To a home brewer, beer is more than a beverage with a little kick; it is a delightfully complex creation based on an age – old recipe of water, yeast, grain, and hops. Step by step, the ingredients come together to cook and then cool. After time it’s ready to taste. Only then can you tell if your efforts have paid off. It can be confusing for a beginner to know how to improve their craft. The Titletown Open offers homebrewers an affordable way to compete with fellow brewers and gain constructive criticism on their product.
Brewing beer in one’s home has only been legal on the federal level since 1979, but the hobby has caught on, and now boasts 1.2 million brewers, according to the American Homebrewer’s Association. And with Wisconsin’s rich history of commercial brewing, it seems fitting that so many in our area have embraced it. Recently, I sat down with Michael Conard and Matt Welter inside a local haven for home brewers, House of Homebrew, at 410 Dousman Street in Green Bay. Both gentlemen are members of the Green Bay Rackers Homebrew Club, a home brewers group where sharing tips, ideas, and even your own brew is appreciated. The club’s motto is, “If you want it done right, you have to brew it yourself.” That may be a bit tongue – in – cheek, but it does hint at the level of passion its members have toward their favorite beverage. Conard serves as Organizer for the Titletown Open, while Welter is the Media Representative. This is the contest’s twentieth year and given its growth and the current environment for the craft of brewing good beer, it’s going to be around for many years to come.
Conard, a brewer of more than 20 years and the founder of the competition, says he started out as a beer judge in the early days when the competition was only open to Rackers members. “They asked me to do judging because I was the only BJCP (Beer Judging Certification Program) judge in Northeast Wisconsin. For the first three years it was a single style. They would pick a style and the club members that wanted to enter would brew that style. After the first three years, I encouraged the club to make it open, and make it more than one style. They went to three very broad categories: pale, amber, and dark. Anybody could enter any style they wanted in one of those categories.” Though only ribbons are awarded, this little competition grew. The number of entries expanded from a meager 14 entries the first year to last year’s 147 entries, with some entries coming in from as far away as California.
There are 11 categories in the contest this year, including the Twentieth Anniversary Challenge, which calls for a beer in any style that has an opening gravity of 20 Plato or more. 20 – what? This term refers to a measurement taken part – way through the brewing process that gauges the potential alcohol based on the sugar in the solution. 20 Plato is 1.083 specific gravity. It’s kind of an inside joke for home brewing enthusiasts. “This will be the only time we’ll do it,” explains Conard. “We’re not going to do it next year. It’s strictly a grins and giggles category for the twentieth anniversary competition.”
Welter has been brewing for two years and has not entered the Titletown Open before this year. For him the contest offers an opportunity to take a walk on the wild side. “I’m entering in the specialty category. I do the herbal kind of things, where I’m adding wild plants. One of my beers is an India Pale Ale, but it’s got a plant in it that you don’t normally put in beer. The reason I’m entering it is because my friends keep coming back and saying, ‘When are you going to make some more of that?’”
And though Welter’s beer may look like an IPA, and walk like an IPA, it would not do well in that category because of the strict category standards. Conard explains, “In judging we are judging against a set of established standards for flavor, color, and certain characteristics of the beer. These are established standards; they’re what judges are trained to judge to. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad beer, it simply means that if it doesn’t conform to style guidelines, your score is going to be less.”
Beyond the drive to stand out among one’s peers, one of the most essential reasons for entering a competition like the Titletown Open is to get feedback from a beer judge. It truly is all about the beer. “We are here to help brewers learn about the styles and help them improve their brewing,” says Conard. “Our primary goal is not to pick a first, second, and third; our primary goal is to give the brewer feedback on their product. ‘This is what you purport your beer to be, here are the good points about it, the bad points about it in terms of how it does or does not meet the style,’ and give you some suggestions as to how you might improve the beer.”
Welter and Conard admit that the judging (at Titletown Brewing Company) itself is about as visually interesting as watching paint dry, and when asked about the practice of spitting out beer samples, Conard scoffs. “If you actually look at the science of tasting and sensory perception, and an awful lot of work has been done by the Japanese on this, if you don’t swallow, you do not get the full complexity of the beverage because the only place where your olfactory and your tasting meet is so far back that you miss the melding.”
An avid home brewer, Welter shares this insight on the tasting of beer. “Just this year I made a Brown IPA and you would get the taste of the IPA on the tip of your tongue, but you wouldn’t get the brown taste until you swallowed,” says Welter.
The advantages to brewing beer within the home seem obvious. Two things come up when I ask about downsides. There is the smell and there is the equipment. “It does make your house smell like a brewery for about six hours,” Welter explains. And the equipment? “I know of one of our members who has a brew thing in the middle of his kitchen and he’s in an apartment,” laughs Welter. “He calls it the Death Star. One caldron is about this big, (opens up arms) and it’s permanently mounted on rubber pads so it doesn’t shake, and it’s on a metal table in the center of the kitchen where you and I might have an island.” Brewing seems to be one of those hobbies that beckon inventive people to make creative solutions on a budget. Conard says he has seen some very impressive contraptions from fellow brewers. “I’ll see them and I’ll go, ‘Geez, why didn’t I think of that! It’s freaking brilliant!’ I’ve seen some really cool gadgets that people have come up with.”
When asked about the current climate for craft beer in the Green Bay area, both men are enthusiastic about the assortment of quality beer available for consumers. “It’s a Mecca,” says Welter. “I’m not kidding you. I’m on a site that’s called, “BeerPal.” It has members all over the country, and they ask me two things all of the time; one of them is, ‘If I come up to Green Bay, where do you suggest I go?’ They also want to know where to get certain beers. And the number one they list all the time is New Glarus. They hate it when I say, ‘I can get it down at the gas station!’”
As for talk of a possible beer commission within the Department of Agriculture, Conard expresses cautious optimism. “I’m against any state making further regulation of alcohol more than the federal government already has established. I think anything they do to improve the culture, the appreciation, the responsible use of the product, and encouraging brewing businesses and beer connoisseur to come to Wisconsin to enjoy our beer culture and experience the wide variety of breweries and beers that are available is a good thing.”
Ready to enter the Titletown Open? First it helps to be a member of the Green Bay Rackers club, as members get one free entry, (though the entry fee is only $4 per brew). The event is open to anyone with an interest in brewing at home. Entrants must first register online at www.rackers.org. There, entrants can find a complete list of rules, and a style guide of the Beer Judging Certification Program. Entries are due by April 22, 2014. The Titletown Open is sponsored by Titletown Brewing Company and the Green Bay Rackers.