Find a Challenge

As brewers, it’s easy to fall in to a rut of making beers that we know we like or sound interesting. Maybe there’s a recipe you found online for a hot, new commercial beer you can’t get your hands on.

But one of the things that really forced me to step outside my brewing comfort zone was joining a local Iron Brewer Competition. It combined the craziness of Iron Chef, homebrewing, and a 16-place playoff bracket.

Let the battles begin!

The photo above was from my first year participating, back in 2013. It was so much fun, and how many times do you decide to brew a milk stout with 3 types of ginger because you’re inspired by the flavors in gingersnaps? Not enough times, unless you’re trying to use a weird ingredient.

Challenges Grow

That first year, in 2013, the competition was organized by Brewer Jon, who now owns Zymurgy Brewing in Menomonie, WI. I helped him with the next couple iterations, and had a great time.

One of the challenges with a multi-round competition is scheduling. Until I was trying to arrange dates that worked with all the contestants, I didn’t realize how hard it was to coordinate 16 different schedules to both allow enough time to produce a beer and not conflict with family events.

Weirder and Weirder

Since the competition drew inspiration from the Iron Chef TV show, where contestants didn’t know what unusual ingredient they would have to highlight, the challenge ingredients got more and more unusual.

Some of my favorite beers resulted from challenges that were a concept, rather than a specific ingredient. My gingersnap milk stout was fine, but in subsequent years, one of the best beers of the competition was an answer to the challenge of “pancake breakfast”. Brewers could interpret the challenge however they wished.

The pancake breakfast beer was downright amazing. Its stout base combined with added coffee to present that roasty, coffee flavor I love right away in the morning, which faded into flavors of maple syrup complemented by a lingering toasted bread flavor that reminded me of pancakes.

And even the beet beer was pretty good.

Find a Challenge

Whether you can find a similar competition in your area, I have no idea. But if you have the chance, don’t be afraid to jump in and enjoy the weirdness.

If you can’t find a competition, but can get a few friends together, pick a challenge ingredient and #BrewUpAnAdventure!

The Best News of October 2020

Closeup shot of delicious beer

2020 has been an interesting year; filled with uncertainty, fear, change, and anger. But there’s one October tradition that remains a bright spot in a dreary year: Zymurgy Magazine’s Best Beers in America.

This isn’t your typical top 10 list, where someone sits down and comes up with a list of their favorites. Zymurgy magazine is the official magazine of the American Homebrewers’ Association. Every year, they poll their membership of over 45,000 avid homebrewers. These are some of the nerdiest of beer nerds, with a passion for exploring flavors and recognizing quality brews.

Due to the nature of the organization (being nationwide), and the size of the membership, the beers that populate this list may not qualify as the truly best beers in America. Not to say these beers aren’t amazing, but simply that the beers that bubble to the top of this list must be widespread enough or have enough notoriety to be consumed nationwide.

The Top 3

Looking at the top 3 Best Beers in America, the names are easily recognizable. At least to those of us who’ve been homebrewing for a while, these 3 beers are probably 3 of the most common recipes brewed, tweaked, and traded among homebrewers:

#1 – Bell’s Two Hearted Ale – This beer has been brewed for many years by Bell’s Brewing. One of the unique things about Two Hearted is the fact they use a single hop variety for the entire recipe: bittering, flavor, aroma, and dry hop are all Centennial hops. The recipe has been available to homebrewers for years, and we enjoy the beer both for its flavor and as a test of our brewing ability.

#2 – Russian River Pliny the Elder – Vinnie Cilurzo, the founder of Russian River Brewing released the recipe for Pliny as soon as people started asking for it. He knew few people would able to enjoy this beer at his brewery in California. This beer was one of the original “double IPA” beers. Aggressively hopped, bursting with flavor and aroma, this beer set the bar for hop heads when it first released. Pliny is a powerhouse. It was voted the #1 beer in America for 8 of the first 15 years of its existence, even though its distribution is significantly more limited than the current availability of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.

#3 – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – The argument has been made this is the most important beer in America’s brewing history. SN Pale Ale is a beer that changed what people thought beer had to be and launched the craft beer industry as we know it. Other similar beers emerged as contemporaries to Sierra Nevada, but none of the others have survived since 1979. At a time when beer was defined by light lagers, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale came blasting out of the gates loaded with bitterness, citrus hop aroma and the flavor of grapefruit balanced against a mild malt sweetness that hints at toast & marmalade.

Not Just Great Beers

These beers are not just delicious beers I would be happy to enjoy any day with good friends. The brewers who made these beers looked at what was available and said, “That’s not good enough!” and set out to make beers that satisfied their tastes.

I am grateful to the brewers of these beers that stepped out of what was expected and paved the way for brewers (both homebrewers and commercials) to explore unique and interesting flavors in beer.

That mindset is part of the inspiration behind the line I close many of posts with: “Brew up an adventure!”