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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.   

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The Blue Nile never disappoints.

Stopped in earlier this week for my very loosely organized monthly gathering of fellow craft beer lovers, and had a chance to chat with Al, who was recovering from what sounded like a very successful “Battle of the Belg” Belgian beer fest the previous weekend. There weren’t any leftovers on draught from the event, but as always, Al had a number of great offerings available for us to sample, including Boulevard’s Tank 7 Saison (just about as good as the one from their Smokestack Series), Surly Cynic (spicy and excellent as usual), and one I was very pleased with, Avery’s Hog Heaven Barleywine. 

Based in Colorado, Avery has always been pretty solid in my book. Founded by a home brewer in 1993, they put out a number of locally available beers, including a few that I’ve tried like The Czar Imperial Stout, Samael’s Oak-Aged Ale, and Ale to the Chief double IPA, all impressing in their own ways.

They call Hog Heaven — part of the brewery’s “Holy Trinity of Ale” series — an imperial red, but to me it’s just a great example of an American-style barleywine. Poured a nice amber coloring and a noticeable alcohol viscosity, with some legs running down the side of the glass. American hops for days, with an assertive citric characteristic. The beer’s 104 IBUs come screaming through right away in the flavor, but it’s all quickly balanced out with a distinctive chewy, caramel sweet malt backbone. At a little over 9% ABV, I was happy to share the bottle considering how quickly this beer could put you on your ass.

Not quite Stone Old Guardian level, one of my favorites of all time, but a very nice beer nonetheless.

Rating: A-

dsc01757Nobody likes drinking orange juice after brushing their teeth. The same general principle can be applied to beer…call it the Craft Beer Tiered Approach. Drinking massive beers with overpowering flavors and aromas followed up by relatively lighter offerings usually isn’t how most people do things. But sometimes, you just need to put the cart before the horse.

I’ve had a number of New Glarus offerings sitting in my cellar for a while, but for one reason or another haven’t gotten to them yet. Not sure why, since I’ve always heard pretty good things about these guys out of Wisconsin. I picked this one up from Chicone’s in Hudson, probably during the same run where I procured a handful of Dogfish Head, Stone and Tyranena stuff that’s either non-existent or hard-to-find around here. The day some of those breweries are distributed in the Twin Cities will be a good day indeed. I’ll be able to save on gas money, too. 

So I got home from work recently and wasn’t really in the mood for your standard IPA, or even easing into something a little more sessionable like a brown or ESB. No, I felt a little self-destructive. Like getting things started off on a big note. I turned to New Glarus Iced Barleywine, part of their Unplugged series where they let their brewers run amok and push the stylistic boundaries (similar to Tyranena’s Brewers Gone Wild line). Going back to the Tiered Approach concept, some might argue kicking off your evening with an extremely potent barleywine is the equivalent of palate-suicide, since every beer you have afterwards will taste distorted. But I said to hell with convention. I was going to pickle my senses with what was sure to be a unique beer experience.

New Glarus takes an interesting approach with this one, partially freezing the barleywine over a 12-week fermentation period to help concentrate and distill the flavor and alcohol. The result is a hugely intense beer, what I’d consider one of the sharpest tasting brews I’ve had in quite a long time.

Poured with a surprisingly big head considering the beer is 13.5% ABV. Deep ruby coloring and a massive nose of dark fruits and alcohol. Hops also in the mix, trending toward the American Barleywine side of the stylistic spectrum as opposed to more subdued English versions.

Taste up front is bready with significant overtones of the alcohol, which unfortunately is probably the dominating characteristic. I think in a couple years the alcohol will subside and reveal all that’s likely going on in the beer’s complexity. The bittering hops hit you pretty hard as well, especially in the finish. But aside from the alcohol and hop bite, there are some nice hints of prunes and anise floating around. Mouthfeel is OK, a little thin from the alcohol but I’m sure it will improve with time.   

Compared to other barleywines, not as balanced and smooth as Stone Old Guardian (basically my all-time favorite beer), but yet not nearly as horribly sweet and cloying as Rogue Old Crustacean. But I’d definitely try this one again, and plan to age the three other bottles I still have in my cellar for a few years to come.

Rating: B

dsc017121Had a great time at yesterday’s FirkinFest at the Happy Gnome. Lots and lots of great beers, and very good conversations with some of the local brewers and other craft beer lovers.

I did a short write-up on the event for Heavy Table, which was a lot of fun to do and a nice way to spend a beautiful Spring afternoon.

In no particular order, here’s the full list of the beers I tried that may not have made it into the article:

  • Steamworks Oak-Aged Conductor IPA – nice and oaky, well-done
  • Dark Horse Plead the 5th Russian Imperial Stout – solid chocolate notes, nice finish
  • Surly Bitter Brewer – haven’t had this one before, and really enjoyed it, nicely balanced biscuit flavoring
  • Tyranena Dirty Old Man Imperial Rye Porter – excellent, one of the better beers I had all day
  • Lift Bridge Kimono Girl Saison – very enjoyable, nice and citrusy
  • Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree IPA – a hop blast
  • Brau Brothers Sheap’s Head Imperial Lucan Ale – very nice hop character, could be the best offering I’ve had from them
  • Bell’s Hop Slam – it’s Hop Slam…what else is there to say
  • Big Sky Dry-Hopped Scape Goat Pale Ale – smooth and refreshing
  • Summit Dry-Hopped IPA w/Amarillo – great hoppy nose balanced by caramel malt
  • Summit Dry-Hopped IPA w/Kent Goldings – more earthy and subtle version, enjoyable
  • Rush River Bubblejack IPA – have had this once before, not too impressed
  • Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout – surprisingly hoppy for the style, enjoyed it
  • Lagunitas Old Gnarlywine – not sweet enough for me, a little too much heat from the alcohol
  • Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 Year Reserve – definitely get the scotch cask in there, really liked it
  • Surly Tea-Bagged Furious – good, but not as hoppy as I’d expected it to be
  • Surly Oak-Aged Bender – fantastic
  • Left Hand Milk Stout – very enjoyable
  • Furthermore Three Feet Deep Dry Irish Stout – smokey and peatey, pretty good
  • Surly 16 Grit – amazing beer, slightly different than the first time I had it

Big day on the homebrewing front.

First, I bottled my Dubbel Deuce and managed to squeak out close to 2 cases, 46 bottles to dsc01553be exact. I’m dealing with a pretty nasty head cold at the moment, so I couldn’t smell a hell of a lot. But the small sample that I could smell and taste from the bottling bucket seemed pretty nice. Classically Belgian with a hint of dark fruits and candi sugar. I pasted on labels for this one as well, which are admittedly amateurish and ridiculous (much like my similarly juvenile barleywine labels). I’ll need to invest in some decent label making software. Microsoft Clip Art isn’t cutting it.

After the dubbel was complete, I sanitized my keg and a case of bottles for the long awaited raspberry imperial stout. Smelled absolutely dsc015551fantastic coming out of the secondary. Roasted coffee, dark chocolate, toffee, and of course balanced by the sweet aroma of raspberries. Color was also great, dark milk chocolate. I’m really looking forward to this one. I made up 24 bottles for longer term storage, and kegged the remaining 3 gallons for immediate enjoyment. I’m hoping to give it a shot later tonight once it has a few hours to force carbonate.

That brings my current total of available homebrew to just over six cases between the dubbel, raspberry stout, barleywine and Summit Winter Ale clone. Combined with my commercial stuff, I have entirely too much beer on hand for one man to handle alone. Good thing Super Bowl Sunday is just around the corner.    

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dsc01025Took care of a few homebrewing activities today. First up was bottling my barleywine which I brewed more than a month ago. I popped the air lock off the secondary, and my senses were immediately enveloped by a walloping aroma of booze (11.5% ABV to be exact) intertwined with malty sweetness. My eyes began to water profusely, and I had to grab a hold of the countertop to steady my wobbly legs. Well, slight exaggeration. But I’ve almost never been in the presence of such a strong beer before…let alone one I’d created myself.

As I bottled into bombers for long-term cellaring, I took a few sips of the flat ale to get a sense of the taste, and I was pleasantly surprised. While the aroma is nice and malty, the taste is something altogether different. Initial sense of sweetness, but followed by an irresponsible amount of hoppy bitterness. However, it’s smooth, not harsh, as I used a continuous hop infusion over the 75 minute boil to even out the 9 ounces of Cascade, Willamette and Mt. Hood. All in all, I’d say this is by far the biggest beer I’ve ever made. And I can’t wait for it to carbonate over the next couple months.

After the bottling, I brewed up the Raspberry Imperial Stout I talked about recently. Luckily for me, we had a small respite in the arctic chill that’s been holding most of us hostage inside our warm homes the past couple weeks, so I was able to get out in the garage. It’s amazing how 25 degrees can feel like it’s 60. Everything went well, and I got it racked to the primary with a healthy 600 ml yeast starter to get things moving in the right direction. It took less than an hour to see the first bubbles of CO2 escaping from the air lock.

Today is my birthday, 31 years old. And wouldn’t you know, I woke up to an interesting little birthday surprise this morning. But not one I was hoping for.

Yesterday, my 5 gallon batch of barleywine was bubbling away nicely. Last night, when I got home from Thanksgiving festivities, it was as silent as a church mouse. I gave it a good shake to rouse the yeast, and it started bubbling away again. This morning, however, all quiet on the western front, save for the single bubble every few minutes. That can only mean one thing…stuck fermentation. I was sort of afraid this would happen. Here’s where I think I went awry…

After I finished boiling the barleywine, I took the original gravity reading and came out to about 1.090, which is definitely on the high end of the density spectrum but exactly what I intended. As you’ll recall, I did two separate mashes for the 5 gallon batch with the hopes of getting as much sugar in the wort as I could to make this a potent little brew. Somewhere in the 10-12% ABV range.

Once I cooled and racked into the primary, I aerated the hell out of the wort to give the yeast a healthy dose of oxygen to feed their alcohol-producing escapades. I pitched the Wyeast Activator pack, and hoped for the best. Fermentation started within 24 hours, and as I just described, abruptly stopped less than a day later. I took another gravity reading to see where things stood, and came out to 1.050, not even close to my target final gravity of 1.020. Clearly, there’s still work to be done. And I definitely should have known better.

A high gravity wort needs lots of viable, active yeast to properly ferment. I’ll use the analogy of a family taking a long road trip to their Thanksgiving destination…you wouldn’t put a quarter tank of gas in the car if you needed to drive several hundred miles, because obviously that’s not enough fuel to get you where you need to go. Likewise, pitching the standard 125 ml of viable yeast in any given Wyeast Activator pack is the equivalent of a quarter tank of gas when it comes to high gravity brews…there’s no way in hell I’d make it my final destination using that amount of yeast. The high levels of sugar, and eventually alcohol, put too much stress on the yeast, causing it to flocculate and go dormant. Kind of like grandpa crashing on the couch after gorging himself on too much turkey and stuffing.

So…today I’m going to get a 2 liter yeast starter going with the same strain of Wyeast 1056 American Ale I originally used, hoping to create a much larger, more aggressive population. Once the starter ferments out (probably within a day) and proves its viability, I’ll repitch into the barleywine and see what transpires. If all goes well, the fermentation will resume, and I’ll eventually get to my final gravity.

Long-winded way of saying I screwed up. But hey, that’s part of homebrewing. You win some, you lose some. But you learn something each time. Hopefully, this one isn’t a lost cause.