It's Competition Season!

As I sit and write this blog entry, my body is aching as if I ran a marathon. Well, I guess you could say an eight hour, double, all-grain brew day could result in some similar affects. Competition season is in full swing and Im proud to say that all our beers are either completed and bottle conditioning or bubbling away in fermenters.

To kick off the competition season, we had a few bottles of Devils Kettle (our smokey brown ale) in the fridge and with Homebrew Alley coming up, it was a good warm up to test the waters and to get some feedback on our recipe formulation for this beer. Homebrew Alley is New York City's biggest homebrew competition of the year organized by the New York City Homebrewers Guild and hosted by Fifth Hammer Brewing in Long Island City, New York. This year's competition consisted of 593 entries submitted by 400 participants.

Devils Kettle was actually the last of our extract beers. Before I brewed up an all-grain version, I wanted to get some feedback from the judges before I re-formatted the grain bill. I was happy with the feedback we received, we didn't' place in 32A: Classic Style Smoked Beer, but we did manage to get a decent score of 31.

After reviewing the score sheets from the judges I noticed a few trends that I planned on tweaking. It was nice to see that I scored a 3 out of 3 on appearance. I've been paying extra attention lately to beer clarity and quality and looks like I nailed that one. Both judges hinted at low smoke aroma/flavor, which is a pretty important feature for the style. I figured that this would be the case and planned on ramping up my smoke malts. There was also mention of low hop aroma, which I can totally agree with. The key to this style category is to pair the smoke with the beer style accurately. Ramping up the hop additions and the smoke malts should get me on better ground in time for NHC.

Before I jump into my next four batches of beer for NHC, I wanted to shed some light on the steps that go into the National Homebrew Competition. In 1979, 34 entries competed in the first American Homebrewers Association (AHA) National Homebrew Competition held in Boulder, Colorado.Today, the National Homebrew Competition (NHC) has become the largest homebrew competition in the world. Entry applications open up in late January. During this process you have to submit the beer styles that you wish to enter along with your preferred regional judging locations. You are not guaranteed to get into this competition and you're also not guaranteed your number of entries and/or regional judging locations. The second week of February is when the entrants receive news on their entries and location. I was lucky to be granted four entries in this competition and landed the New York regional judging center. So no shipping bottles for me this year! The styles which I was selected for are: 27H: Roggenbier, 32A: Classic Style Smoked Beer, 15A: Irish Red and 30A: Spice, Herb, or Vegetable Beer. There are 12 regional judging locations: Austin, Chicago, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Sacramento, Sand Diego and Tampa Bay. My regional judging happens April 6-8. In order to move onto the national round in Portland Oregon, you have to place in the top three of your category. National round judging takes place on June 28th. I wish all the other homebrewers competing this year the best of luck!

While the judging for Hombrew Alley was going on, there was no time to waste. They give you a really small timeframe to brew up your batches in time for the shipping window. We got right to work brewing our first beer for NHC, NATAS.

Natas is a stout that I've been dreaming up brewed with Pasteis De Natas, a Portuguese pasty. Essentially Natas are equivalent to gold to Portuguese people. My first attempt at this beer was a bit underwhelming in my eyes and

I knew that I needed to think outside of the box. I knew that Weyerbacher was experimenting with donuts in their mash so I reached out to their brewer for some tips. Sure enough I went for it and included actual Pasteis De Natas in this beer. I paired the Pasteis De Natas with cinnamon, vanilla along with a rich malt bill.

Last attempt at this beer, I also noticed some poor signs of stuck fermentation so I knew that I had to ramp up my yeast starter ahead of time. My dad actually got to help me during the brewing process of this beer which made the experience a little extra special. My changes seemed to do the trick, I cracked open a bottle a little early in anticipation and was over joyed with what I was able to produce. It really could have gone either way, but Im glad it turned out well and Im really looking forward to the feedback from the judges at NHC.

The following weekend I took another stab at my Roggenbier (German Rye Beer). The weather report was not looking too hot, however there was no time to reschedule and I knew I had to just go for it. I was able to clear out a little space in the front of my garage to at least have a roof over my brew kettle. The day was a complete wash out, but I still had a blast and with some minor tweaks to this recipe, Im anxious to see how it does in competition.

Come to think of it, I wonder what my neighbors and passing cars thought when they drove past my house and saw a guy standing over a kettle in the pouring rain using an immersion chiller. FOR THE LOVE OF THE BREW!

Now it was crunch time....I had two beers down and two to go with not much of a window left. I set aside some time this past weekend to wrap up brewing for NHC. There were a couple of factors here. One, I needed another fermenter so I finally pulled the trigger on an SS Brewtech Brewmaster Brew Bucket. Also, I needed enough time to whip up a few yeast starters and had to wait on my yeast shipment. I knew that since the window was getting smaller and smaller it was becoming more apparent that I was going to have to pull a double brew day.

As the week moved on, news was breaking of some snow coming our way on Saturday night. I feel as though the weather has really been testing me this year on my brew problem, bring it on! My yeast made it to me on time to whip up my starters and Saturday was just a day of relaxing and enjoying some beer waiting out the storm. I went down to the bar at the end of the block to meet up with some friends on Saturday night during the snow storm (hoping its the last of the snow in Jersey this year, but who knows!) to watch the Devils game and to sip on some Otter Creek IPA's - pretty good beer if you get a chance to try some. I get back to the house a little late and figured that the next morning was going to be a little tough waking up.

I did manage to power through it though, and woke up in time. I did however, take a peek outside my window and realized that before I did anything I had to shovel out the driveway so I could get to the garage and avoid any additional flooding. Luckily we had blue bird skies that day and the sun was shining to help with the melt.

I quickly shoveled out the area I needed and got working on the first brew of the day, our Irish Red, "Come on You Reds". The last batch of this beer came out a little on the thin side and again, I had some issues with yeast flocculation (I since corrected this flaw). After bolstering some of my grain bill I feel like this version should come out much better.

The session went off without a hitch and I carried my kettle to the street for chilling as I usually do. The house across the street from us is for sale and they were having an Open House that day. I wonder what the potential buyers thought I was doing....and if they did know I wonder if buying a house across the street from a homebrewer was enough incentive for them to make the purchase. If so, I better see a cut! I need to be careful with my wort chilling neighbors and frequently passing cars are going to start referring to me as the guy who plays with steaming pots in the street.

Once I got my kettles cleaned up and soaking, I took a lunch break and headed over to my grandma's for my family's weekly Sunday dinner get together. I brought a fresh bottle of Natas for them to all try as well. My grandma seemed to be pretty impressed with the beer. She's not a drinker so maybe this is hinting a good things to come for this beer. After filling my belly with fresh pasta and sausage it was back to work for me.

On the drive back home I was getting exhausted running through the brewing steps in my head. The fact that I was about to do another session all over again was a bit for me to digest. But, after thinking about it I was really eager to get started again. I guess this is a sign that my obsession for brewing is getting even more obsessive.

I saved the next beer for last. I know you're not supposed to have a favorite child but, Devils Kettle, my smokey brown ale has become my go to. I really wanted to make this beer shine and spent a good amount of time evaluating the feedback that I received from the judges at Homebrew Alley. I bumped up my percentage of smoked cherrywood malt and also changed up my hop additions. When I mashed in, the smoked malt went straight to my nose. It smelt delicious! It was though, way more smokey than what Im used to for this beer. Im hoping that the change of my hops (Willamette, Liberty, Crystal and Cascade) will balance the beer out and change this recipe for the better.

Eleven hours had passed since I started my day of brewing. Once I got the last kettle cleaned up I rewarded myself with a fresh large pizza and melted into my couch. As I sat there and dove deep into Netflixing, I was proud. I had this bigger sense of accomplishment, a sense that I feel as though grows with each new batch and each new learned technique. Brewing has given me a new sense of awareness and appreciation for life's little details. Im hoping that my first journey into competitive brewing only heightens these senses and continues to allow me to grow as a person.

So we're all set and ready for NHC. Just have to have three intense bottling sessions (oh I am done bottling.....I plan on switching to kegging this spring.). I will follow up with sharing what the judges thought of these beers and hopefully with some positive news about the next stages of NHC. In addition to NHC there are a few regional competitions that are going on around the same time. Since I'll have some extra bottles I thought that it wouldn't hurt to give those a shot as well. For now I'll just sit in anticipation and count the days until the judging begins. And with that being said, I'll leave you with some wise words from the Godfather of Homebrewing, Charlie Papazian, "Relax. Dont worry. And have a homebrew."


-Mark Costa

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