A.J. Zanyk’s Baltic Porter wins Barley’s Homebrew Competition

This past Sunday marked another successful finish to one of Ohio’s longest running beer traditions, the Barley’s Homebrew Competition.  The contest dates back to last century, the summer of 1996 to be specific.  At that time I was still in graduate school in Oregon, drinking the likes of Rogue, Deschutes and Widmer. In those days Amber Ales were still a thing, Columbus was home to a total of three microbreweries (Columbus Brewing Company, Hoster Brewing Company, and Barley’s), Centennial was the new “it” hop, and a small operation in San Diego called Stone Brewing had just opened its doors.

Every year brewmaster Angelo Signorino invites homebrewers to bring their best creations down to the brewpub, where he personally checks in the entries.  He then recruits local brewers (and a few layabouts like me) to volunteer their time to evaluate the field (there were 41 entries this year) and pick a best in show.  The whole thing culminates with an event entitled Afternoon with the Brewers. The winner is announced, a commercially brewed version of previous winner is released, and the taps upstairs at Brewcadia are stacked with an impressive array of local beers.  It’s a great opportunity for brewers and beer lovers of all stripes to mingle over many good pints of beer.

In the age of Untapped, BeerAdvocate, and beer blogs like this one, there are plenty of opportunities for homebrewers to publicly critique commercial brewers, but this is one of the few instances where the shoe is on the other foot.  The winner gets an intimate look at the world of professional brewing, by brewing his or her beer with Angelo on the Barley’s brewing system.  It comes as no surprise that several past winners have gone onto launch their own breweries—Jay Wince (Weasel Boy), Victor Gonzales (Pigskin), Anthony McKeivier and Tony Hill (Two Tones), and Matt Mazur (Three Tigers).

This year’s finalists included Paul Waltermeyer’s Imperial Stout, John Coleman’s Saison, Michael Salsbury’s Belgian Dark Strong, a White IPA crafted by Evan Mutch and Jeff Kantor, and no less than three beers from longtime homebrewer A. J. Zanyk—a Baltic Porter, an American Stout, and an Experimental IPA. When the dust had cleared A. J.’s Baltic Porter emerged victorious.

If for no other reason than I participated as both an entrant and a judge for the first time this year (I was not involved in judging my own beer or the outcome might have been different), I thought this would be an appropriate time to talk about the evolution and legacy of this venerable event with Angelo, and get the backstory on this year’s winner from A. J. Zanyk, a man whose involvement in the competition dates back to its early days.

Afternoon With The Brewers 2017A

Host Angelo Signorino (right) and Mark Richards (Left), toast this year’s winner A. J. Zanyk (center) at Brewcadia during Afternoon with the Brewers. 

A Review of Last Year’s Winner, Saison Brut 

While writing this article I’m enjoying a pint of last year’s winner, Saison Brut by Christopher Sipko and Bob Milewsky, on a quiet Wednesday evening at Brewcadia. The translucent pale golden ale has the characteristic yeast-driven smell and taste of a saison. Fruity esters, with flavors tending toward stone fruits, and black pepper spiciness dance atop a golden pilsner malt base.  It’s not easy for me to find the Millennium and Nelson Sauvin hops in the taste, but the beer is nicely balanced.  It lies at the sweeter end of the saison spectrum, which is still fairly dry compared to many beer styles. Its strongest suit might be the soft, smooth mouthfeel that comes from a generous helping of oats in the malt bill.  The carbonation is enough to bring each sip to a clean finish, but not high enough to be prickly.  In summary a very approachable, easy drinking saison that can serve as a hot weather thirst quencher or an excellent accompaniment to many food selections on the Barley’s menu, particularly seafood and white meats like turkey or chicken.

Talking Barley’s Homebrew Competition with Angelo

Pat: What was the original impetus for launching the contest?

Angelo: The Homebrew competition honors the tradition of homebrewing, where Scott Francis, myself, and most professional brewers got their start. It was a collaboration between The Winemaker’s Shop and Barley’s, and we hoped it would be mutually beneficial. It was also a chance to recognize excellence in the homebrewing community, which wasn’t as organized or public as it is these days.

Pat: Would you say the quantity and/or quality of the entries has changed over the years?

Angelo: There are a lot more competitions these days jockeying for a finite amount of homebrew. Entries have waned over the years, some years more than others. This year we received about 25% more entries than last year for some reason. Prior to this decade we charged a $5.00 entry fee per beer to cover the costs of the competition, but in an effort to get as many entries as possible we eliminated it. Seeing such a great, happy crowd at Afternoon With the Brewers is a fine reward for all the expense and effort that goes into the competition.

Pat: Everybody knows (or should know) about Blood Thirst Wheat, the winner of the 2009 competition that has gone onto be one of Columbus’ most beloved beers. It was added to the Barley’s lineup by popular demand, first as a seasonal and then as a year-round beer.  I guess you’ve got Lloyd Cicetti to thank/curse for the fact that zesting blood oranges has become a regular requirement of your job.  Then there is Jay Wince’s Anastasia Russian Imperial Stout that later went on to win gold and bronze medals at the GABF after he opened Weasel Boy in Zanesville.  Are there other winners that stand out in your mind?

Angelo: Every winner is notable, but there are a few that really stuck with me. Our first winner, Al Fosha, moved to Chicago after he won. He was the first person to ever haul a laptop to the Winemaker’s Shop to show me his recipe. He wrote about his experience brewing here and sent it to Zymurgy or one of the other homebrew magazines and it got published (which seemed like a big deal at the time). The second year Jim Hayes won with the Colonel Coffin Barleywine recipe straight out of the Complete Joy of Homebrewing. He got the recipe when he came into the Winemaker’s Shop looking to make a Barleywine, and I knew that recipe was good. I don’t know if there’s a statute of limitations on liquor violations, but we brewed it and Jimmy’s Amber Haze was well received. A liquor agent friend of the brewery was at a beer dinner where we served it after dessert, and we had to ask him to leave before we brought it out.

Hoptic Nerve Taphandle_2

The tap handle made for the 2011 winner Hoptic Nerve by Matt Mazur and Shane Green.  Mazur now brews at Three Tigers in Granville, so head east if you want to sample this bit of Columbus brewing history. 

Pat: How difficult is it to take a homebrew recipe and scale it up to the 10 bbl system at Barley’s?

Angelo: I had translated my homebrew recipes to Barley’s system and vice versa when I worked at The Winemaker’s Shop, so that has been well within my skill set. Nevertheless, almost every competition winner either used ingredients that we hadn’t previously used or a technique that was out of the ordinary for us. One of my favorite things about recreating these homebrew recipes is learning something new, and in some cases getting well outside my comfort zone. A. J. Zanyk seems to have put his recipe together specifically to make me stretch my wings further than ever next year.

Talking homebrewing with A. J. Zanyk

As someone who has increasingly been getting more obsessed about homebrewing, I wanted to get some insight from someone who knows his way around a mash tun, this year’s winner A.J. Zanyk.

Pat: You’ve been a homebrewer for many years now, what was the first Barley’s home-brew competition you entered?   When Angelo announced the winner, he implied that you’ve been something of a perennial bridesmaid when it comes to this contest.  Can you elaborate?

AJ: I started brewing in late 1995, which coincidentally is also 22 years ago.  So, I’m guessing I didn’t enter the first year, but I entered for several years after that winning multiples of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc, but never the grand prize.  As I recall the name “Lucci” was thrown around a bit in those days.  I lost track of that competition for the next 15 years.  Only recently started entering again when it coincided with the State Fair judging.

Pat: To finally win after so many years must be gratifying.  Have you had any similar experiences in brewing?

AJ: In 2000 what is now Smokehouse Brewing offered SODZ (the local homebrew club) a yearly guest beer and at the time my Maibock had won several awards.  I got to brew with Scott Francis and since it was the first lager in Barley’s history he brought in Hoster’s Victor Ecimovich to consult.  Working with two founders of Columbus craft beer, that was a big deal.  I was so stoked about the beer that I had embroidered logo t-Shirts made and commissioned a local glass blower to make custom tap handles that resembled columns of beer.  The tap handles were fitted with LED bulbs and a battery.  At the tapping party Lenny Kolada turned off the room lights and we plugged them in – What a Show!  The “Spring Bock” went on to be the best seller while it lasted.

Pat: Believe it or not I’ve heard rumors of your Baltic Porter from our common friend Mark Richards (of Land Grant Brewing).  If I’m not mistaken you and Mark brewed a Baltic Porter back in the day that was well received.  Tell me a little about the evolution of your Baltic Porter through the years.

AJ: Around 2000 I became aware of a little known beer style called “Baltic Porter”.  A few examples of the style started showing up on local shelves, so I sat down with a couple of bottles, did some online research, and wrote a recipe.  The beer turned out to be quite popular, and before I knew it friends and fellow homebrewers had drained my keg.  Mark had a few bottles left, which he entered in the Ohio State Fair competition, where it ended up winning Best of Show.  That caught the attention of Gordon Strong who was in the process of re-writing what was to become the 2004 BJCP guidelines.  He came over with all the examples of the style he could find and we re-brewed my recipe.  While brewing we tasted and he took notes for what later became the Baltic Porter category 12C and I got a contributor credit for the 2004 & 2008 editions.  The Barley’s winning version is about 8 batches removed, but still 90% the same ingredients.  Only the proportions have changed.

Pat: You brewed three of the seven beers that reached the final, which is pretty impressive. Tell me about the other beers you entered.

AJ: The 2nd place beer was a Tangerine Honey Wheat IPA.  I had an idea one day and set about building up to a recipe.  I started by brewing what was my fourth entry which ended up being more of an American Pale Ale.  You only gave it a 34 (on the 50 point BJCP scale) when you judged it, but since you were the high judge I’ll let it go.  I bumped up the hops, added tangerine peel, as well as some wheat and oats to add haze.  I guess it worked?  The other entry that made the final round was an American Stout.  In hindsight it’s good that one didn’t win, because it was made with the second runnings from a Russian Imperial Stout (the so-called Parti-gyle method).  It would have been interesting to tell Angelo that with one win I would need to make 2 beers.

Pat: I did like your American Pale Ale, very crisp, nicely hoppy, somewhat in the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale mold.  Anyway, it would have looked like the fix was in if all four beers made the final round.

Pat: In closing do you have any tips for aspiring homebrewers out there?

AJ: Here are a few things I’ve learned over the last 20+ years.

Join a club.  Talking face to face at a meeting or in an online forum is the best way to “tap” experience, recipes, or process.  Whatever you are brewing chances are someone’s tried it before and can tell you where your starting point might be.

Remember that judges are humans too.  I entered the same batch of Baltic Porter in the State Fair competition, but from a different bottling session where the beer was slightly more carbonated.  It did not place in its category showing just how precarious competitions can be.  The implicit biases of a particular judging panel, the flight order, even the day of the week can influence the outcome. I simply had the right version of the right beer, with the right judges, in the right order.  But!  At a judging table you may have 10+/- beers, most of which are in need of constructive feedback.  The solid beers will always float to the top, where they will have to do battle with the other solid beers for the top places.

Strive for consistency. My early days were filled with a lot of near misses.  It took 22 years to FINALLY hit the target.  Like Angelo said, brewing frequently helps.  New brewers or new recipes that win are rare.  A fluke at best.  So, you made an exceptional beer – Can you do it again just as well or better – repeatedly?  This takes time and practice.  Brewers who didn’t do well this year can sit down with their beer, the feedback on the judging sheets, and the BJCP guide.  Use that input to revise your recipe/process then give it another try.  That’s what I do every time.  That’s the real purpose of a competition, feedback. Medals are just a byproduct.

Tips for entering competitions. My simple rule for entering a competition is not to enter a beer based on what you put into it, but rather what you get out of it.  Forget what the recipe says, if the judges don’t smell it, taste it, or see it, then you made an empty promise and you lose points. Keep Brewing!

Complete list of Barley’s Homebrew Competition Winners

To conclude here are the winners of all 22 iterations of the Barley’s Homebrew Competition.

  • 2017 – Devil’s Arse Baltic Porter by A.J. Zanyk
  • 2016 – Saison Brut by Christopher Sipko and Bob Milewsky
  • 2015 – Barrel Aged Moscow Midnight by Seth Draeger
  • 2014 – Dark Matter Milk Stout by Eric Yousey
  • 2013 – Two Tones IPA by Tony Hill and Anthony McKeivier
  • 2012 – White Dragon Saison by Richard Sheppard
  • 2011 – Hoptic Nerve EyePA by Matt Mazur and Shane Green
  • 2010 – Wit’s End Belgian Wit Beer by Andy Schultz
  • 2009 – Blood Thirst Wheat by Lloyd Cicetti
  • 2008 – Black Bike Schwarzbier by Matt Boehm
  • 2007 – E = IPA2 Imperial IPA by Victor Gonzales
  • 2006 – Meister Eckhart Spark of the Divine Barleywine by Joe Eckhart
  • 2005 – Heavy Horses Strong Olde Ale by Jeff Hornberger
  • 2004 – Jay’s Ain’t Just Blowin Smoke Porter by Jay Wince
  • 2003 – Anastasia Russian Imperial Stout by Jay Wince
  • 2002 – Matt’s American Pale Ale by Matt Paulson
  • 2001 – Devil’s Moon Weizenbock by Mark Irwin
  • 2000 – Stoutasaurus Rex by Bill Hughes and Chris Ticknor/Full Moon Ale by Mark Irwin and Mark Katona (tie)
  • 1999 – Primordial IPA by Bill Hughes and Chris Ticknor
  • 1998 – Norma Iguana Pilsner by Matt and Sue
  • 1997 – Jimmy’s Amber Haze Barleywine by Jim Hayes
  • 1996 – Al’s American Pale Ale by Al Fosha
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