While we normally utilize this space to dissect and comment on the offerings of various local dining establishments, this week we thought we'd throw a wrench into the works and talk about beer. Beer made at home.
This winter, the Coeur d'Alene Brewing Company hosted its first home brew competition, a malty showdown between home brewers from Eastern Washington and North Idaho (entry forms were made available at Jim's Home Brew Supply in Spokane and at Make Wine Make Beer in Hayden). Since the judging was to be held during February (the 21st to be exact), the contest categories were weighted with the hefty, full-bodied beers of winter: porters, stouts, barley wines and winter ales. There was also an open class category that harbored everything from lagers and pilseners to pale ales. The judges? They included the hardy crew of Coeur d'Alene Brewing (Lawrence "Laurie" Kraus, Greg Pillar, Shawn Murphy, Mike Jordan and company president Gage Stromberg), the Spokesman Review's beer guy, Rick Bonino, and myself. Why me? Oh, I could say that it was because of my imperious beer knowledge and incredibly discerning palate. But that would be stretching it mighty thin. Really, it was just because -- as everyone knows -- I dig beer. Pretty much all beer.
I can think of about a thousand lesser ways to kill an afternoon.
Judging any beer, particularly home brew, is by no means an exacting science, as it is based to a significant degree on personal preferences. Also, with this contest I believe the judges were all sort of grading on a curve due to the fact that these beers were home brewed -- made by amateurs in their kitchens.
Home brewing has existed for millennia. It became popular in the U.S. in the 1980s (mirroring the rise of microbreweries) as beer lovers across the country, fed up with the uniformly bland products produced by the big commercial breweries, developed a taste for the more robust beers of Europe and the British Isles -- and discovered that they could easily (and legally) brew them at home, five gallons at a time.
Yet our region is now blessed with so much fresh and distinctive commercially produced microbrewed product (including excellent local beers from the Coeur d'Alene and Northern Lights breweries), does the incentive remain to brew your own?
"Yes," according to the 20-plus home brewers who entered the contest.
And "yes" according to Joel Curran of Make Wine Make Beer, a home brew supply store in Hayden.
"There has been a huge interest and resurgence over the last 20-25 years," he says. "And then in the last five to eight years, it faded a bit and was losing a little ground. But I've been seeing a marked improvement recently, and I think it's because the industry has made it even easier for the home brewer to do it."
A relatively new development, for instance, are "no-boil" kits -- recipes that can be ready for the fermenter in around 20 minutes.
"There are some real true-ists out there who believe you can't get a great product out of a no-boil recipe," says Curran. "I disagree with that 100 percent. Maybe five years ago, but not now. They've made such strides in improving the recipes that it's a piece of cake."
Curran -- who opened his store in 1999 but now does most of his business through his Web site (www.makewinemakebeer.com) -- says it's also an economic issue for local beer lovers spoiled by the great taste of Northwest microbrews.
"When you're looking at close to eight bucks sometimes for a six pack of a decent microbrew and two or three bucks a six pack with a home brew recipe, homebrewing becomes very appealing."
Back at the competition, the judges sipped, swigged and swilled a selection of not always successful home brews -- stouts and porters that were more like brown ales, beers with little or no carbonation, beers that looked like Yoohoo, beers that tasted like cider, beers with chunks -- all to ferret out entries of worth. Each entry (known to us only by number, category and beer type) was awarded up to five points each for aroma, clarity, carbonation, head retention, mouth feel, flavor and aftertaste. The point totals were tallied to determine the top three in each of the five categories (four really, since no one stepped up to the barley wine challenge).
The team effort of John Gross and Cynthia Wall took first in the open class and also had the best stout. Rick Jones made the best winter ale. Both the Best Porter and the Brewmasters' Best Award for overall excellence went to Richard Pozzi and his Patriot Porter.
The prizes (first prizes were $50 cash and second and third prizes each received a $20 gift certificate for the Coeur d'Alene Brewpub or Steam Plant Grill) were given out at an award ceremony in Coeur d'Alene last Sunday afternoon.
"The home brewers were incredibly enthusiastic about their products, the competition and future contests," says Stromberg. "We had a good time with them."
Brewmaster Kraus was also pleased with the competition. "I was glad we had so many entries for the very first time," he says.
The Coeur d'Alene brewery will reprise the home brewing competition this summer, this time concentrating on the lighter, more refreshing beers of the hot, dry season (goldens, pales and IPAs). Look for entry forms at Jim's Home Brew Supply and at Make Wine Make Beer in the coming months.