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Pro beer makers stay sharp by crafting with amateurs

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Repeating the same recipe day in, day out can dampen a beermaker’s enthusiasm. So can scrubbing stainless steel and poring over profit-and-loss statements.

What does a professional brewer do to rekindle his passion? One solution: Invite a couple of home-brewers over to help make something new.

“It forces you to step outside the box,” says Favio Garcia, co-founder of Lost Rhino Brewing in Ashburn, who has done five pro-am collaborations this year. His latest, a triple IPA dubbed Hop3Star that clocks in at 10.1 percent alcohol and about 150 bitterness units, was released to the distributor on Monday. The Facebook page for Westover Market in Arlington promises a debut party Nov. 15.

Hop3Star had its genesis at Westover Market, where Lost Rhino brewer John Peters, in a conversation with store manager Devin Hicks and a couple of the regulars, offered, “We should do a beer with you guys!” Hicks is a big fan of Bell’s Hopslam, a much-in-demand winter release that smooths over its massive hop content with a little honey. He suggested making an IPA with mango, which would provide fermentable sugar and mesh with the fruity Pacific Northwest hops.

Steve Marler, who has been home-brewing for 20 years, whipped up a recipe and did a five-gallon pilot batch at his Arlington home.

“It was like brewing in the Third World!” joked Peters, referring to Marler’s homemade gear, which included parts fashioned from a metal iced tea container.

Scaling up the recipe for Lost Rhino’s 25-barrel brew house required adjustments. Two hop varieties, Citra and Nelson Sauvin, weren’t available in sufficient quantities and had to be replaced. (Altogether, eight types of hops were used.) Afraid of what the fibrous mango pulp would do to their equipment, the brewers pureed the fruit and made a syrup using Belgian candi sugar.

The 12-hour brew day was anything but glamorous for the 10 bar buddies who showed up.

“Our big beer clogged up the mash tun,” recalls Marler. The amateur brewers had to attack the gooey grain with rakes to coax out the sugar-rich liquid. Garcia added rice hulls to help strain the mixture. Then the hops (150 pounds in the boil) created another clog en route to the fermenters.

Larry Jackson, a novice brewer and professed hop fanatic, was unfazed: “We were exhausted, but we’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

Alexander Bonfield, a bartender at Westover’s pub and beer garden, came up with the logo: a guitar-strumming hop. Look for 22-ounce bottles to follow kegs as soon as label approval comes through, promises Garcia.

Lost Rhino is hardly unique among area breweries in enlisting talented amateurs. Plank II, a doppelbock aged on eucalyptus and yellow poplar that Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe, Md., released last spring, was co-brewed by Maryland home brewer Les White. Last month, DuClaw Brewing released the winner in its annual home-brew competition, dubbed H.E.R.O. for “honest, excellent, robust, original”: a chocolate-chipotle stout by Vincent and Suzanne Powers of Nottingham, Md. (A few kegs and 22-ounce bottles should be lingering in the Baltimore area.)

Stone Brewing, in Escondido, Calif., has rolled out the 2012 winner of its annual competition. Mint Chocolate Imperial Stout is the kind of big, high-test, off-kilter beer that results when iconoclasts brew for their own tastes with no worries about mass marketability. Ken Schmidt, the San Marcos, Calif., home brewer who provided the recipe, also won the contest in 2009 with an imperial coffee porter with toasted coconut and macadamia nuts.

In ramping up Schmidt’s recipe, Stone brew master Mitch Steele used fresh mint (three varieties) from Stone’s 18-acre farm, along with unsweetened cacao. When the mint proved too subtle, he added natural mint flavoring.

“Ken gets kind of nervous, but I think he liked the results,” Steele said.

For a beer made with confectionery ingredients, the mint-chocolate stout is extremely dry and full of fresh-roasted coffee flavor, with an almost medicinal finish. The news release advises pairing it with meat dishes rather than desserts. “It can go either way,” says Schmidt. Stone is releasing the beer, in kegs and 12-ounce bottles, in 18 states, including Virginia.

Steele said his only disappointment was that the beer failed to win, place or show in the pro-am competition at last month’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The contest has been held each year since 2006 and this year attracted a record 95 entries, says Julia Herz of the Colorado-based Brewers Association, which organizes the festival.

But pro-am collaborations were not limited to that category. DC Brau scored a silver in the festival’s Belgian- and French-Style Ale slot with a beer based on a recipe by Brian Barrows, who bested the competition in a home-brew tournament at Meridian Pint last June. The brewery is out of Your Favorite Foreign Movie (the yeasty, Belgian-style brew, explains DC Brau’s chief executive Brandon Skall, is “light and easygoing” — like the Steely Dan song “Peg,” whose lyrics provided the name). But Skall might brew a repeat batch of the session-style beer when the weather starts to warm up next spring.

So commercial breweries get to tap into the creativity of talented amateurs. But the home brewers get something for their labor as well.

Boston Beer is especially generous to the winners in its annual contest, first held in 1996. All three get $5,000 and a trip to the Great American Beer Festival.

Schmidt says he got a small reward from Stone, but “they’re not allowed to give us any free beer.” More often, the payoff consists solely of bragging rights. Lost Rhino, for instance, retains all rights to the Hop3Star label. (Garcia doubts that the beer will generate much profit due to the expense of its ingredients. “We used 150 pounds of hops at $6 a pound, then we dry-hopped twice with another 33 pounds,” Peters said. “You do the math.”)

One fringe benefit is experience. Now that they’ve brewed commercially, would these amateurs want to turn pro?

Schmidt, a 58-year-old retiree, says he’s looking to become a partner with an existing brewery: “Before the market gets too saturated, it’s time to get my big toe wet.”

Jackson, a television director for the U.S. Senate recording studio, says he would “give it all up to become a full-time brewery worker . . . if I could take the pay cut.”

But count out Marler, the past president of the local home-brew club Brewers United for Real Potables.

“Not me. I just turned 50. I’m too old.”

Kitsock is editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. His column runs monthly in Food.

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