What I Learned Judging the Samuel Adam's LongShot Homebrew Contest

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[Photo: Win Bassett]

Last month, I found myself having the privilege of helping to judge the final round of the Samuel Adams LongShot American Homebrew Contest. In its sixteenth year, the competition gives homebrewers the opportunity to have their beer bottled and nationally distributed in the Samuel Adams LongShot Variety Six-Pack released each spring.

After besting almost 1,000 other competitors, two winners are announced at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) every year. Boston Beer Co. employees select a third winner, who is also announced at GABF, among entries submitted to the contest by fellow employees.

But how are the first two winners chosen? A regional first round whittles the field down to nine semi-finalists, whose bottles eventually land in an on-site taproom at Boston Beer Co. in Boston, MA. And if sitting at a table in that room among a beer writing literati that included Jay Brooks, Tony Forder, Bob Townsend, John Holl, and Marty Nachel wasn't surreal enough, Jim Koch—the owner of that table, among many other things—sat immediately to my right and shared his tasting notes along with the rest of us after sampling each entry.

The judges use criteria set forth in the Beer Judges Certification Program ("BJCP") Style Guidelines to rate each beer based on five characteristics of that particular style: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. For example, an American Pale Ale's appearance, according to the BJCP, should be "[p]ale golden to deep amber. Moderately large white to off-white head with good retention. Generally quite clear, although dry-hopped versions may be slightly hazy." If a homebrewer categorized her entry as an American Pale Ale, judges praised a light golden color and a large head. If the head had been non-existent or a color that wasn't close to white, the entry would lose points in the appearance category.

Before sampling the bottles, the judges knew only the style of each beer and if the homebrewer used any atypical ingredients, such as rose hips. After silently tasting an entry and making notes, the judges then conferred with each other about their thoughts. This process was repeated until all of the beers had been sampled. Though the semi-finalists were all impressive, a few stood out that were not only brewed close to style, but they would make great additions to the Samuel Adams line.

My visit to the brewery got me thinking. Though Boston Beer Co. and its Samuel Adams brand of beers are well-known to macro and craft drinkers alike, but many people don't associate Sam Adams with "craft" beer due to, among other reasons, its large presence on the shelves and on tap handles, its nationwide advertising, and unfamiliarity with its broad range of beers other than Boston Lager.

Notwithstanding the fact that Boston Beer Co. fits under the Brewers Association's definition of an "American craft brewer" due to production quantity, my experience at the brewery as a LongShot finalist judge led to some of the following observations. My opinion, after my time judging the LongShot competition, is that Boston Beer Co., Sam Adams, and Jim Koch have done anything but abandon the ideals of the craft beer experience. Here's my Dave Letterman-style list of the reasons why.


5. Utopias

Two large barrels immediately greet visitors who enter the brewing room of Boston Beer Co.'s Jamaica Plain facility. They house, along with other barrels in an entirely separately room, Samuel Adams' Utopias. This beer, which changes with each vintage, is an American strong ale aged in a variety of wooden barrels for as long as nineteen years, as the 2012 version was, and then blended. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the small batch brew that is typically available only at special events, such as Pints for Prostates' Denver Rare Beer Tasting.

4. Special Beers for Special Experiences

Not only does Sam Adams have a variety of seasonal and barrel-aged beers in its lineup that extend far beyond its Boston Lager flagship, but it has released two beers this year to celebrate special occasions. In late March, Boston Beer Co. released Samuel Adams Boston 26.2 Brew for the Boston Marathon. Available only at race-related events, the 4.5 percent ABV gose used at least 50 percent wheat with coriander and salt to replenish runners. More recently, Boston Beer Co. released its Samuel Adams Brewlywed Ale, a Belgian-style pale golden ale harkening back to centuries-old traditions of bridal ales, which was available only at the brewery on July 26—with bottles guaranteed to those who arrived in full bridal attire. (Drinks Editor Maggie Hoffman wrote more about that brew here.)

3. Reviving Old World Styles

And speaking of the 26.2 gose, Boston Beer Co. has helped introduce beer lovers to this once rarely-seen German beer style, along with the traditionally Finish sahti style. More widely available than the marathon brew, Samuel Adams Verloren, the brewery's higher ABV version of a gose, was released this year in 22-ounce bottles. Bottles of Samuel Adams Norse Legend, a sahti brewed with rye and juniper berries, also hit shelves this year. (For more about these brews, click on over here to our review.)

2. Glassware

Some people care about glassware, and some wonder whether it makes a difference. Boston Beer Co. is trying to improve the beer-drinking experience with its Samuel Adams Boston Lager Glass, which was first released in 2007. The somewhat tulip-shaped drinking vessel includes, among other features, a narrow top to funnel hop aroma and maintain head retention, thin walls to keep the proper temperature for a longer period of time, and laser etching on the bottom to create a constant stream of aroma bubbles.

1. Commitment to the Homebrewing Community

And is there a better way to stay true to your roots of brewing a now-famous lager in your kitchen using an old family recipe than holding a homebrew competition every year that rewards the winners with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have their beers commercially brewed, bottled, and distributed? First held in 1996, the Samuel Adams LongShot American Homebrew Contest brings together the best homebrewers from across the country over their shared passion.

As previously mentioned, I helped judge the last round this year, which included a German pilsner, an imperial stout, a blueberry lambic, a bock, and an American wheat, along with the four finalists that we ultimately chose to go to GABF—an Imperial IPA, an American wheat, a saison, and a Flemish red. Two of these homebrewers will be very happy in October...and don't miss their bottled brews next spring in a six-pack near you.