The entire homebrew community is on the rise, both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of quality.
If you heard the name “Home Brew League” you might think it was some kind of summer softball showdown or a group of guys playing fantasy football. But for Boyd Culver and Chris Musil, owners of Coldbreak Brewing Equipment in Cedar Springs, the Home Brew League is a revolutionary idea to test the skills and bring together some of the best home beer brewers in Michigan. The inaugural competition they’ve created is a one-of-a-kind brewing challenge that stretches the skill of the participants and has them producing beer that rivals your local microbrew favorites.
“The way we do it, it’s the only one like this in the country,” proclaims Musil. “There’s 32 teams and each division has 8 teams. Each team has 4-6 homebrewers.” Unlike other brewing competitions, all 32 teams submit the same style of beer for each round of the tournament. Culver adds, “There’s homebrew competitions all over the place all the time, but there’s definitely not one like this. There’s 32 teams all brewing the same beer.”
The league’s “season” stretches from the beginning of May through the end of October. Throughout the season, there are seven different events where teams compete with a new variety. The teams who rack up the most wins during the season then move into the “playoffs,” where one set of talented brewers will be crowned the first ever Home Brew League Champion.
This unique setup quickly captured the interests of local brewers who are anxious to see how their beer measures up. “Having these monthly competitions is really helping me refine my palate when I’m drinking a beer and what to look for when I’m creating my recipes. Plus, I’ve been brewing like crazy. It’s keeping me on my toes,” says John Wesorick, a member of a team known as “The Brew-Tang Clan.”
The idea for the Home Brew League came to Boyd and Chris as they were looking to create a fun promotion for their store, Coldbreak Brewing Equipment. They convinced three other local brewing suppliers, Siciliano’s Market, O’Connors Homebrew Supply, and Gravel Bottom Brewery and Supply, to sign on as sponsors. They were overwhelmed when it was time for brewers to sign up. “We didn’t think we were going to fill it up at all, and then it sold out in 24 hours,” said Culver. “The Siciliano’s division sold out in just 8 minutes.”
Although the event has already proven to be a winner for the stores business-wise, Musil explains that it’s not just about creating revenue. “It’s not all about us. It’s about getting everybody together. It’s about the community.” Culver adds, “That’s the cool thing, there’s four stores that are essentially competitors, all joining together for this great event.”
The way the league is organized isn’t the only unique aspect. The Home Brew League is also putting its competitors’ brewing knowledge to the test with some uncommon beer varieties. The first event in May required each team to brew a British Golden Ale. If you’re not sure what that is, you’re not alone. Brewer Rick VandeKopple says he had never even heard of it before. “There’s a lot of reading done online to find out, O.K., what’s this style like? It was all a new experience to try and build this recipe. It’s kind of a cool way to be forced to branch out,” said VandeKopple.
Even the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) judges for the event were entering new territory. “This was a new style for me,” said Jim Halliberger, a judge who volunteered to offer his expertise. “I’ve been judging beers 20 years, and I’ve never seen a competition like this. To do a single style every month for several months…it’s just a really different idea.” The other beer varieties for this season include Scottish Heavy, Dunkles Weissbier, Pre-Prohibition Porter, Marzen, White IPA, and Foreign Extra Stout. “The styles are all something that people usually wouldn’t brew,” Culver explains. “And every month we have one mandatory ingredient, and most of them are Michigan ingredients.”
There are prizes for the winning teams after each event, but the last team standing in December will get to brew 15 barrels of their championship beer at Cedar Springs Brewing Company and have it served on tap. That’s an enviable prize, but some competitors say they’re only doing it for fun and for the expert feedback to help them become better brewers. “We thought it’d be kind of a fun way to take our beer making to the next level,” said Rick VandeKopple. “The judges let me know about a little bit of an off flavor they found, so that helps me get my brewing level up so that I can brew a better beer.” One of those judges, Mark Thomson, believes their feedback and these competitions are doing exactly that. “I expect there to be a lot of good beer. I think overall, the quality has gone way up in the ten years I’ve been tasting home brews,” said Thomson.
Culver and Musil agree that the entire homebrew community is on the rise, both in terms of sheer numbers and in terms of quality. And with the public’s appetite for craft brew rising right along with it, any one of these competitors could become another successful brewing entrepreneur. “The majority of brewers at one point were homebrewers,” claims Culver. “Brewers are like guitar players. We don’t know who the greatest guitar player is to ever hit the big stage, and it’s the same concept with homebrewers. I know a guy who won’t leave his basement who makes the best beer I’ve ever had.”
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