Monday, July 15, 2013

The Ruck’s “Extreme Homebrewing” Competition: Summer 2013

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The categories may not be to BJCP style, but the score sheets are. You don’t have to be a certified BJCP to judge.
The Ruck in Troy has been holding an “extreme” homebrewing competition semi-annually since 2012. They don’t go by standard BJCP styles, though. Their categories are always unusual, tongue-in-cheek, and definitely challenging. They figure anyone can brew a brown ale or an IPA, but let’s see you do it without using bottled or municipal tap water (as was one of the categories in the winter competition). Or, let’s see you make a beer for less than 50 cents a bottle; or under 4% alcohol; or brewing two beers from one mash (as were three of this summer’s categories).

Though I’ve been homebrewing for a little less than two years, I haven’t gone the route of all-grain yet. I certainly do not consider myself to be an expert at the craft, though most everything I’ve brewed people have enjoyed. As I mentioned last week, I brought a growler of my homebrew to the Shmaltz grand opening and everyone who tried it seemed to liked it. I thought I should enter it under the “lawnmower” category for this summer’s event. The stipulations were that the beer had to be light, refreshing, and less than 4% ABV. It was a brew made from an all-extract kit describing it as a “cream ale,” though I think it’s more accurately described as light amber ale. I also steeped some maize in it to give it a Genny Cream Ale flavor and the gravity readings (1.042 and 1.012) gave me a final ABV of 3.9%.

When this event was announced in late winter, I wanted to enter the “Belgo-Americano” category, whereby beers had to be American in style (and hop varietals), but had to use Belgian yeast. In the spring, I brewed a black IPA and added Trappist ale yeast to it. An odd combination for sure, but I brewed the beer mostly for the name: “Trap in Black.” I didn’t enter it because I really wasn’t happy with the way it turned out. The taste is a bizarre blend of grape soda, orange juice, and chocolate syrup flavors. The carboy has been sitting in my living room for a few months now. I don’t want to dump it, so I’ll bottle it this week and open one every once in a while to see if the flavors develop over time.

Of course, concocting a weird beer is practically par for the course when it comes to The Ruck’s homebrew competitions given the category requirements. And I should know because I’ve tasted many of them having judged two of the six categories in two of the three competitions that have been held. That’s not to say that “weird” = “bad”, just unusual. As George mentioned in his last blog, homebrewers can take a lot more chances with their recipes than commercial brewers, especially when it comes to an event like this.
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One of two flights of the "Belgo-Americano" category.
The first category I judged was “Call of the Wild,” wherein brewers had to make beer using wild yeast strains. One brewer used open fermentation to let the wild yeast of the Capital District ferment and flavor the beer. It actually wasn’t too bad as it had the classic sour taste you often find in Belgian lambics or a Berlinner-Weisse, though not nearly as robust. Two others brewed light styles and fermented them with Brettanomyces. The winner was able to harvest the wild yeast from a bottle of Russian River Supplication and brewed a 7.7% ABV saison that tasted, to me, as good as a commercial brew.

The second round was the aforementioned “Belgo-Americano” category. These were mostly American IPAs brewed with Belgian yeast, and they did seem to blend together after a while. There were nine entries this time, but we kept up a pretty good pace despite feeling some palate fatigue. Each table is stocked with water and crackers which I used to reset my palate between each sample. Unlike the first round, no one beer stands out in my memory as being amazing. But that’s because they were all pretty good across the board. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t bother entering my beer because it definitely would’ve placed last.

In fact, not placing last has always been my goal whenever I enter a homebrew competition. I know my competitors are more experienced than me, so simply being able to keep pace with them is what I consider a success. In the summer of 2012, my friend Shaun and I brewed a black IPA for a category of the same name. We came in sixth out of 12 (not bad for rookies, eh?). In January 2013, I entered my  “Chocolate Cherry Chile Stout” for a “free range water” category and came in third out of ten. This time around, my “Crème de la Lawnmower” came in tied for fifth out of seven. Again, not bad considering how much I personally disliked my own beer.
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Beer Me!

But you don’t have to be a judge in order to sample homebrew. On Sunday the 14th, the “homebrewers shindig” was held at The Ruck. Homebrewers bring bottles, growlers, and the occasional keg to share with each other. This is basically what we do on a monthly basis at the Albany Brew Crafters meetings, though this is more of a party atmosphere rather than a one-at-a-time, organized tasting. I always enjoy chatting with other homebrewers and learning about their techniques, tricks, and general history with homebrewing. Everyone seems so supportive of the hobby and the community at large. It’s rare someone will tell you your beer sucks, but instead they will offer constructive criticism. I’ve been told a certain off-flavor could’ve been avoided had I simply made a few tweaks. Homebrewing is a very “open source” environment, so it’s easy to get ideas and tips for improvement from the community.

The shindig is fun for many reasons, though probably the best is the fact you can taste many of the beers you went up against. When Shaun and I placed sixth in 2012 I was a bit disappointed, but then I tried the other beers in the category and realized how much better they were. Now I always look forward to trying the other homebrews to see what else could be done given the category’s parameters. It’s also fun to try the beers that won the other categories, many of which are on par with commercial quality. I would describe some of the more memorable ones as I do when I blog about a beer fest or a brewpub review, but since these are homebrews, there’s very little chance the reader would be able to try them for him or herself. Instead, I’ll leave you with a video I shot of the judging and the awards ceremony:

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