Waaaaay back in June, about 3,000 homebrewers gathered in Baltimore to attend the National Homebrewers Conference (known for the first time as “Homebrew Con” this year). Homebrew Con isn’t just a time to learn about homebrewing, drink homebrew, and eat pretzels from necklaces (though these things all happen), it’s also the time when the American Homebrew Association’s National Homebrew Competition takes place.
The AHA NHC included 7,962 entries from 3,396 homebrewers located in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and 13 other countries. This is a big jump from 1979, when the first Competition was held, when there were 34 beers, total, submitted. This year, 1,074 beers made the final round of judging, which took place in Baltimore and featured some of the best beer judges in the country.
Just like the annual Great American Beer Festival, homebrewers submit beers in a wide variety of categories. Just like at the annual GABF (and in the rest of the craft beer world), competition around IPAs is steep. 456 beers were entered in Category 17 this year, and when the dust settled, local homebrewer Matt Cronin, from Chevy Chase and a member of the DC Homebrewers, had earned a bronze medal for his double IPA. We reached out to Matt to hear more about his beer and his homebrewing. What follows below is a lightly edited transcript of his responses.
How long have you been homebrewing? What was the impetus to start, and what are some of the resources you've come to rely on the most?
I started home brewing 20 odd years ago in New Zealand after a friend and I found his father's brewing equipment in their backyard shed. We were keen to see what we could cook up, and I've been interested ever since. I've always enjoyed the tangible reward of a (hopefully) quality beverage that comes from the effort and patience involved in long brew day.
Over the last 5 or 6 years I've tried to hone my skills and raise the quality of my brews by learning from the experiences of other great brewers and investing in key resources. In particular, Noonan's "New Brewing Lager Beer" and Palmer's "How to Brew" have been great resources. I am also constantly looking for up-to-date online content from the Homebrewers Association and information on brewing water and pH from Braukaiser. As for equipment, my refractometer and pH meter have been especially good investments. I get most of my ingredients locally at 3 Stars and Maryland Homebrew. Both have been great resources.
Can you tell us a little bit about your recipe development process? How do you initially develop and then refine the beers you brew?
My goal is always to make a good quality beer, but my interpretation of styles largely relies on my own taste preferences . My first step is to select quality ingredients. Next, I work on water chemistry to help create the flavor, mouthfeel, and overall drinking experience I am aiming for. After brewing, I periodically assess the beer to make sure things are progressing as expected, and, when necessary, I make temperature and carbonation adjustments. A few trusted, but brutally honest, friends taste my beers before I share them with others or enter competitions. It's an iterative process, and I am constantly tweaking recipes based on feedback. I am always looking to improve.
Growing up in New Zealand has strongly influenced my taste preferences. Many of my recipes have strong citrus tones: orange, lemon, grapefruit, and even kiwi and passion fruit. I am also partial to piney beers with intense aromatics. These are characteristics common to other IPAs and DIPAs out there, but I try to incorporate New Zealand hops and bright Kiwi flavors whenever possible.
Tell us about the beer that you medaled with at NHC; what do you think made it stand out to judges? Was this the first time you brewed it or was this something you've brewed multiple times? Was this beer inspired by other IPAs that you like?
My Double IPA (9.5%) placed in the NHC Category 17: IPAs. I think it stood out to judges because of its appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel. These are the areas that I've really focused on over the past year, using pH and water adjustments to bring this beer up to the next level. I've been making and remaking this beer for about a year now substituting yeast strains and altering hopping schedules to achieve a hoppy beer without the alcoholic harshness that DIPAs often have. I've been extremely impressed with DIPAs from Russian River, Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, Three Floyds, and Stone. I like the individuality that they all possess, and they have absolutely inspired my own recipes.
What key pieces of advice do you have for new and/or experienced homebrewers?
It's tempting to drink your beer and share it with friends, but keep some spare bottles of your best beer for competitions. The competition process and feedback will improve your brewing. Also if there are multiple rounds, definitely keep extra bottles in case your beer advances to the finals. This has happened to me, and I cocked up one of my entries because I didn't have adequate time to condition it between the first and final rounds.
I'd also say keep things simple, but experiment with changing just one or two things at a time until you find the balance you want. Be organized and methodical. Record your brew day stats and fermentation details so you can troubleshoot and tweak where necessary. Finally, when conditioning and packaging use CO2 to minimize oxygen pick-up.
It seems like you have a lot of homebrewing awards (NHC, but also awards from DC Homebrewers competitions). To what do you owe your success that others could replicate?
Cleaning! It's not the most glamorous part of brewing, but it’s probably the most important factor for consistently turning out a good product. As for the actual brewing, I am naturally curious and like to try new techniques. I talk to other brewers and visit breweries to find inspiration. The great thing about brewing is there is always something else to learn. Being creative doesn't always make a great beer, but it certainly makes brewing more fun.
Thanks a lot to Matt for his time, and congrats on the medal! Hopefully some enterprising brewery (nudge nudge hint hint_ will give him a shout to do a collaboration beer with his obviously tasty recipe.