Illustration: Phil Cannon
People have considered “Utah beer” to be an oxymoron for many years, yet the craft-brewing scene here has evolved into a multi-faceted marketplace. Leading the charge are the home brewers. Prior to 2009, the practice of fermenting alcohol for one’s own enjoyment was strictly prohibited by the state legislature. With the passing of HB 51, residents could then home brew up to 200 gallons of beer or wine for personal consumption. They were also granted the ability to transport their libations for use in competitions where they would be judged on taste and quality. Jamie Burnham, manager of Salt Lake City’s The Beer Nut, saw this break in the clouds as an opportunity to capitalize on the uniting power of beer. In August of 2009, the first annual Beehive Brew-off was held, with over 300 entries being judged. It was a testament to the pent-up creativity that had been lying in wait, ready to be released upon the world.
Burnham has been part of The Beer Nut’s family since 2005, and has cultivated her interest in home brewing along the way. “When you take a job like this, you’ve got to brew all the time. People ask you questions, and you have to be an expert to answer them. I’m supported by a lot of staff that know what they are doing, and that’s helpful,” says Burnham. Keeping abreast of various brewing techniques and industry innovations keeps her busy in and out of the office.
Salt Lake City proper has a population that supports stores like The Beer Nut, with home brewing on the rise since legalization. Burnham has been instrumental in the development of the Beehive Brew-off and spends nearly half of her year organizing the event. “I am like the puppet master, and I know how everything works,” says Burnham. Putting on a brewing competition allows locals to showcase their skillsets and to promote the art in an official setting. “The Beehive Brew-off is sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association, and we bring in certified judges and professional home brewers to judge the competition,” says Burnham.
There are 28 categories of beer judged, and each entry is tasted and then compared to the style guidelines for that specific beer. A category has six judges who define which styles are the best, and the gold medalists move forward to the Best of Show category. IPAs, schwarzbiers, golden ales, pilsners, Belgians and saisons are all on the table at this event.
Entering the Brew-off is as simple as making beer, and anyone 21 years and up can enter this competition. One entry consists of three 12 oz brown bottles with a paper label denoting style and owner rubberbanded to the outside. The three bottles are used first for an initial tasting, with one as a backup and then one for final testing, should that beer make it to Best of Show. All entries are painstakingly categorized by Burnham and then handed over to the judges once the competition goes under way. “You are not allowed to enter a category and judge that same category, and there is only one beer allowed per category per participant,” says Burnham.
Judging the competition is certainly as labor-intensive as actually brewing the beer. The panel is composed of beer connoisseurs who have spent years refining their palates and understand the complexities of different flavors. “We have about a dozen local, certified judges, and we also pull staff members from local breweries. Head brewers see it as a way to have their staff gain additional training,” says Burnham. On the weekend of the event, the judges are worked hard from 9 to 5 and have to taste and score hundreds of beers. One benefit of being a judge is catching a solid buzz, but by day’s end, a lot are down to just swill n’ spit. It can be very demanding, but don’t feel too sorry for them—these guys get to drink beer all day.
Since 2009, the entries into the Beehive Brew-off have grown 20 percent every year. This competition is also listed in the American Homebewers Association’s annual publication. Out-of-staters have entered, but Burnham notes that entries are about 90 percent local.
Most entries come from Northern Utah, but she hopes to see some desert beers come on in the future. “Another benefit of the competition is that people crave feedback. Their peers are analyzing it and helping them improve their skills,” says Burnham. Each brewer is given his or her score sheet with constructive comments at the end of the event for personal use in their home brewing.
For 2013, actual medals will be awarded for gold, silver and bronze in each category, as well as Best of Show. Winners of the event are also eligible to have their beer selected by a professional brewery to be entered in the Pro-Am competition at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Mountains of swag from local businesses are also passed down to the entrants.
Entries for this year’s Brew-off are being accepted from July 15–30 at The Beer Nut. Judging will commence on Aug. 3 and 4 at The Bayou. Unfortunately, this is a private event, and the public is not welcome due to current laws. A party and awards ceremony for the contestants will be held afterward, where the victors will be crowned in all their beer glory. Check out beernut.com for more info. Now get brewing!