Friday, January 18, 2013

"Kettle to the Medal" finale

In the narrow, high-windowed brewhouse of Wilmington's Iron Hill Brewery, a hose trailed down from one of the shiny steel fermenting tanks into a bucket filled with a sterile solution. The water bubbled, sometimes in ferocious bursts, blowing up an enormous, fluffy crown of foam and yeast from a batch of Riverfront IPA recently moved into the tank.

The bucket's ebullience set the right tone, and its comical gurgling was a good conversation-starter as the narrow confines of the brewhouse -- one of the few places you would not choose to socialize in this spacious venue -- began to fill up with people.

The long-awaited judging of Spark's Kettle to the Medal competition was underway, and those filing in were beer enthusiasts from all walks of life who had been invited to serve on the judging panel for the event. Among them were distributors, restaurant insiders and accomplished amateur homebrewers.

Everyone was directed to a high table bisected by a wide strip of masking tape. One side of the divider was marked "A" and offered 4 oz. samples of a brown ale. The other side, marked "B," supplied samples of a different but similar-looking beer. Which one tasted better?

No one was more eager answer that question than I was, because beer "A" was mine -- my first attempt at homebrewing, as previously documented in these pages. Beer "B" was the maiden effort of Spark editor Rob Kalesse, who also brewed up the idea of the competition.

Beer lovers tend to be pretty sociable, and on this evening I witnessed many a happy tableaux of old friends, former coworkers, and professional peers hugging and catching up on each others' lives before turning to the solemn business of sipping homemade beer.

Before long there were so many people packed into the brewhouse that it was hard to wind a course to the far end of the room to dispose of empty glasses. Standing clear of the ebullient bucket also became challenging.

I was excited to have our beers critiqued by folks who are comfortable throwing around terms like "diacetyl" and "acetaldehyde." It was also nice that others who don't know those words would be giving an opinion from their gut.

Through an admirable and uncharacteristic show of restraint, my opponent and I had both avoided popping bottles for an advance taste test, so we were preparing to experience our first sip of what we had made. I was almost as eager to taste Rob's as I was to finally taste my own. I snagged a snifter from each side of the dividing line and prepared to face destiny.

I started with mine, of course. I liked the way it looked in the glass -- not quite as dark as I'd hoped, but a nice, warm amber brown with decent clarity. The aroma was pleasant but subdued, despite my use of slightly more finishing hops than the recipe called for. English brown ales are not known for a big aroma, I reassured myself. We're still in this fight.

First impression upon sipping? It was... not half bad. Not all good, either, but not half bad. The carbonation was mild -- along the lines of a cask conditioned ale -- but enough to evade the nightmare scenario of dispensing flat beer to an expectant crowd.

My main concern was that the flavor would not be bold enough to impress the judges. There didn't seem to be any predominant offensive flavors, but there could have been a little more intensity overall. I hid my affiliation with beer "A" as I mingled and anxiously probed the judges (including my contest advisor, brewmaster Ric Hoffman of Stewart's Brewing Company) for clues about which submission they preferred.

How did beer “B,” Kalesse's ale, turn out? His had a stronger aroma, but there was a slight pungency that didn't appeal to me. I was aware that his team had tinkered with the recipe's hop ratio, too, and they clearly went at it with a slightly heavier hand.

This worried me some, as I figured the judges might share the widespread American preference for hops. Rob's beer also seemed to have more overall flavor and fuller carbonation -- which vexed me, since we both bottled on the same day.

From snippets of overheard conversation and the odd glimpse of a poorly folded ballot card, I was convinced by the middle of the event that my beer was going down in defeat. My consolation was that it had been a very fun and educational process. But I would still be disappointed if I lost.

Around 7:30 p.m., the designated vote counter -- an ostensibly impartial party who happens to be the the girlfriend of Rob's advisor -- whisked the ballot box into the back room. She emerged a short while later and announced the tally: beer "A" had received 25 votes, and beer "B" had garnered 22. (Kalesse recounted and I still won. I guess she really was impartial.)

It was no landslide, but I had won the honor I'd been after for six nerve-racking weeks. And even though the medal that Iron Hill brewmaster Brian Finn hung around my neck was the plastic kind you get in 12-packs for a dollar, it still felt pretty sweet to wear.

A few days later, after the veil of anonymity was lifted, I visited Hoffman at Stewart's for some direct feedback -- and for a pint of his celebrated oyster stout. (The beer's GABF silver medal is well-deserved: this stout has a super smooth texture, with subtle, slightly smoky flavor and a delightfully dense, creamy head.)

Four days after his initial encounter with beer "A," now re-branded as StormDawg Brown, Hoffman poured a glass of it and noted, "The carbonation has come up a bit. You're in good shape there."

We sipped. We pondered. "Needs more flavor," I honestly assessed. "How do I fix that next time?"

"You'll affect that by using more specialty grains," Hoffman said. One fundamental issue with malt extracts is that they ferment quite completely, not leaving behind much residual sugar to contribute flavor and body. "That thinner character is one reason a lot of people move on from extracts to all-grain brewing."

If you do stick to extract brewing, Hoffman said, one simple way to improve your beer is to avoid preassembled kits. Piece together the ingredients for your recipes from the homebrew store or from a reputable mail-order supplier. "You don't know how long that kit has been sitting there, and you don't know how long ago the grain got milled. You should mill the grain as short a time as possible before you use it, otherwise it can impart a stale character."

Reviewing the mechanics of my brew day step-by-step, Hoffman stopped me when I described teabag-style dunking the mesh bag of specialty grains. My naive idea was to extract as many sugars as possible from the bag.

"You want to be careful with that," he cautioned. "Do you taste a slight astringency in your beer?" Yes, I do notice a premature drying out of the flavor -- and at least one of the Kettle to the Medal judges mentioned the same quality in his tasting notes. "That could be where that's coming from. You want as few grain particles in there as you can get."

Armed with my medal and Hoffman's great feedback -- and anticipating a call for a grudge match from Kalesse -- I am inspired to take another stab at this homebrewing thing. But, I mused aloud, do I really have time for it, with two kids, a demanding job and other hobbies?

"Makes a good excuse for beer drinking on the weekends," Hoffman grinned devilishly. Thanks, Ric, but that happens to be one thing I am not short on.

Grateful acknowledgement to Mr. Thom Thompson for lending me his brewing rig (twice) and for sharing his experience and a few of his beers.

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