Ben Miller sent five separate entries to the Sam Adams LongShot competition, each of them brewed in a kit he built himself (including a keg with its top sawed off). Miller took great pains to package the beer, enveloping individual bottles in bubble wrap and then in a Ziploc bag. If postal workers noticed a leak, they would trash the entire package.
Miller repairs computers at Sandia National Laboratories. By night, he brews beer from his garage in Rio Rancho. He was too intimidated to enter the LongShot competition before this year; when he finally signed up, he didn't think he had a chance among the 1,500 entries the contest drew. But one day he received a voicemail from a Massachusetts number. “As soon as I heard, ‘Hi Ben. This is Katie from the Boston Beer Company,’ I just went, ‘Oh no. What happened?’ ” Miller chuckles.
Sam Adams had selected Miller’s Barleywine as a finalist in the LongShot.
September ushered in the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. On the final day, winners of the GABF competitions were announced, as were the results of the Sam Adams homebrew contest. Miller emerged a LongShot victor, and in April 2010, his winning beer will be in stores nationwide.
Not only did Miller come away with that honor, he was awarded another highly coveted prize for an IPA he’d concocted—the gold medal in the festival’s Pro-Am challenge. Pro-Am, short for "professional amateur," is a way to include homebrewers in a competition that's primarily for professional breweries.
The GABF boasts the most beer entries of any competition in the world and draws beer lovers from all over. This year, the festival flew in 132 judges from 10 different countries. For three days the Denver Convention Center echoed with the ceaseless clamor of attendants lining up to get their one-ounce tasters filled and filled again.
“You can go really far into the scientific end, with microbiology. On the flip side, you can be as creative as a chef, almost, with designing your recipes.”
Miller shares the Pro-Am gold medal with professional brewer Jeff Erway of Chama River Brewing Co. Last spring, Miller put up his “Herbal Joe's Columbarillo IPA” against other local beers in the Enchanted Brewing Challenge, and Chama selected it as an IPA the brewery would reproduce. The homebrewer jumped at the chance to collaborate with Erway. Miller hopes to open his own brewpub and is eager to learn everything he can about professional brewing. While the future of the prizewinning IPA is uncertain, Miller says he would be happy to see it on the menu at Chama.
“Winning competitions and all that, that has just been a bonus for me, really,” Miller says.
He’s a self-declared “beer nerd” who’s come across no other hobby that compares to homebrewing. With an equal emphasis on creativity and science, brewing provides an outlet for his appetite for discovery. “You can go really far into the scientific end, with microbiology,” Miller says. “On the flip side, you can be as creative as a chef, almost, with designing your recipes.” He says the simple experience of sharing beers with friends is just as rewarding as winning blue ribbons.
Miller began entering contests to gain insight into what he saw as shortcomings in his brews. “I would taste a batch and say, OK. It tastes pretty good, but there’s this flavor that I don’t like.” Scorecards that came back helped him pinpoint the off-flavors. Of course, it didn't hurt that in his second meeting at the Dukes of Ale homebrewing group, he won both first and third place in a club competition.
Most of the people he's met who are successful have been at it 10 or so years, he says. Miller started only two years ago. “I really caught the bug really quick."
Miller brews at least once or twice a week. His salary and a home-refinance have provided sufficient backing to dive headfirst into his passion. The costs of brewing can add up quickly, he warns, especially if you go as “crazy” as he has. He’s already invested thousands of dollars on equipment and ingredients.
“I have two chest freezers, and I can store 22 five-gallon kegs.”
Miller admits that he can’t name all the beers stocked in his home. “I have two chest freezers, and I can store 22 five-gallon kegs.” He tries to get as much of his homebrew as possible into friends’ glasses, but sometimes he resorts to dumping them in order to clear space.
And he can't foresee slowing down anytime soon. Even though he won a gold medal for his IPA, he feels it’s a style he is still perfecting. “I really love playing around with blending hops,” he says, “and there’s no end to that.” Miller’s ready to have a go at more styles of beer. At GABF Miller met another brewer who gave him some pointers for making coffee beers. He’s also willing to try brewing a green chile beer, moving past overwhelming flavors he’s experienced before. “It’s so easy to overspice the beer,” Miller explains. “The key to any beer is balance.”
Each brew requires specialization. Flander’s Red, a Sour Ale of Miller’s, needs aging to bring out puckering notes in the wild yeast and bacteria. “For a year, that one was just sitting there, getting more and more sour,” Miller explains. His other favorites include low-alcohol English beers, which come with their own set of circumstances. Ales like these have a tradition that stretches back to medieval times.
Brewing has long been embraced in Germany, especially. No matter how small, if a town has a hotel, it also usually has a brewery. Will the United States ever embrace craftbrewing to the same degree?
One obstacle Miller sees is the lack of a true U.S. beer culture, which he believes can be attributed somewhat to prohibition. “Whereas Germany and Belgium are true beer cultures,” he says. He listens regularly to podcasts of Graham Sanders—the “CraftBrewer Radio” personality is sometimes named the “father of beer radio”—who argues the United States has no beer culture. Miller would not go so far.
“Things have changed so much for the better just in the past five years,” Miller says. He feels lucky to have gotten into craftbrewing at a moment when it is taking off, both commercially and in private homes. “It’s one thing that hasn’t been hit hard by the economy.”
According to the Samuel Adams creation mythos, in 1984 Boston Beer Company founder Jim Koch was among the few craftbrewers kicking to stay afloat in a stagnant pool dominated by Miller, Coors and Budweiser. That explains the spirit behind the Samuel Adams LongShot competition. It is an attempt to stir the market with fresh ideas. The six pack due out in April will include Miller’s entry, an Old Ale from New Hampshire’s Michael Robinson and the Saison of Jeremy White, who won the employee hombrew contest.
And the beer Sam Adams chose from Miller, a Barleywine, is neither ordinary nor widely appreciated, perhaps because of the great difficulty it poses. Miller says a good Barleywine should be dry and without lingering sweetness. “That’s a really hard thing to do with a beer that high in alcohol,” Miller explains, “because there’s a lot of residual sugar that the yeast can’t consume.”
Sam Adams brewed the contest batch of Miller’s Barleywine using only the information he included with his entry. Still, as part of the prize, Miller will fly out to Boston to collaborate with Sam Adams brewmasters in reproducing his beer for April’s mass distribution.