After spending the last few millennia in aggressive pursuit of leisure and convenience, mankind—by which I mean a vocal minority of reasonably well-off people who are bloggers or my friends—has started voluntarily emulating a dirtier, more troublesome era when we had to make things for ourselves.
Time was, if you wanted a rope or a bike or a pickle, it was easier and cheaper to just make your own rather than hunt down and negotiate with someone who made those things for a living. Those days are long gone. Now a lot of people produce shit not out of necessity or thrift, but instead as a hobby. This is blatantly disrespectful of human evolution, but even my fellow progress-embracers do it sometimes.
Sometimes I do it! Last fall I made apple-habanero hot sauce, which was delicious, and I'm quite proud of myself; I can't believe it took me this long to mention it, and maybe I'll send you some from the next batch. However: The world is already filthy with perfect hot sauces that could have been acquired for much less time, money, and pain. But I dunno, sometimes it feels good to make your own stuff. That's ridiculous, but here we are.
The cooking of real food (not hot sauce) generally falls outside of this hobbyist classification, because it can be cheaper and healthier to make your own meals, and it's arguably more convenient, too. I'm not talking about instances in which we get tangible benefits out of doing it ourselves. I make flavored vodka because it's much better than the commercial versions, and I make my own pizza because I'm not always looking for one of the cheese-besieged saturated-fatzzas that dominate the open market.
Where does home-brewing beer fit into this equation? I've never done it myself, but all evidence suggests that making your own beer is a couple miles beyond homemade hot sauce on the "Wow, your life must be really, really easy if you intentionally erect this kind of hurdle for yourself, huh?" scale. But ever since Jimmy Carter legalized DIY brewski in 1979, many thousands of otherwise normal people have decided to overcomplicate the chore of grabbing a six-pack after work, and the world's a much better place for it.
The majority of professional brewers start out messing around in their garage, and while that doesn't mean your own Meatball Double Bock or Smoked Yogurt IPA is ever going to make you a dime, it does mean that an aspiring brewer has a pretty accessible first step. And if you get good at it, you can enter your beer in the Samuel Adams Longshot American Homebrew Contest.
They've been running this every year since 2006 (plus 1996 and 1997), and I recently tried the reigning champions from the class of 2013. The brewery picks the two best from among the at-large entrants, who join the champion of the in-house employees' contest in a mixed 6-pack that features their photos and names on the label. Pretty cool! Let's dissect.
Gratzer by Cesar Marron, 4.4 percent ABV
So it turns out gratzer is a kind of Polish smoked-wheat beer. How strange. But good! At least in this case. The smoke is very present but not overwhelming, allowing a slightly creamy lemon edge and the spicy Saaz hops to show through. This is a weird one, no doubt, but it avoids the most common pitfall of smoked beers: It doesn't taste like a campfire. If you're open to the idea of a smoked wheat beer, then you're going to like this. If you're not open to the idea, come on, live a little. Take a sip, say, "Huh, interesting," and make chili with the rest.
Pineapple IPA by Samuel Adams employee Teresa Bury, 6 percent ABV
It's pretty bold to enter an IPA in a homebrew contest, even an adulterated one. Whereas I'm ready to proclaim Cesar Marron the undisputed (by me) champion of American gratzer, I don't know that a homebrew contest winner is going to make me say, "Well, I can get Ballast Point Sculpin at the gas station for $11, but no, this thing from this lady's guest bedroom is better." But then, it's bold enough for a woman to enter a homebrew contest to begin with. It's a pretty dude-centric industry/hobby, and often to the point of hostility.
Samuel Adams employs this woman and named her the winner of their contest, so obviously the news for female beerists ain't all bad, but still. Beer writer Heather Vandenengel has some interesting thoughts about how women are socialized to seek perfection and therefore aren't always comfortable tinkering around and waiting to get good at things like home-brewing. She compares it to the environment for girls starting out in music in that it requires public failure in front of a judgmental audience.
It reminds me of skateboarding: You know how the only good thing about teenage boys is that they provide endless entertainment by consistently failing to land their skateboard tricks in front of the post office? Seriously, what's the conversation rate on any trick other than "go straight at a moderate pace without falling"? Like 10 percent? Yet teen boys are just out there flailing away, secure in their knowledge that they are totally awesome no matter what. Well, it requires a bit of the same cockiness to announce to your friends, "Hey, I fermented some shit in my closet. Wanna ingest it and see what happens?"
As for Ms. Bury's beer: I like pineapples and I like IPAs, and I respect what this beer was going for, but I found it to be too sweet. The sweetness was admirably two-toned, as there was strong caramel malt note underneath the wave of pineapple, but there wasn't enough bitterness to take the edge off. I respect the decision to attempt a harmonious resolution of bitter-and-sweet without resorting to overhopping, though. This beer is certainly drinkable, because it's not just a mountain of hops thrown at a vat of pineapple juice, so there's no need to turn it into weird chili.
As with the gratzer, this is worth a shot if it sounds like something you'd be into, but if your first reaction is "I dunno, that could be pretty sweet for my liking," then yeah, that was my experience.
American Stout by Russ Brunner, 7.2% ABV
Hot dang, Russ, you made one of the best stouts I've had all year. It's tough to differentiate a stout without resorting to some kind of flavor trickeration, but this is just a straight-ahead ass-kicker. It tastes like roasted coffee and dark chocolate and all that typical stout stuff, plus some dark fruit and a pronounced hit of hops on the finish (hops being the Americanizing agent in an American Stout). Sam Adams said all three of these beers are winners, and sure, I can see that, but I hereby declare Mr. Brunner's American Stout to be the winningest.