By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Jul 11, 2008 at 5:19 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

The Bomb Shelter might not have the only beer club in town, but chances are, it has one of the best.

Dubbed the Suds Club, the weekly beer sampling event is a mere $5 to join and $5 every week thereafter. For this small fee, members get one full "featured beer," a decently-sized sample of the six to 10 brews du jour and about two-hours' worth of beer-related information and conversation provided by charismatic host Jeff Platt, known throughout the beer world as Whispering Jeff.

For each club meeting, every Wednesday from roughly 7 to 10 p.m., Platt chooses a style of beer to highlight. The debut event on June 25 featured imperials; July 2 was wheats and whites. This past Wednesday was a tribute to pale ales and IPAs, one of Platt's favorite summer choices.

Once the paperwork is completed -- you get a membership card and a tracking sheet to record what you've tried -- Platt introduces and pours a full glass of the evening's featured beer, in this case, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. This is your sipping beer to savor throughout the meeting. He then details the night's shopping list:

  • Lakefront IPA
  • Point Pale Ale
  • Summit Extra Pale (The only non-Wisconsin beer on tap at The Bomb Shelter)
  • Tyranena Scurvy IPA
  • Bell's Two Hearted Ale
  • Tyranena Bitter Woman
  • Stone Brewing Arrogant Bastard Ale
  • Stone Brewing Ruination IPA

"This is a kick-ass tasting," he deadpans to his audience. It's an intimate crowd -- no more than 10 members are in attendance -- so it feels less like a presentation and more like a candid conversation among friends, some of whom happen to be fervently knowledgeable in just about every aspect of beer. It's a jackpot of information for any homebrewer novice, and the price of the education is certainly right.

"American pale ales have more hops than English pale ales," says Suds Club member John O'Brien from his bar stool. Both he and Platt are members of the Beer Barons of Milwaukee, beer enthusiasts and hombrewers "dedicated to the education and enjoyment of fermented malt beverages."

Platt dives into the history of pale ales, revealing that they were called "bitters" in England in the 1700s before Americans altered the recipe by adding more hops and more bite.

"For sampling the beer, we should have a tub, but we have a sampler glass," he says as he pours two-fingers' worth of Lakefront's IPA into each glass. "I want everybody to wiggle it around and sniff it. That's part of the flavor experience."

He puts dump buckets out, but no one uses them. O'Brien explains, "Unlike a wine tasting, you shouldn't spit the beer out because your taste buds for bitter are way on the back of the tongue and you need to actually swallow it to taste it."

This does not appear to be a problem for club members.

O'Brien has brewed 83 batches of homebrew since taking up the hobby in 1999 and has passed the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), which places him on the judging panel for the upcoming Milwaukee Homebrew Competition on Saturday, July 19. Hosted by The Bomb Shelter, the contest pits about 30 homebrews against each other. The winner gets his or her beer brewed at Rock Bottom Brewery, as well as a free party with a half-barrel of the recipe. Rock Bottom will also feature the brew in its own Mug Club events.

After the last sample is distributed and consumed, Platt hangs out, offering leftovers to anyone who's stayed. He's also happy to answer any questions, or just chat and make you laugh.

"I'm not a beer geek," he says. "I'm a beer goof."

Next week the Suds Club features stouts and porters. But if any IPA fans missed this week's pale ale tasting, Platt has a special Suds Club planned for Aug. 13.

"Sierra Nevada is offering The Bomb Shelter wacky beers from the brew pub that aren't otherwise available in liquor stores," he says. "We're hosting a tasting for customers to preview the new products."

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”