Mountain Sun's homebrew competition started with 29 bottles of beer on the wall
Buckets full of homebrew.
Every February, the three Mountain Sun Pub breweries celebrate Stout Month, pouring dozens of stout varieties. In advance of Stout Month, the company sponsors a homebrew competition, and the winner gets to brew his stout at Mountain Sun and have it served on tap all of February -- which is pretty awesome for the homebrewer.
This year, Mountain Sun asked if I wanted to help judge the competition, alongside its brewing team, at Vine Street Pub -- which was pretty awesome for me.
Here's how it went down yesterday, December 19.
I get to Vine Street Pub on this snowy morning and meet seven of the eight brewing team members from Mountain Sun and Southern Sun breweries in Boulder, as well as Vine Street Pub. They are led by Mountain Sun head brewer John Fiorilli.
Fiorilli tells me that there are only 29 beers to judge. This may sound like a lot, but in comparison to the 75 submissions in 2011, it's a walk in the park. Although I had told people I would be drinking 75 beers, I'm secretly happy that the reality is less than half of that.
The table is set up with eight chairs, several pitchers of water, dozens of tasting glasses, and pens and papers for notes on each beer. Fiorilli has grouped the stouts into five flights. The goal here, he says, is to taste every beer and to give feedback to the homebrewers. Just writing "it sucks" doesn't help. Give constructive criticism and write legibly, he says, since people want feedback. This isn't like GABF, so we are not judging on how close the beers are to the stout style -- although they must be stouts -- but on which is the tastiest beer. "It's best in show," he says.
All of the beers were made in someone's kitchen. I have an industrial-size container of Tums. I am ready.
The first flight includes a wild mix of six stouts, including one that tastes like maple syrup. No names are given because some of the brewers know the guys who entered. The goal is to pick a winner from each flight to move on to a second round.
The second flight contains just as many surprises, and each time I bring a glass to my nose it's a surprise of aromas, from peanut butter to anise to orange zest to, well, "trash and baby diaper," as a brewer describes one of the homebrews. Perhaps a sanitation problem during the process? That one doesn't make the final round.
Time for a break and for some French fries to lay a base in the stomach. We've tried twelve beers, but there are still seventeen to go, including the difficult fruit category.
Flight three is the fruit beer beer category and includes blueberry, raspberry and other kinds of stouts, but not all of these beers are actually stouts. How, the brewers wonder, can you enter a stout contest without using the kinds of dark roasted malts that turn the beer black and make a stout what it is? Then again, some of them taste good. Others have a bitter, almost medicine-y taste. There is a battle over which beer to send on. Should it be two of them or none?
The final two flights include a mix of stouts and brown ales and even a sour beer. Many of them stray far afield. It's not that they are bad -- although some make you wonder why the homebrewer entered it -- it's just that they aren't stouts. Some are almost amber in color. Others have none of the telltale signs of a stout. They give the brewers ideas and pique their interest, though, which is one of the things that they love about homebrew competitions. One of these beers comes with a warning: "Overcarbed," it says. The homebrewer suggests opening inside Vine Street's brew kettle to avoid injury. We don't. Most of the beer whooshes out in a blast of foam and air.
We have narrowed the competition down to eight finalists. Some were heavily debated; some were hated by a few of the judges and loved by others. There is no real unanimous consensus on which is the best. The finalists range from a classic dry Irish-style stout to a few flavored with berries, chiles or spice. There is one flavored with anise that sparks a wide-ranging debate. There is another that has been aged with oak spirals soaked in Kraken rum. We taste them all and taste them again...and again...and again. Words are exchanged. Punches are thrown (not really).
It comes down to the final two, and then a winner is selected by a straight vote. I'm not saying which beer wins here. I'll let you find out during Stout Month in February, when the breweries will tap an amazing lineup of dark stouts.
Wow. My lips are sticky and my head is a little light. My palate is a wreck. And that was only from 29 beers -- 29 creative beers, some of them good, some great, some horrid. I can only imagine what tasting 75 of these beers would be like. Homebrewers and pro brewers are a creative lot, though, and the experience shows how much beer means to both of them and how much fun it is to revel in the joys of water, hops, barley and yeast.
Thanks to the crew at the Vine Street Pub, Mountain Sun and Southern Sun for inviting me into the inner circle for a day to see how the process works.
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