The City of Brotherly Love became the City of Homebrewers this past weekend, when over 3,400 of the hobbyists descended upon Philadelphia for the 35th Annual National Homebrewers Conference. This yearly event is the pinnacle of competitive brewing, where homebrewers vie for bronze, silver, and gold medals in 28 beer, cider, and mead categories.
The aim of the conference, hosted by the American Homebrewer's Association, is to award the top prizes to beers that hit the style marks as close to perfect as possible. How does that work? Each beer category has a list of acceptable aromas, flavors, and characteristics, governed by the AHA and the Beer Judge Certification Program. A 'European Amber Lager', for example, will have a "Moderately rich German malt aroma" and "Some toasted character from the use of Vienna malt. No roasted or caramel flavor."
For each of the 23 different beer categories, medals are awarded for the top beers. This year, we have to send out a huge congratulations to Russ Brunner of Tamarac, for securing 1st place, and the gold medal, for his beer in the 'Scottish and Irish Ale' category.
As the only Floridian to win any of the medals in any category, we wanted to know a little bit more about the experience, the process, and the goals of this now nationally recognized homebrewer.
Clean Plate Charlie: How does it feel to be the only Floridian home brewer to win a medal at the contest this year?
Russ: I feel extremely lucky. I know of at least a few dozen Florida home brewers that are consistently brewing better beer than me, due to the beating they keep giving me at local competitions. The popularity of the hobby has sky rocketed in just the two or three years I've been involved with it. The maximum number of entries was limited to 750 for only eleven judging centers; that's 8,250 entries total and all of those entries were booked in just a few short hours. I was lucky enough to get one of those spots to even be able to participate. Such a small number of us were able to enter and even less than that made it through regional judging in the first round. Only ten Florida home brewers made it to the final round of judging and somehow my beer made it to the medal round. My secret strategy was...don't tell anyone....was to not win the Power Ball jackpot, on purpose, and save my luck for the final round of judging.
That seemed to work out, though we question your tactics. What can you tell me about the brew, the malts and hops used?
The beer that won was a Scottish Export 80. It's a moderate gravity Scottish Ale that has a nice flavor of malt going on with just enough hops to balance it out. This is the only time I have ever followed another brewer's recipe to the "T". It's simply the recipe directly out one of the top home brewing books; Brewing Classic Styles: 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew by Jamil Zainasheff. It's a recipe that I thought resulted in a really tasty beverage and luckily the judges thought so as well.
What is your brewing background?
I started brewing about three years ago. I started tasting all of the different beer styles at some great local craft beer bars. I fell in love with Belgian beers, specifically Belgian strong darks ales like St. Bernardus Abt. 12 and Rochefort 10. I just couldn't believe all the flavors that were packed into those beers, like dark cherry and plum. I had to try making it on my own. I started making extract batches and quickly realized I needed to transition into all-grain to be able to get more control over the flavors and brewing processes. Once I made the switch to all-grain, it was over. I was instantly hooked. I've been brewing about one batch a week ever since. I read, watch and listen to anything I can find on the brewing process to try and make the best beer possible. The old adage is absolutely correct: "Give a man a beer, and he wastes an hour, but teach a man to brew, and he wastes a lifetime."
What are you looking forward to as you move forward in your brewing hobby?
To make a flawless, 50 point beer. I'm constantly brewing and entering my beer in competitions for feedback to see how I can improve my process and recipes. If the day ever comes where I'm completely satisfied with every brew I have in my keggerator, I will then look to the future. I ultimately hope to open a small brewery, a seven or fifteen barrel brew house, with a tasting room; where beer geeks like myself can find happiness, one glass at a time.
Were there any prizes awarded to you besides a top medal?
I have no idea if there is any other prize awarded other than the gold medal for my winning entry. I will be checking my mailbox with a passion this week. With some of the local competitions, you usually end up with some nice "swag" like hops, glassware or gift certificates. Just the medal itself is going to be pretty amazing. Only 23 gold medals were given out to the best beers in the country and somehow one of those landed in Tamarac. It will be placed in a "shadow box", because that's apparently what you do, at least according to my wife. I'm lucky to have someone who is just as enthusiastic about good beer as I am. Not only does she not mind losing six to eight hours every time I mash in on a new brew, she's usually helping with the process.
Any favorite brews, brewers, or breweries that inspire you to take that extra step each time you make a batch?
You have all the local hero's like Mike Halker from Due South, Matt Webster from Tequesta Brewing, Matt Coxx from Big Bear and Ryan Sentz and crew from The Funky Buddha. There are countless others from Pensacola to Key West. About two years ago, I had visited almost every active brewery in the state, now I just can't keep up; it's a great problem to have! Miami is on fire right now, Delray Beach is coming on-line soon....this list goes on and on and it's so great what all these brewers are doing to make it better for we the beer drinkers.
You are a member of the Fort Lauderdale Area Brewers, anything you want to tell us about them?
I've been a relatively active member of the Fort Lauderdale Area Brewers (FLAB) for the past year or two. It's a great club for anyone that is interested in home brewing or new to the brewing process. The club meets at Geronimo's in Davie on the second Wednesday of every month. I'd like to invite, and I know the club would be very happy to meet, anyone that is interested in the brewing process and have them attend. The meetings are very informal with a review of club business at the beginning and then we all share our latest brews for critique, review, discussion and enjoyment. We have various social events like a club happy hour and group brew events. Find us on Facebook for more information.
Finally, what would you recommend for someone to take the steps you have to go to a national competition?
First get some experience locally and support the Florida Homebrew Circuit while you are at it. If you want to be successful in any homebrew competition, the first step is to enter, even if it's your first batch and you think it's terrible. The feedback you can receive from a BJCP Certified Beer Judge can be extremely helpful. Try to keep an extra bottle of the beer and drink it as you review the comments. The score sheet may identify flavors or flaws in your beer that you may have been blind to, or other comments that can help improve your brewing.
To be successful at the National Homebrew Competition you need to brew the best beer possible as you are up against the best beers in the nation. You also need to pay attention to when the entry window opens as the competition reaches its maximum number of entries in a matter of hours. Save five bottles in the back of your fridge, you will ship the first two bottles to one of the regional judging centers for the first round. If you don't place in the first round you can enter your other three bottles in a local competition or enjoy them with friends. If you do place at the regional or the first round level, you will then receive notification on where and when to send the rest of your entries for the final round of judging. Be sure to wear your lucky boxers on bottling day, shipping day and any of the days that the judging is taking place.
In addition to Russ's win, this year marked the first time in 30 years that a woman has won the coveted Homebrewer of the Year. Annie Johnson from Sacramento, California secured the top prize with her Lite American Lager.
For a complete list of winners, check out the AHA winner's list.
If you are interested in starting up in the beer making process, or are seeking to further your hobby, local resources abound, including homebrew shops (BX Beer Depot and Funky Buddha Homebrew Shop) and homebrew clubs (Palm Beach Draughtsmen, Fort Lauderdale Area Brewers, Miami Area Society of Homebrewers)
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