The names Ben Miller, Michael Robinson and Jeremy White probably don’t ring a bell. But coming to a variety six pack near you in April 2010, their beers will be available as this year’s winners of the annual Samuel Adams American Homebrew Contest, more commonly known as The LongShot. 

The competition, which started back in 1996 with just a couple hundred entries, pared down more than 1,300 beers from homebrewers nationwide to four finalists, with two of those beers going on to be commercially developed and sold nationwide. The competition also included a separate employee-only segment that selected one winner from nearly 300 entries submitted by the Boston Beer Company’s non-brewing staff, or just about 80 percent of the company.

I had a chance to talk with Jim Koch, founder of the company and a key figure behind the rise of craft beer in this country, who explained his own Sam Adams Boston Lager started off as a homebrew recipe in his kitchen more than 25 years ago. But according to Koch, “compared to this year’s winning entries, it frankly wasn’t as good.” 

DSC03171With a majority of today’s 1,500 commercial craft brewers first learning the ropes on an amateur level, the connection between homebrewing and the craft beer industry is arguably one of the greatest contributors to the explosive growth seen in the segment over the past couple decades. And Koch sees the competition as a way to highlight the link.

“The diversity of beers at the Great American Beer Festival is mindblowing, and many of these styles are a direct result of homebrewers developing these beers in their garages and on their stove tops,” said Koch. “This competition is our way of celebrating these pioneers, and reminding everyone that the roots of the U.S. craft beer industry are in homebrewing.”

According to Koch, the GABF did not exist twenty-five years ago as the standalone, economically viable event that it has become today. Instead, it was attached (almost as an afterthought) to the last day of the much larger American Homebrewers Association conference. “They were gracious enough to tolerate this handful of nut jobs who tried to go pro,” Koch said.

The winning LongShot beers were, as expected, superbly well done. Interestingly, the two non-employee winners both brewed beers relatively similar from a stylistic standpoint, which had everything to do with the quality of the beers as opposed to marketing considerations, Koch explained.

Michael Robinson’s Old Ale
A malty, English-style ale with notes of dried fruit, nut and caramel. Michael, a homebrewer from New Hampshire, used five different malts in the grain bill, and a distinctively English-style yeast strain to give the beer its character. Coming in at 9% ABV, it’s definitely not your average session beer. Mike was also recognized as a finalist in last year’s LongShot competition, as well as the 2007 Samuel Adams Patriot Homebrew Contest.

Ben Miller’s Barleywine
A dark red beer boasting plum undertones to complement the distinct caramel malt flavor. Ben used five hop varieties to give the beer its citrus nose and bitter finish. This was Ben’s 100th batch of homebrew in just under two years (he’s been busy), and coincidentally just an hour after winning the LongShot competition, he also won a Gold Medal at the GABF for his IPA that he brewed with Jeff Erway, brewmaster at Chama River Brewing Co. in Albuquerque, for the Pro-Am portion of the competition. I’m almost scared to see what this extremely talented homebrewer will come up with next.

Jeremy White’s Lemon Pepper Saison
Judging by the quality of his beer, you’d never guess Jeremy spends most of his time working as a member of the Boston Beer Company’s IT staff. His saison is a beautifully balanced yeast-forward beer with hints of citrus and pepper in the nose, and a light malt character. A truly drinkable beer.