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Home-brewers' beers hit the big time

April 26, 2012 at 12:04 PM ET

Sam Adams /
These winning home brewers get their beer made and sold nationally by Sam Adams, along with their smiling mugs on the label.

There’s something personal about a home-brewed beer. In the flavor you'll find a brewer's likes and dislikes, their attention to detail, their best effort at making something special with their own hands and know-how. And just like a Pixies song or a Nirvana rip, there's usually a rough edge or two that lets you know this is something crafted by people mustering as much creativity and human precision as possible.

But when a home brew recipe is recreated on a large scale by a professional brewery — is that personal essence still intact? Sam Adams' LongShot home brew competition offers the chance to find out.

Sam Adams calls for submissions from home brewers, judges them, and then brews and ships the winning beers across the country. It’s a home brewer’s dream come true — everybody can get a taste.

This year, three beers made it into the LongShot six-pack; a Dunkel-style lager, an Imperial Stout, and a boozy old-style German Altbier. I was eager to see if their beers still had a homebrewed character, or if the rough edges had been polished off by the pros at Sam Adams.

The first I sampled was the Dunkel (German for dark lager), named A Dark Night in Munich. It was brewed by Corey Martin, a home brewer from Austin, Texas, who has entered the LongShot competition for the past three years.

Sam Adams /
Corey Martin, one of the winners of Sam Adams' LongShot competition, shows off his brewing lab.

“I’ve been trying to make a good Munich Dunkel for a while, but they always had too much roasted malt flavor or weren’t dark enough,” he told me. So he used a trick he saw on The Brewing Network. “They had a pro brewer on that mentioned how he ‘stains’ his black IPA by pulverizing the dark-roasted malts in a coffee grinder and adding them in during the sparge (a process to extract sugar from the grain),” he said. “The ‘staining’ process is what helps give the beer its dark color without the roastiness.”

It’s makes for a unique and tasty approach to the Dunkel style. There’s a caramel sweetness and subtle notes of brown sugar that aren’t overshadowed by the roasted malts used to make a beer this dark. With an ABV of just under 6% and medium to light mouth-feel, this beer won’t bog you down.

But does it taste like Corey's? Corey said Sam Adams nailed the recipe. “It tastes pretty much like the one I have on tap at home right now.” So Corey’s friends can stop bugging him to brew more.

Story: Q&A with Sam Adams 2011 LongShot winners

The next winning beer was brewed by Fred Hessler, a Sam Adams employee who works in the accounting department. Yes, even the accountants brew beer over there! Fred swung for the fences with a big and boozy submission called Derf’s Secret Alt. An “Altbier” (German for “old beer”) is brewed in the centuries-old northern German tradition of using cool fermentation temperatures and cold conditioning. The result is a crisp copper-colored ale that is the only thing you should drink if you ever visit Düsseldorf. Seriously, the stuff is magic.

But Fred's is no ordinary Altbier. “I figured that I could not advance in the competition with a regular Alt,” Fred says. “Thus the Sticke Alt (a stronger style Alt), a style that I have only seen in one commercial beer," he said. "I made it on my back porch one night while my wife was out and the kids were in bed.”

The result is almost irresistible to a malt hound like myself — a rich and bready ale with notes of molasses, caramel, and toffee along with a pretty sizeable kick of booze on the back end. This one checks all of my boxes, and with an ABV of 9.3%, it could kick my butt as well.

The final of the winning trio is Five Crown Imperial Stout, brewed by Joe Formanek, a long-time home brewer from Chicago who has entered the LongShot competition every year since 2006.

He's a grain enthusiast, and likes to cruise the home brew shops looking for new grist for his mill. The difference-maker in Five Crown, he said, is the grains he used. "It’s some of the darker wheat malts, specifically chocolate wheat and caramel wheat malts. I also use oatmeal in all my stouts, which adds to the slickness and richness."

Joe thinks Sam Adams got "pretty darn close" to recreating his brew. "I use a more old-fashioned oatmeal that offers a slightly different taste. There was also a slight difference in the fermentation flavor, maybe from the yeast, but I think Sam did a great job of producing this beer."

It has a complex blend of roastiness, coffee, chocolate and earthy dark fruit, and a noticeably herbal hop finish and a slick mouthfeel. It’s also slightly boozy, which makes sense given its 8.9% ABV.

It’s really cool that Sam Adams, by far America’s largest craft brewer, has dedicated their time and resources to encouraging people to brew their own beer. Are these the best beers I’ve ever had? No. But the six-pack is full of good brews, lots of personality and dreams come true. What tastes better than that?

LongShot six packs hit shelves recently, and can still be found wherever better beers are sold.

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits.

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