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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 inaugural First Tuesday Beer Club meeting last month at Acadia went so well, we decided to do it again.

For the March gathering, our ragtag ensemble of fellow craft beer appreciators descended upon the Muddy Pig in St. Paul, a great neighborhood watering hole that has been host to several of my more memorable drinking excursions of late.

Unlike the first go-round, I decided to take it a little easier considering I was 1) driving, and 2) had a busy work day ahead of me on Wednesday. So I kept it to a handful of craft beers, one local and a couple from the coasts. Here’s the rundown:

Lift Bridge Farm Girl Saison
I’ve been remiss in not trying this one yet, the flagship offering from our very own Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater (contract brewed by Flat Earth, I believe). For a Belgian saison, this one was very unique…at first blush I wasn’t sure if I’d mistakenly been served a tall glass of opaque orange juice, as it looked nothing like most other saisons I’ve had (or brewed myself). Tons of suspended yeast, almost like a hefeweizen. It smelled fantastic. Aggressively yeast-forward with a nice layering of cloves, light esters and a distinct horse blanket quality (did they use Brett?). Taste was bready and light, but not effervescent which I look forward to in this style. Carbonation a bit lacking, giving it a rather flat and watery mouthfeel. But overall, a pretty decent beer and one that I’d definitely try again. Look forward to some more offerings from these guys.

Rating: B+    

Eel River Triple Exultation
If Lift Bridge’s saison was my warm-up appetizer into the evening, tipping back a glass of Triple Exultation from Eel River in California was like skipping the main course and heading right for the dessert tray. Very nice amber coloring in the pour with only the slightest film of bubbles skimming the top of this Old Ale. A candy sweet aroma hits you right away, hinting at toffee, dark fruits and maybe even sherry. The taste was just like the nose, bordering on cloying in its malty, chewy sweetness. At nearly 10% ABV, it’s a hefty beer, and in combination with its nearly overpowering sugaryness, one that I was glad to share with a couple other friends at the table.  

Rating: B-     

Southern Tier Oak-Aged Cuvee Series Two
Mmm…now this is a nice beer. My love of all things casked has been long documented (most recently with my brewing of the port barrel-aged Belgian Brown Ale), so when I saw Southern Tier’s Oak-Aged Cuvee Series Two on the beer list, I had to order. Served in a snifter with a beautiful ruby red coloring and thin, khaki head. The nose was pure oaky goodness with a nice interplay of vanilla and dark fruits. Not sure where they get their casks, but they certainly could have been bourbon barrels. Taste was fantastic, with more of the oaked flavoring permeating throughout. Really reminded me in a big way of Allagash Curieux, minus the Belgian qualities. Mouthfeel and drinkability were great. And I didn’t even mind the slight heat from the 11% ABV that started creeping up on the back of my throat with each small sip. I have a bottle of this in my beer cellar, and I’m very excited to try this in another year or two.

Rating: A