I started homebrewing when I moved from Dallas to Fort Worth a year and a half ago, graduating quickly from a small pot on the stove to a mad scientist setup made from three old kegs, a propane burner and some fancy wiring. I have three brewing partners -- all engineers -- to thank for that.
Six months ago, the four of us teamed up with an old friend from high school who happened to have his own Dallas homebrewery, Zreet Street. If you had told me 15 years ago that he and I would be making beer together, I'd have laughed and come at you with my microphone-wielding, journalism-degree-getting jazz hands.
So back in December, eastside and westside met to plan out our entire spring, including when and how we would brew all these masterpieces of fermentation. Despite busy schedules that included camping trips, work trips, weddings, MBA classes and ultimate frisbee tournaments, we managed to spend enough time together to brew five beers: a hefeweizen, an IPA, a Belgian tripel, a blackberry cider (OK, pseudo beer) and a double IPA with habanero, serrano, poblano, jalapeno and red fresno peppers.
Which brings us to Sunday's Brew Riot, a homebrewing competition in Oak Cliff.
We arrived at 2 p.m. to start setting up, having hauled our brand new kegerator eastbound and down 30. We had turned in two bottles of each beer for judging a week earlier, but this was the big people's choice finale. As far as strategy goes, we pulled out all the stops at our little tent: a banner with our name, signage for each beer, food for palate cleansing, and even some kickass temporary tattoos. Since no one was pouring beer yet, I silently judged the other teams based on their signage and merch. While we were struggling to get our banner centered and passably parallel to the ground, I noticed another group had made some homemade fans with their logo on them. Well played.
In addition to getting our tent decorated, we needed to double and triple check that the carbonation was right on the four beers in the kegerator. We had gone through this dance several times during the previous week, but after a bumpy ride down the highway the beers were a little shaken up. The first few pours were pretty foamy.
With 30 minutes till go time, the Texas Homebrew Society called a meeting for all teams, reminding us to only serve people with an official logo cup or green wristband. They also requested that we throw away any leftover beer after the festival was over, which really meant that whatever we didn't serve to people was gonna get "thrown away" in our bellies.
With 10 minutes to go, I was busy cleaning up beer I knew we'd inevitably spill all over the table -- a great lesson in the importance of laminating. Then we got our first customer. One at a time, then two, then four, and before I'd even mastered pouring from the kegerator, we had a line at the booth. Thankfully, we had a loyal legion of T-shirt wearing, poster-waving, high-five-giving friends to help us pour, direct traffic and apply temporary tattoos.
It quickly became clear what the crowd favorites were: the Bitchin' Blackberry Cider and the Super Freaker Chile IIPA (endearingly named after an episode of Drunk History). We all knew the spicy beer would be a hit, but the popularity of the cider surprised us. Even the most macho-looking guys would show up in groups, somewhat reluctant to be seen ordering a "chick drink," but ultimately giving in. Upon giving us his token, one guy even admitted that the cider is what sold him on voting for us. At first, people were hesitant to order the Bitchin' Blackberry by name, but the more people started drinking, the more willing they were to walk up to our table and just yell, "BITCHIN!"
The tattoos turned out to be a great promotional tool, as people would see them and say, "Oh man, they have a great hefe!" or "I've heard about the chile beer -- where can I find these guys?" Word of mouth is a powerful thing. So are neck tattoos.
After two hours, I got relieved from pouring duty and sent to go check out some of the other brewers. Compared to the year before, people had really stepped up their game. The White Rock Beer Project was serving out of an ice-filled kayak, and another team even replaced their tent and table with a tiki hut. I also spent a fair amount of time ogling other teams' kegerators. After running off with a handful of Cheeseballs from someone's table, I went into full-on reconnaissance mode, stealthily eyeing how many tokens everyone else had.
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At 7:30 we turned in our jar of tokens to be counted and headed over to the stage to listen for the judges' choice winners. I waited nervously as they announced the winner of the first category, Specialty Beers, in which we had entered the Super Freaker. When they said our name, I leaped off the ground so high there might as well have been firecrackers under my feet.
Next they announced the winners for the ale, American ale, lager, Belgian/French and IPA categories, where there were some familiar names from last year along with some new winners. The final judges' category, Best Female Brewer, was a new addition this year, I suppose based on the growing number of lady parts at the event. We won that too, which was an honor.
After the judging announcement, we faced the sobering prospect of tearing down our equipment and loading up the truck. Our kegs were dry, which for once was a good thing. As we were cleaning up, a representative from Texas Homebrew Society came over to tell us we had received the most tokens, thereby winning the People's Choice Award. We were thrilled and humbled. Every now and then I ask myself if I have ugly baby syndrome -- if our beers are really any good or if I only like them because they're mine. Every token that dropped in our jar was like a giant high-five.
By the end of the night, my closet was filled with empty kegs. I replayed the day and zoned out, watching a bubbling mixture of dry ice and sanitizer and beginning the long wait until next year.