For most of 2008 Ian Patrick McDonald was not much of a do-it-yourself guy.
"I was playing bass in a Balkan folk band and vaguely entertaining the idea of a career in music," says McDonald, 36, who lives in Belvedere Square. "And for a guy in a band, I was not particularly well-connected socially. I was not much of an organizer, either."
Then he learned how to make beer. And that's when everything changed.
"I got started because I thought the process of making beer was intriguing: There's lots of room for experimentation."
When the economy collapsed in 2008, McDonald, who had studied economics, became more introspective.
"America had experienced this giant systemic failure. All the stuff we thought would be a given if we worked for it-a decent job, home ownership-wasn't necessarily going to be a given anymore. It was as if the default settings for the American Dream had changed," he says.
"It was a shift for me. I started reading more about what it would take for a recovery, and common themes were re-establishing local connections, rebuilding the public sphere. And because the market and the government had failed, people and communities would have to learn to do things and make things themselves."
It was during this time of reflection that McDonald noticed that beer-making and beer culture-he joined a few brew clubs, including Baltibrew, in 2010-were widening his world and making him more connected to the community.
"I would bring a keg to a party and people would say, 'Oh, wow, you made this.' The keg draws people to you-and not just for the alcohol. They want to talk to you about the beer, they want to know what's in it, how you made it," he says. "Beer-making was a different way to connect with people. Creatively speaking, it reminded me of making music, but with beer, people can access your creativity more directly."
Also around this time, one of McDonald's friends, Patrice Woodard, decided she wanted to have a fundraiser for a charity instead of a party on her birthday. "I suggested a chili-and-homebrew contest: We ask for donations, vote on the winner, and give the money to charities," he says. Then it occurred to him: "Hey, this kind of event could be a great way to build community in Baltimore.'" ChiliBrew was born.
The first ChiliBrew was held in 2010 at 2640 Space in Charles Village and supported Baltimore Free School and Velocipede Bike Project, a collective that helps people acquire bikes. It quickly became a (typically) semiannual happening in homebrewing and maker circles. By the time ChiliBrew III was held on Ash Street, in 2011, the event was prominent enough to help anchor the launch of Baltimore's new local currency, the BNote.
Part of ChiliBrew's attraction, says McDonald, is its egalitarianism. It's almost an antidote to the cooking-as-spectacle, chef-worship drama of Food Network television.
"Anyone can compete and everyone can pick the winners," he says. And the price is right. For about $25, attendees sample about 70 homemade chilis and brews, pick their favorites, and take home a souvenir glass. Winners get prizes and bragging rights.
Cheeky monikers like "Better Late Than Never IPA" and "Deep Kriek" belie the fact that the contest attracts serious amateur cooks and brewers, so the chili and beer quality tends to be quite high-and where else in Baltimore can a person sample a seven-meat chili named "From Ducks 'til Fawn" and wash it down with a juniper berry-infused IPA?
In fact, by October of this year, the seventh ChiliBrew had morphed into something of a mainstream "foodie" destination, selling 600 tickets and turning away about 150 people at the door.
Brian Murphy, a leader of a group called Baltimore Food Makers, says: "It's incredible to see so many people turn out for such a homemade event. I think it's a sign that Baltimore's DIY scene is becoming an established part of Baltimore's culture."
McDonald says one reason he likes the ChiliBrew model, and perhaps why it is so successful, is because it aligns people's pleasures-eating and drinking-with supporting their community.
"You can give us your drinking money instead of giving it to Budweiser or Coors or a chain restaurant, and we'll give it to someone who's stepping up to make Baltimore a better city. It's easy and fun and you can be part of it right now," he says, noting that ChiliBrew VII raised a record amount of money for Baltimore nonprofits. "We're giving away money like a small foundation now."
The recipients of ChiliBrew's largess are organizations that not only do good works but also catalyze others to follow suit.
One beneficiary this fall was Gather Baltimore, a nonprofit that organizes volunteers to help on farms, gather unwanted food, and distribute it to the needy. Another was Station North Tool Library, which lends tools and teaches people how to use them. John Shea, the library's co-founder, says ChiliBrew is its second-largest funder. "With the money they gave us, we're getting heat in our building." Gather's founder, Arthur Morgan, is using ChiliBrew money to help refrigerate the 30,000 pounds of food he collects every week.
For McDonald, nurturing the localist, do-it-here, do-it-now spirit in Baltimore is almost as important as raising the cash. At this point, he's thrilled with ChiliBrew's success, how far it's come, and the support, sponsors, and volunteers that make it happen. But he has another idea, one that's been percolating for years.
"I want to start a worker-owned co-op brewery," he says. "It's still an idea, a vision, at this point, and there are a lot of regulatory issues, but wouldn't it be nice for homebrewers to be able to make money off their creative passion?"
Why does McDonald want to launch such an enterprise in Baltimore?
"Why not here? Baltimore is where I am. Baltimore has networks of people who appreciate a progressive-minded approach to things. Those networks embody what I'm all about."