dycha prefers serving Weihenstephaner Hefe from the Weihenstephan Brewery, the world’s oldest craft brewer, tracing its roots back to A.D. 1040.

Beer School 101

To give people an even better understanding of beer, Dycha developed Beer School 101. He said he doesn’t have a date yet for the next beer school, but they take place every two to three months, and Facebook and website ( followers are given advance notice. When class is in session, he said the curriculum covers the different aspects of beer, such as aroma, taste and appearance. “We deconstruct the beer and let them know what’s in it,” he said.

One beer can be remarkably stronger than another. It is wise to look at alcohol by volume (ABV) designations when choosing a beer. Something like a Miller Genuine Draft will have a 4.7 percent ABV while a Two Brothers’ Hop Juice will have a 9.9 percent ABV and a Founders Brewery Devil Dancer has a 12 percent ABV.

The goal of the school is to broaden beer drinkers’ horizons, Dycha said. To do that, students drink and discuss about four or five beers during class. Afterward, he makes everyone stay for “detention” — a time when they crack open an exceptional beer and talk more about it.

Tom’s Tasting Tips

There are enough styles and substyles of beer to fill a book. Tom Dycha has selected five of the most popular types and offers what you can expect from them.

  1. Ambers – Typically amber or red tinted, this style usually focuses on malts, but hop character can be present. This is usually a more balanced beer with toasted malts and sometimes light fruit. Bitterness is usually low and has a malt backbone. Ranging from 4 percent to 7 percent ABV, they tend to pair well with cheeses, such as blue and cheddar. They also go nicely with beef, poultry and fish. Some examples include New Belgium Fat Tire and Lakefront Fixed Gear.
  2. India Pale Ales (IPA) – Color ranges from pale golden to reddish amber, even black. These are defined by their bitter tastes, big herbal notes and citric characters. With a higher ABV content, typically 5 percent to 7 percent, they pair well with anything. He suggests starting out with a “punch in the face” from the bitterness that comes with Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA or Ska Brewing Co.’s Modus Hoperandi.
  3. Pilsners – Light straw to golden in color, pilsners offer a smooth, crisp and clean malty palate. With a 4 percent to 6 percent ABV, Dycha recommends trying a Jever Pils or a Weihenstephan Pils. He said these go well with BBQ, Italian foods, pork, poultry and fish.
  4. Porters – A dark and often misunderstood beer, porters feature a wide spectrum of tastes that come from using several different types of malt. Generally well-balanced and easy drinking, they have an ABV between 4 percent and 7 percent. Pairing well with desserts and smoked or grilled meats, Dycha recommends Great Lakes’ Edmund Fitzgerald or Central Waters’ Mud Puppy.
  5. Stouts – Another dark beer, stouts are similar to porters, but use roasted malts and can have oatmeal, chocolate or coffee as complements. With a broad ABV, they range from Irish dry and milk to oatmeal and chocolate. Pairing well with game, and brie.

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