This year’s Jersey City Brew Club Homebrew Competition was smaller than usual, thanks to Covid-19. But it was special: The winner got to brew a batch at Departed Soles brewery and tap room located at 150 Bay Street .

Kendall Alvarez, founding brew club member and event chair said Getting to brew your beer on the Departed Soles system and working with them on naming and designing any labels that go along with the beer, it’s a cool and fun way to show off your skills.”

The competition was open to all dues paying members of the Jersey City Brew Club, one entry per member. A couple of the [Brew Club] officers did enter (including myself) but didn’t win,” Alvarez said.

Because this year’s winning beers were selected by Departed Soles rather than by certified judges as in the past, there was no people’s choice award. However as a consolation, Alvarez said, they might be able to down the road “when this is all over and we can have a big beer festival!”

According to Alvarez, an award-winning home brewer himself and owner of The Thirsty Quaker home-brew supply shop in Harsimus Cove, there are 30 dues-paying members and a bunch of other folks on Facebook and Slack that come to meetings and events. “Not everyone is a brewer either,” Alvarez said, “Some just come along to try homemade brews or to hear the guest speakers we have at meetings.”

The Jersey City Brew Club started in 2010 with four members at the first meeting and has “grown into a great club since then. Several of our past members are now professional brewers,” said Alvarez.

When asked if the pandemic posed any problems organizing the competition, Alvarez said, “It was a little harder to wrangle entrants and get the word out without having our monthly meeting. We’ve been doing some Zoom calls to chat beer and keep people involved, but it’s just not the same. We just had our first in-person meeting since February at the newly opened 902 Brewing. It was outdoors and everyone stayed socially distant and wore masks when we weren’t drinking. So that was really nice!”

As for pandemic-related brewing supply shortages, Alvarez said, “I think most brewers haven’t noticed many issues, since hop and malt harvests happen at the end of the year anyway. From the retail side though, I can tell you that there was a huge shortage of dry yeast for a while that is still in place for some champagne yeasts. And there have been delays on shipments. But apart from some specific items coming from Italy and other overseas places, home brewing goods are still readily available.”

A small competition, there were a meager 14 entries. The beer was judged by Brian Kulbacki, Departed Soles owner and head brewer, and Brian Schweinsberg, brewer and “tasting room sensei,” who previously worked as a beer buyer in the restaurant industry.

“We invited members to submit their best recipes that they thought could work on our system and that are seasonally appropriate,” Schweinsberg said.

“We used official BJCP [Beer Judge Certification Program] score sheets and style guides to assess the quality and accuracy of each beer to style. We scored the beers separately so there was no influence on each other, and save for a couple entries, were incredibly close in our scoring of each beer.”

“The only ‘voting’ that took place was when there was a three-way tie for first, and we had to determine the best possible way to proceed.” Said Kulbacki.

When asked if Departed Soles was considering commercial viability in its judging, Kulbacki said, “We had to factor in the commercial viability of the beer at the end of the day in the tie-breaking round and [we had to factor in] seasonality so that we could, hopefully, brew this beer up quickly and do it all over again soon.”

Schweinsberg said, “If we are happy with the beer brewed on our pilot system, it will get scaled up to the big system.”

The big system is 15 barrels. That’s over 300 12-ounce bottles.

As far as noticeable trends in the entries, there were more IPAs submitted than any other style, according to Schweinsberg. In addition, Kulbacki added, “There was definitely a good amount of fruited beers, and of course, hazies. “I was impressed by the quality of each entry, and often times the aroma and appearance of each beer were pretty spot on. Overall, it was a great batch of homebrew. It always just comes down to what the style guidelines tell us to look for, and assessing that. There’s no bias in it.” Kulbacki said, “I think with some more water treatment work, a lot of these beers would get big bumps in scoring and be winners.”

Kulbacki offered general advice for future contestants: Always call the beer what it tastes like.

“One of the toughest things about home brew contests is that delicious beer often gets entered in to a category it doesn’t fit,” he said. “For instance, your recipe may be for an IPA, but the beer came out more like a blonde. Don’t force it, own it, and enter it as a tasty whatever it ended up as! There were beers we liked, but maybe didn’t fit the style it was entered in, so those took a scoring hit, unfortunately. We did factor in timelines to our tie-breaking round, but we made sure that anyone that was hurt by that was given another opportunity to do something cool.”

Schweinsberg said, “The most common mistake was under-carbonated beers. Almost all the beers were cleanly made and very well done overall.”

Kulbacki said, “If someone used something like an extract or treatment we don’t typically use, the entry was not thrown out. We’ll happily work with the brewers to convert it!” While commercial brewing is typically all-grain, home brewed beers can be made with malt extract usually in addition to grains. In fact, an extract recipe did win the competition.

“Personally, I’m surprised that an extract recipe won the competition, but it goes to show you don’t need fancy equipment or complicated processes to make good beer,” said Alvarez.

The three winners were officially announced on August 3 on the Jersey City Brew Club Facebook page. The first-place winner was Jason Willard, with “Midnight Oil,” an Imperial Stout aged on American oak cubes. If Willard cannot replicate the beer with an all grain recipe on the pilot system, the opportunity will go to the runner up, Michael Schruefer, for “Wee WeeScottish Ale.

A third entry that had been tied for first place was ultimately eliminated because that brewer wound up getting hired by Departed Soles.

Finally, a “bonus” winner was Corey Thomas, who brewed “Gos’ito,” a Gose with lime and mint. Departed Soles invited him to contribute to its next hard seltzer recipe.

The next brew club meeting will be held on Wednesday, August 26, on the rooftop deck at 902 Brewing. “All are welcome,” said Alvarez, “But you’ll need to check or the Facebook group a couple weeks ahead to RSVP.

Melissa Surach is a writer and comedian who was born and raised in Jersey City. She has an MFA in writing from The New School. She writes about comedy, booze, food, ghosts, theater and more. For more about...

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