One year ago, a homebrew called Monolith IPA won the inaugural homebrew competition at the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest. The contest was a pretty straightforward affair: brewers made their beer, brought it to the event, poured it for attendees who voted for their favorite, and a panel of judges selected the winner from the top vote-getters.
This year, the finalists are already selected. Their beers -- all India pale ales, selected by the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild -- have been brewed, and not at home; Wisconsin Brewing Company (WBC) of Verona has supplied its one-barrel pilot system to equalize the method of production. All that's left is the drinking. Well, that and the judging.
The venue for this competition, once again, is the Isthmus Beer and Cheese Fest -- the annual and very Wisconsin party Isthmus holds at the Alliant Energy Center. (This year's festival is on Saturday, Jan. 17.) It has been a successful venture, and success breeds expansion. The event will cover more floor space in the Exhibition Hall than ever, and breweries from neighboring states will broaden the scope of the beers being served.
The homebrew competition, now in its second year, has also expanded in its own way. Instead of brewing at home and bringing that product to the event, this year's trio of homebrewer finalists were given the opportunity to brew a single-barrel batch at WBC, using its on-hand ingredients and hardware and working with brewmaster Kirby Nelson.
That's a significant step up in terms of batch size for all three competitors: Dan Hedtcke, Kyle Markmann and Nick Balazs. Hedtcke brews five-gallon batches. Markmann does too (with brewing partner Andrew Holzhauer). Balazs has a 10-gallon setup in his basement, but even there we're talking about a 300% scale-up.
Balazs has been brewing for just over a decade now, producing between 70-100 gallons annually. His interest in fermentation spans a greater length, however. "In high school," he explains, "I got in trouble for making wine in my locker."
Time spent as a water chemist on a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine certainly gives Balazs an atypical perspective on the pressures of competition. For the beer he's entering into this contest, it was a tried-and-true recipe, more or less.
"I took a recipe that I brewed a few years ago and modified it for the ingredients that Kirby had on hand. There are some slight differences between the original," he says, "and what was brewed at WBC. My recipe won a silver medal at the [American Homebrewers Association] regional competition a few years ago."
A few years ago, Kyle Markmann hadn't even started his homebrew journey. While his homebrewing resume is short in years, it's long in batches. He and Holzhauer (who only has three years of experience to Markmann's two-and-a-half) brewed about 25 five-gallon batches last year, and brewers know that the skill of brewing has as at least as much to do with process repetition as batch size, if not more. Doing it over and over again reveals areas of improvement, and allows for fine-tuning and more confident experimentation.
"It allows us a small enough size to experiment with different ingredients," Markmann says, "but lasts us quite a while. It allows us to drink some ourselves and give some to friends and family. You can't go wrong with a homebrewed beer for a Christmas gift."
It's still just a hobby for Markmann, a pleasurable way for him to spend a fall afternoon when he isn't out hiking with his dog. But he doesn't shy away from wondering if the future could hold even greater potential for his beer. "It would definitely be exciting to see our beer in stores and people outside of our friends trying it."
It doesn't seem like exposure, or even overexposure, is a concern for Dan Hedtcke. He gave me a very detailed description of his "bare-bones and cobbled together" brewing rig -- centered on an Igloo cooler-turned-mash tun and a cannibalized veggie steamer -- and revealed that it was featured in a 2011 article on homebrew systems in the Canadian beer magazine, TAPS. (He was also runner-up in the Fauerbach Challenge Brew contest at Gray's Tied House in 2008.)
I don't think I'm talking out of school to say that Hedtcke went on at, by far, the greatest length of all the interviewees for this story. He's enthusiastic about brewing, and fermentation in general, and also beekeeping and curling. When he described moving to all-grain brewing once he "started getting too comfortable with extracts," it became clear to me that he's typically looking for the next challenge.
"I like how all-grain brewing gives the brewer more power and creative control over how the batch turns out compared to extract kits," he explains. "It's amazing to me how an all-grain mash can produce a dry beer or a full-bodied beer just by adjusting the temperature. You can't really do that with extracts."
Having the competitors brew on WBC's pilot system evens the playing field with regard to ingredients and equipment, even if only one of the brewers was able to actually attend the brew day in Verona. In fact, in conversation with Isthmus associate publisher Craig Bartlett, I learned that none of the competitors have even tasted their final product yet. That'll come in the days just prior to the festival.
That day, one of these homebrewers' recipes will be selected as the winner by this year's panel of judges. While the details of the grand prize are still being finalized, I'll remind you that last year's winner got a production run and tap release at One Barrel Brewing. So for this year? Well, success breeds expansion.