2015 NHC First Round Results

Every year I enter the biggest beer competition in the world, the National Homebrew Competition hosted by the American Homebrewers Association. The NHC is a two-stage competition where the top three beers in each BJCP category from each of the twelve regional centers move on to compete in the final round, hosted annually at the National Homebrewers Conference. With twelve centers taking approximately 750 entries each, this is easily the most competitive brewing competition in the world.


Every year, the AHA surveys its members and then sets a individual entry cap based on the level of interest. This year, that cap was set at five beers.

With the cap in place, I selected five beers which I thought had the best shot and sent them to the NYC regional center for judging:

For a variety of reasons (flight order, judge fatigue, judge bias, cellaring errors, etc.) there can be some variability with judging. Because of this, I generally feel really good when I’m able to place half my beers in a competition of this size. All in all, I’m pretty happy pushing two beers on to the next round. Although I slightly missed the high bar I set each year, I am reassured knowing that all the beers with exception of one scored quite well.

The outlier in the group was my Vienna Lager which was dinged quite hard for the perceived presence of diacetyl by one of the judges scoring the beer, and for being too ‘big’ by the other. I am personally very sensitive to diacetyl, and this illustrates how judges can sometimes confuse certain beer flavors (in this case, a light touch of caramel) with off-flavors (like diacetyl), particularly in a lager category where judges often search for off-flavors. Other than this scoresheet, the judging was quite good. My only other complaint would be that the bock category did not have any BJCP judges scoring the category.

For the curious, I’ve posted my scoresheets here. With some luck, I’ll be shaking Charlie Papazian’s hand during the awards ceremony at the National Conference.

Cochon 555 Comes to NYC

Finding a foodie that is into pork is kind of like spotting a pair of skinny jeans in Williamsburg. Both can exist without the other, but when coupled, an easy synergy arises. It’s natural and comfortable. The popular ramblings of foodie gurus like Bourdain and Chang have placed the pig on a pedestal—and spawned more than a handful of pig-related tattoos. In spite of all that, I must admit that I, too, have consumed the pork-flavored Kool-Aid. Case in point, the plethora of pork posts I’ve written over the past year. It’s becoming a bit of a ‘thing’ for me so deciding whether or not to attend the pork-centric Cochon 555 was a no-brainer.


Participating Chefs (L-R): Frank Langello (Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca), Michael Toscano (Perla), Lauren Hirschberg (Craftbar), Seamus Mullen (Tertulia), and David Standridge (Market Table)

What is Cochon 555?

Cochon 555’s website bills itself as:

A one-of-a-kind traveling culinary competition and tasting event – five chefs, five pigs, five winemakers – to promote sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs.

Promote is the key word and their approach isn’t all that different from what you’d see from a music label promoting the next big thing. Just substitute “rock star” with “rock star chef.” Promoting sustainable farming is a lofty goal, but a bit of a red herring in this case. At the end of the day, this is a for-profit venture with a steep price. This event is really about promoting some kick-ass restaurants and other delicious products (while making a buck) by giving attendees the opportunity to try high-end food and drink and experiment with their own pairings all within a convivial festival format. Appreciating both parts of the equation sets the table for a good time.

What Worked

Walking into the space, there was an energy in the air. You could tell that people were excited to be there. While the floor was very crowded, there was a precious handful of standing tables and small, out-of-the-way niches where you could stow away and focus on the star of the event. The restaurants on display were well-chosen and diverse, offering a spectrum of food and a variety of styles. The flow of the evening was smooth — differing from other festivals by offering a variety of scheduled events throughout the evening, keeping things fresh.


Why yes, they did butcher an entire pig on the festival floor. The cuts were then individually auctioned off to benefit the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). There was something kinda bad-ass watching Sara Bigelow from The Meathook methodically break down an entire pig.

What Didn’t Work

Criticism is an important part of my writing and Cochon 555 left me with a number of critiques. I don’t like to dwell on the negatives, but when people are spending $125 for a general admission ticket ($200 for a VIP ticket), the bar is raised and things should be near flawless.

First off, it was crowded. Fighting your way through a sea of people only to be greeted by another wait to get food was a big letdown. I understand the need for a swanky event to have an equally swanky venue (Cochon 555 NYC was hosted at the Ritz-Carlton). Perhaps moving to a less expensive and more spacious venue would improve this without taking anything away from the event’s reputation. Even more disappointing is coming to a table with no food. Service for the majority of restaurants ended early — running out of food at an event of this caliber is unacceptable. Additionally, of the menus posted by each restaurant, I was only able to try about half of the dishes listed.

The majority of the pork dishes I tasted left me, quite frankly, a bit underwhelmed. The number of outrageously salty dishes was astonishing. Nearly all the pork felt overly fussy, complicated, and intense (and not always in a good way). I understand the urge to migrate towards bold flavors, but much of the food sacrificed nuance in the name of extremity. The pornographic amounts of truffle being thrown about was not only excessive, but felt somewhat desperate. In the end, two of my three favorite bites were swine-free.

What I was Looking For

Criticism aside, coming into this event, I had a clear vision of what I wanted to get out of it. Most of the culinary world (including this event) is enamored with pairing food and wine, and rightfully so. It’s easy. Wine’s typically dry nature, acidity, and tannic content make pairing it with food easy. A bit more challenging, and equally rewarding, is pairing food and beer. I’ve always thought that the diversity within beer style taxonomy offers an amazing spectrum of pairing opportunities. Goose Island’s choice to prominently sponsor a food event that mentions ‘wine’ in it’s tagline (and not beer) seemed a bit idiosyncratic. Talking with their representatives and learning about their goal of promoting beer and food helped resolve this seemingly odd match of brand and event.

Over the course of the evening, I ate and drank in a manner that would cause Elvis to blush. At the end of the night, three pairings stuck in my mind.

Pairing #1: Beef Tartare with Lolita


Rib Eye Tartare with Truffle on Pork Cracklin’ from Del Posto – Paired with Lolita. My first bite of the night, and one of the best. The aged rib eye tartare had a sweetness and subtle fruitiness that was complementary to the sour (but not puckering) Lolita. Lolita has a big ripe raspberry nose with a mildly earthy component that worked really well with the truffle. Putting the tartare on a crispy pork cracklin’ was an excellent textural counterpoint to the beef.

Pairing #2: Pork Paella with Matilda


Paella de Cerdo From Tertulia – Paired with Matilda. Yes, this was an intensely salty dish. Somehow though, the intensely salty pork worked with the nice char on the outside of the meat, and was kept in reign when paired with Matilda. The best thing about Matilda is that it features a pleasant Belgian yeast profile while retaining a nice round body and malt component. The maillard-heavy toasted malt flavors worked really well with the charred pork. The pork was quite fatty and decadent, which the effervescent nature of Matilda cleaned up with ease. The almost dirty-rice-esque ‘paella’ was loaded with bits of organ meat giving it a mineral-rich character that worked well with the peppery yeast character in the beer. A touch more dryness in the beer would have made the pairing even better.

Pairing #3: Duck Charcuterie with Sofie


Duck Charcuterie (Torchone de Foie Gras, Rillete, Salami, Smoked Breast)  from Hudson Valley Foie Gras – Paired with Sofie. I have a soft spot for duck, especially duck charcuterie. The products offered up from Hudson Valley Foie Gras were top notch and I especially enjoyed the Foie Gras. Smeared on a simple slice of baguette and washed down with Sofie, the pairing was divine. Sofie, with it’s somewhat austere dryness and prickly carbonation, cut through the fatty foie like a knife, daring you to consume another bite. The earthy and luscious liver worked extremely well with the slightly fruity and somewhat peppery yeast character in the beer. The malt in Sophie is minimal, but has a subtle pilsner malt sweetness that complemented the inherent sweetness in the foie without dominating it.

Cheers to Goose Island

I would be remiss to not thank Goose Island for the complementary media badges they offered my wife and I enabling us to attend the event. Goose Island has taken a lot of flack in the past couple years after they were purchased by AB InBev. I tend to withhold judegment to their beer and their actions. The beers they brought to the event were well made and tasty. Equally as impressive was what appeared to be a genuine want to elevate food and beer pairings to the point that they are on par with wine in the culinary circles.

I would be remiss to not thank Goose Island for the complimentary media badges they offered my wife and myself allowing us to attend the event. Goose Island has taken a lot of flack in the past couple of years following their purchase by AB InBev. I tend to limit my judgment to their beer and their actions in regard to their customers and brewing peers. The beers they brought to the event were well-made and tasty. Equally as impressive was what appeared to be a genuine eagerness to elevate food and beer pairings to the point that they are on par with wine in the culinary circles.

Multi-knife hip holster, one super-enthusiastic dude, and a Colicchio photo bomb all in one photo.

A multi-knife hip-holstered butcher, a dude really digging said butchery, and a Tom Colicchio cameo all in one. Photo by Jessie Quan.

Gratuitous food porn outtakes.

The Village Voice’s Holiday Spirits Tasting Event

Outside of bourbon, I’m a neophyte when it comes to the world of distilled spirits. With that in mind, I jumped at the opportunity to attend this Thursday’s Village Voice Holiday Spirits tasting event. This event is a great opportunity to try a spectrum of spirits (31 at last count), listen to some live music, and nosh on a sampling of hors d’oeuvres. The tasting will be held December 5th from 7:30-10:30pm at Studio Square in Long Island City. Tickets are still available and can be purchased here. Make sure to enter the coupon code THANKS for 50% off general admission prices.


National Homebrew Conference – Philadelphia 2013 Recap

Brewing up a RevolutionFree flowing beer, seminars given by people whose beer knowledge dwarfs my own, camaraderie with fellow beer geeks, and the chance to mingle with the pseudo-celebrities of our niche hobby are just a few things that awaited those who headed to Philadelphia for the 2013 National Homebrewers Conference. The conference has made a habit of being in my back yard two years in a row now, so making the trip to Philly was an easy decision. This was my second NHC, and from my limited experience, I’d say this is one show you don’t want to miss.


Each day of NHC offers between 3 and 5 separate seminar sessions to go to and learn about a variety of topics. Frankly, the seminars vary wildly in quality. Without sounding too much like a douche asshole, many of the presentations are either geared towards very basic topics, or presented by those that can’t seem to effectively present the thoughts in their heads. Since there are multiple seminars happening during each time slot, you have to make some educated guesses when picking which to attend. My strategy was to look at the credentials of the presenter first and choose seminars that seemed like they had a good chance of not sucking. My advice to the AHA would be to somehow pre-qualify their speakers. Additionally they could offer different seminar tracks based on a brewer’s level of knowledge or particular interests. Seminars are an opportunity to present new research or otherwise interesting information within the broad spectrum of topics that brewing embodies; unfortunately this is rarely the case. I’ll briefly run through each seminar I went to in a minimal fashion. If you’re an AHA member you can delve into each with more care, by (someday) downloading the presentations off the AHA website.

Process Improvement and Beer Enhancement: The Nano Experience – Andy Tveekrem
I was really hoping this seminar would discuss the trials and tribulations of operating a nano-brewery and challenges of process and quality control brewing on a small scale presents. Instead we got a brief overview of the speaker’s background and then a rundown on the basics of homebrewing. Not really worth the time unless you’re completely new to homebrewing and don’t know the basics of things like sanitation, yeast management, etc.

Methods of Maintaining a Wild House Culture – Kyle Kohlmorgen
The information that was presented was far too basic. I was expecting a talk about plating and isolating cultures, selecting for strains with positive brewing attributes, maintaining them in cold storage, and then propagating and blending to create new and interesting fermentations…or at the very least a talk about building and creating a consistent house culture.

Blame the Maltster: An Overview of Malting Operations and How They Influence Beer – John Mallett (Bell’s Brewery)
John presented a balanced in insightful talk about the decisions a maltster must make during the malting process and the balancing act that is required in order to create the best end product. A fair amount of the seminar was spent discussing malt analysis sheets. Hearing the perspective a large brewer brings to developing their malt specification and analyzing the specifications they actually receive was pretty interesting.

Because Not Every Beer is Stone Enjoy By IPA: Preserving Hop Aroma – Stan Hieronymus
While this seminar was mainly an overview of topics covered in detail within Stan’s hop book, his seminar did get the wheels in my heading turning on the topic of the bio-transformation of hop oils during the fermentation process. It is kind of mind-boggling that two different hop oils can be present pre-fermentation and be transformed into completely different compounds via yeast metabolism.

The Science of Beer Flavor – Roger Barth
A great speaker (with a PHD) presented what is happening on a neural level when we are experiencing the taste and flavor of beer. Well presented, humorous, and definitely worth revisiting.

Cider Revolution: How to Brew Great Cider from Everyday Ingredients – Christian Banker
Really dull, and somewhat insulting to those who spend a lot of time making ciders and blending apple varietals in order to create the end product they envision. Not really any new or interesting information.

Alternative Wood Aging Techniques – John Gasparine
One of the top three seminars. The speaker is not a professional brewer, but does consulting for those looking to add interesting, and unconventional wood flavors to their beers.

Brewing Chemistry 101: pH and Buffering – Bob Hall
This seminar managed to take water chemistry as it relates to mash pH and make it very clear and easy to understand. If you’ve been boggled by the nuances of mash chemistry, this seminar presents a fairly complex topic in a brief and easy to understand manner.

Step up Your Starters: Insight into Yeast Propagation for Homebrewers – Kai Troester
While there weren’t any earth-shattering new ideas presented in this seminar, watching Kai and getting a better understanding of the methodologies he uses was a joy. Kai is the mad scientist of homebrewers; any information he presents is always welcome.

Current Techniques and Recent Developments for Brewing Great IPAs – Mitch Steele (Stone Brewing)
The biggest idea and realization made in this presentation was that popular breweries who make great hoppy beers (like Stone) are often blending in portions of hops most homebrewers typically wouldn’t use in an American IPA as a way to add complexity and accentuate the beer’s hop profile. Hearing Mitch call Sterling one of his favorite hops was pretty eye-opening and makes me consider a lot of hop varietals I would have previously written off.

Hops vs Malt: A Smackdown with Cheese – Janet Fletcher

What can I say? Great beer is nice with great cheese.

What can I say? Great beer and cheese is a no-brainer.

­­Hospitality Suite and Trade Show

Tricked out stealth-bomber-like brewing rig by Brew Station.

Tricked out stealth-bomber-like brewing rig by Brew Station.

The hospitality sweet was great this year. While perhaps one in every five beers I sampled featured some sort of off-flavor, in general the beers were quite good. It was a lot of fun grabbing a homebrew and walking around the exhibition floor to check out all of the cool gadgetry. Blichmann in particular had some cool new products, including a stainless steel RIMS coil that plugs into their hop rocket shell and works with their controllers. There was also a company called Brew Station building some incredibly tricked out stainless rigs. Jess Caudill and Greg Doss were omnipresent at that Wyeast booth to answer your yeast questions. And of course, Sabco had their rigs setup at the show giving me an idea of what my homebrewery would look like should I win the lottery.

The ‘Big’ Events – Pro Night and Club Night

Opening Toast at Club Night

Opening Toast at Pro Night. No idea what was said, but fun none-the-less!

Pro-Night was a blast, although somewhat forgettable aside from Lagunitas having a fitting blow on one of their kegs sending a beer geyser 20 feet into the air. Don’t get me wrong, the pro-beer was great, but that really isn’t what NHC is about. That honor of course is reserved for Club Night, where the true creativity and skill of homebrewers is put on display. There were some phenomenal booths with unique designs and smart draft setups. Theatrics aside, it is really about the beer. There will always be dumpers when you’re sampling this quantity of homebrews, but in general the quality was very high. I was especially impressed by the large number of outstanding sour beers. This has to be the biggest trend that I noticed this year, along with the large variety of outstanding meads and ciders that were available. I was able to sample a lot of beers from a ton of different clubs and had a great time. If I had to choose one club that absolutely knocked it out of the park, it would be the Woodbridge Homebrewers Ale and Lager Enthusiast Society. Their booth was simple, but everything I sampled from them was outstanding, including some insane iced ciders.

New York City Homebrewers Club Booth

New York City Homebrewers Club Booth – The club that has taken in this lost West Coaster.

Club Night

Whatever the topic of conversation was, you know it was awesome.

Club Night

The wives of C.R.A.B.S. club members serving up some great beer.

Club Night

5 Santas, a Penguin, and an Excited NYCHG Club Member

Steam Punk Inspired Draft Setup

Steam Punk Inspired Draft Setup

Grand Banquet & Awards Ceremony

No homebrew competition awards ceremony has the energy present at NHC. It was a ton of fun watching the winners of the National Homebrew Competition collect their hardware. I didn’t enter this year, but knowing first-hand how much fun going up on stage to collect your medal is, fueled my excitement for those I was watching. Charlie Papazian was noticeably missing from the ceremony; hopefully he’ll be back next year.

The banquet food kinda sucked, and furthered my perplexity as to why people give so much praise for Sean Paxton’s (The Homebrewed Chef) meals. I’ve had three now, and all have been mediocre. I don’t expect much from banquet meals such as this, but it was pretty bad.

The Commemorative Beers

He never had a chance...

He never had a chance…

Boom goes the can! Seriously. Numerous cans of Round Guys Brewing’s – Cluster’s Last Stand commemorative beer literally exploded. Some faired a bit better only becoming rock hard and over-carbonated. One can I saw had its concave bottom popped out like a pregnant woman’s belly button — that’s a lot of pressure. I can’t help but chuckle at the irony that the  commemorative beer given out by the AHA was infected and produced can bombs. Over carbonation aside, the flavor was a bit butyric and phenolic (plastic) affirming the suspicion of infection. The other beer given out, a rye saison by Sly Fox, was better received and pretty tasty.

Next Year…NHC 2014

Next year the NHC circus travels to Grand Rapid, MI… also known as the hometown of Founders Brewing company, and apparently a lot of great homebrewers. Yes, Michigan is in the middle part of the country, but don’t hold it against them; they make outstanding beers. I for one am completely stoked to travel their next year and do it all over again!

The Best of 2012 (According to this Guy)

This time of the year is awash in bloggers writing about the best things they discovered over the previous year. While somewhat self-indulgent (yes, I’ll admit it), it’s a fun way to look back over the course of the previous year, reflect upon what you have done, and really think about the moments that wowed you.

2012 was a banner year of sorts. It was my first time attending the National Homebrewers Conference, I moved across the country from Seattle to Brooklyn, and I started this blog. Plenty of memories were made and many more were fuzzied by delicious beers.

Without further adieu, my…

Best Beer Fest: Cask Beer Fest, Seattle, WA
I attended seven beer festivals this year including the biggest one in the country, GABF. There are huge differences between the fests I’ve attended in Seattle and those held in Brooklyn. In Seattle, the booths are staffed with brewery representatives who strive to bring interesting and seasonal beers; something I’ve found lacking so far with NYC events. The epitome of this was Cask Fest held last March at Seattle Center. The venue is great, the brewers brought an excellent variety of cask ales, and the crowd was friendly and enthusiastic. It was easily my favorite fest of 2012. Hopefully in 2013 I’ll discover some east coast fests striving for equally high standards.

Best Session Beer: Happy Hops, Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, CA
At 5.5% ABV this hoppy pale ale pushes the limit of what some would consider to be sessionable. I tend to disagree since for me, the biggest key to making a session beer is keeping the beer light enough to consume in quantity while maintaining enough depth of flavor to keep you going back. Happy Hops is layered with many levels of hop flavor and aroma making it a beer that continues to evolve as you drink. The malt is crisp and slightly toasty, but has very little caramel or sweet malt flavors which tend to become heavy.

Best Brewpub Experience: Ladyface Ale Companie, Agoura Hills, CA
Classy decor, friendly staff, and a wide variety of delicious beers made for a great time at Ladyface. The only downside was their strip mall location.

Most Memorable Beer: Selinsgrove Barrel Aged Wee Heavy, Selinsgrove, PA
Like manna from heaven, this beer was placed in front of me on the last day of my cross-country brewery tour. I tried many, many beers on this road trip; this beer stands heads above the others. It was complex, slightly smoky, full bodied and creamy, and had tons of vanilla. Perhaps I have a soft-spot for scotch ales placed into barrels, but this beer was absolutely marvelous.

HGSP Booth at NHC

HGSP Booth at NHC

Best Event: The National Homebrewers Conference, Seattle, WA
Yes, it was pretty awesome winning a Gold Medal in the National Homebrew Conference. Even better, however, were the great friendships that were solidified, new friends that were made, and information that was learned. I am especially proud of the awesome booth the Homebrewers Guild of Seattle Proper built and the amazing job we did serving really good beers.

Top 5 Beers (Since Arriving on the East Coast)
There were so many outstanding beers made in 2012 that it is tough to narrow it down to 5. In order to make my task easier, here are the top 5 I’ve had since relocating to Brooklyn. The East Coast and Brooklyn, in particular, gets distribution of some really awesome beers I previously didn’t have access to. This list is quite evocative of my taste for hoppy or barrel aged beers.

  1. Founders Backwoods Bastard
  2. Troegs Perpetual IPA
  3. Ithaca Flower Power
  4. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
  5. Founders Breakfast Stout

In 2013, I look forward to brewing again and writing about the expolits here–hopefully in a more steady fashion. Here’s hoping that 2013 is as good, or even better, for all of you!