For Octohops home-brewing duo Hank Hanna and Pearce Fleming, their path has lead them through home-brewing competitions on both the local and national level. And thanks to Lowcountry Libations, a local home brew club, their German Hefeweizen has fared well. Most recently it got the attention of Ryan Coker, head brewer at Revelry Brewing. Hanna and Fleming's beer took gold at the annual Colonial Cup and Coker was so impressed, he agreed to go all in with them and brew their beer on his commercial system and then submit it to the Great American Beer Festival Pro-Am competition. On the surface this might not seem super exciting, but it's a veritable dream come true for a homebrewer with higher aspirations. It's a chance to prove that a hobby and a passion can be a career.
Meanwhile, at Frothy Beard, three other Lowcountry Libation members — David Holaday, Edward Marquardt and Chris Wessel — are getting a similar opportunity. After Holiday's Thunder!, a black IPA, took silver at the same 2016 Colonial Cup, Frothy Beard took a chance on the brewing pards and is brewing their beer for the GABF Pro-Am Competition as well.
"To have this opportunity is absolutely amazing," says Holiday, a middle school teacher by day and avid homebrewer by night. "It's been humbling, exciting, and slightly nerve-racking knowing that this beer will be judged in Denver at the Pro-Am."
But going from a 5-10 gallon batch to a 5-10 barrel system is no simple task for these amateur brewers. Adding to the challenge is the fact that homebrewers usually operate with an eclectic hodge-podge of professionally designed equipment supplemented with their own self fashioned gear and you have a logistical pickle. Recipes need recalculation to be brewed on a larger system to hit the same specs and flavor profile. All that is crucial for the Revelry and Octohops guys as well as Holiday, Marquardt, and Wessel brewing at Frothy Beard, especially considering that the GABF is the most prestigious beer competition in the US. "It's the most scrutinizing competition I've been in," says Coker. Judging the beers is a group of esteemed industry folks and certified Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) judges and the stakes are high. Only 96 entries are accepted to the Pro-Am of various styles.
GABF takes place at the front end of October. So, they'll have to sweat it out until then, but as Coker said on brew day, "two heads are better than one." Collaborations like this give brewers, who have developed their own brewing technique, an opportunity to meld philosophies that can equal a result greater than the sum of its parts. And for the up-and-coming homebrewer, it's even better. Hanna says that brewing a twice validated recipe on a commercial scale could be a spring board for his own possible venture.
"Our motivation is to get a local perspective of our beer and get validation for a commercial venture of our own. We would also love to bring home a gold medal though," says Hanna. That feat, while difficult, is not entirely impossible. Though not a homebrewing partnership, in 2014 Holy City brought home a bronze medal for their Washout Wheat.
For Coker the opportunity to add entries to the competition is also a driving force. "From a selfish standpoint I get an extra entry," says Coker. The rules of the competition only allow each brewery location to submit five beers per year. What that means on a grand scale is that if your brewery/brewpub has multiple breweries you can flood a competition with entries. Sometimes beers will even be entered into multiple categories to increase the chances of coming home with some hardware.
But hardware or not, the brewing process is still a win/win situation — the amateurs are excited about brewing on professional systems and receiving professional feedback. The pros are excited about learning more through the collaborative process and having another shot at a medal.
In a way homebrewers are like college basketball players. They all dream of one day going pro. The path is certainly not an easy one and credibility is hard to establish. Praise from well-meaning friends and family can bolster confidence early on, but when things become more serious, professional critique goes a long way. This fall, a handful of local brewers are getting a shot at the big leagues.