Chemists, Hacks, and Homebrew Competitions

Seems there are two basic camps among homebrew enthusiasts; those who go nuts for exactness and quality, and those who are just plain nuts.  For lack of dictionary definitions, I call the latter “hacks” and the former, “chemists.”

Oh sure there are no absolutes, and there’s plenty of grey area in between.  But at heart you’ve got chemists and hacks, and deep down every homebrewer is one or the other.

The chemist knows his or her stuff. They can recite the pH of their water, and adjust it by tenths if necessary.  They calculate their strike water without punching numbers into an app, and probably tell you how many active cells are in the yeast culture they’re preparing to pitch.  In short they go by the book, with focus, intelligence, and forethought.

The hack is the ying to the chemist’s yang.  They take whatever comes out of the tap, and never met an ingredient they wouldn’t try…don’t throw out those Rice Krispies!  Sanitizing is boring, pitch rates are guesswork. At worst they forget the thermometer, at best they hit within five degrees.

Personally?  I’m firmly encamped with the hacks.  They might even nominate me for chairman.  As a child I had a deluxe chemistry set, and yes I followed the various instructions — about halfway.  In the end everything either smelled awful or gushed over or both, although there were rare, fleeting glimpses of beauty and brilliance.  As an adult I traded it in for beermaking…same results.

So it was with much surprise and excitement that I agreed to do a taste test for a trio of homebrews from a known and highly regarded homebrew chemist.  Not only a homebrew chemist, but a real chemist in real life.   The conversation went something like this:

“I told him you know a lot about beer”


“I also told him you’re doing homebrew.  He’s anxious to hear what you think…”

Does he know that I’m a hack?

“What? He wants to get some opinions before he enters them in a competition.”

At this point I realized I should just shut up lest I lose the opportunity to try some free beer from a talented homebrewer.  So I commenced to tasting, and here’s what we got.

First Up:  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The note said simply, blonde ale. You know, lawnmower beer.  Expectations were low.   Upon tasting, however, let’s say I fell in love.  I’m guessing her name was Vienna or Carapils? Maybe Maris.  She was just right in the malt forward department, perfectly carbed, and light on her feet.  Little did I know a blonde could make me swoon, but she did.

Putting on my judges’ hat, probably the best blonde ale I’ve ever tasted.  At first I thought it had a hint of adjunct — if so it was done with a light touch and well done — but ultimately I concluded it was more a reflection of the malt bill.

Only fly in the ointment was that it was cloudy in the glass.  This I’m sure of; if there’s one thing I know about homebrewing it’s how to make cloudy beer!  It wasn’t nearly as opaque as my efforts, perhaps just a chill haze, not certain.  Curious what the judges will think of that.

Second: Pale Ale

Pale ale. Meh. Is it possible to get excited about pale ale?



For beerfans, pale ale is a go-to beer, a daily drinker, a regular ol’ beer.  It’s what you drink when the beer you’re drinking isn’t the focal point of what you’re doing.  Fishing from a row boat? Pale ale.  Grilling chicken?  Pale ale.  Watching NASCAR?  Pale ale. Watching a presidential debate?  Pale ale and three shots of rye.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed, and then I poured the beer.

If a beer can win a competition solely on appearance, this one takes the prize: Liquid coppery gold with a beautiful rich hue, yet ultra-clear.  If I made this beer I would brag about it shamelessly, and I would just pour it and stare at it.

Tasting?  Yep, it’s pale ale.  Maybe textbook pale ale, as in perfect (damn chemists) although perhaps could benefit from a slightly heavier hand with the hops.  Reminded me of a British style pale, seems to have some crystal 40 or carawhatever in the malt bill.  Tasty and nice, this is a beer you can enjoy with a good conversation.

Third Up:  The Redhead

A wise old gentleman once said to me, “March weather is like a red headed woman, you never know what she’s gonna do.”   If ever a style of beer imitates life, red ale is it.  What is a red or amber ale supposed to taste like?  Switchback? Fat Tire? Coronado Mermaid?  Fort Collins Red Banshee?  Each stirs different feelings, evokes different taste memories.

This beer had the malt and hops in perfect proportions — again, damn those chemists.  Just as I thought I was getting a handle on the malt, an ever-so-slight hop bitterness cleared it out.  She just kept me guessing, as redheads are wont to do.

Not sure how you’d beat this beer.

Judgement Awaits

Next step is to compare my findings with the pros.  We’ll get some feedback from the competition, and update this blog in the future with an appropriate link.

As for the homebrew style, I questioned myself after the tasting.  Seeing how the other half lives, perhaps it is time to embrace a little more chemistry and a little less hack.