By Kristen Kuchar
Following two years of cancellation due to COVID-19, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) returned to Denver’s Colorado Convention Center last October. In the 2022 festival competition, 235 beer experts from seven countries judged 9,904 entries. Among the 300 medals awarded to US breweries were three awards unlike any of the others. The GABF Pro-Am Competition offers amateur brewers a unique opportunity to brew their recipes commercially with professional brewers and take their beers to the next level.
Beers entered in the Pro-Am Competition must have already won an award at an AHA/BJCP-sanctioned competition and been brewed by a member of the American Homebrewers Association (AHA). Working closely with the winning homebrewer, a professional brewer then produces the beer, releases it to customers, and enters it into the Pro-Am competition.
In 2022, 35 Pro-Am entries underwent best-of-show-style judging over two rounds. Recipients of gold, silver, and bronze medals were announced at the start of the highly anticipated GABF awards ceremony in the Bellco Theatre in Denver on October 8, 2022.
The GABF Pro-Am is a chance for homebrewers to take part in a large-scale brew day and have their beers recognized at the national level at one of the largest beer festivals in the world. But it’s even more than that—it’s a celebration of the brewing community in its entirety, including homebrewers, and the pivotal role each group plays.
Chris McCombs, head brewer at CooperSmith Pub & Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo., who received the silver medal this year, points out the mutual respect and camaraderie that homebrewers and commercial brewers share.
“There is no more creative group in brewing than homebrewers,” McCombs says, adding that hobbyists inspire him in his professional capacity. The long-time brewer says it’s a great boost for homebrewers to have their beer on the floor at GABF.
“It’s wonderful that the GABF and the AHA made room for homebrewers and recognized the ties that bind homebrewers and commercial brewers,” says Eric Coffman, homebrewer and this year’s bronze-medal winner.
Further illustrating the impact of homebrewing on the craft beer scene is that all three of the pro brewers in this year’s competition got their starts as homebrewers. McCombs, a former homebrewer, has always loved to play with styles and ingredients, and gold-medal winner John Martin of Confluence Brewing Co. had 17 years of homebrewing under his belt before launching the Des Moines brewery.
Paul Young of Shoe Tree Young Brewing Company in Carson City, Nev., and his brother Jeff, bronze-medal winners this year, started homebrewing 15 years ago in Paul’s garage. “We fell in love with brewing and quickly had the dream to have our own brewery one day,” he says.
Young says the Pro-Am is a great tradition, and they love that it brings them full circle to where they started.
Kaltrauch Rauchbier, Gold (GABF Pro-Am 2023)
Brewery: Confluence Brewing Co.
Homebrewers: Randy Daniels & KC McKinney
Location: Des Moines, Iowa
Randy Daniels and KC McKinney don’t just set the bar high for homebrewers, but for fathers- and sons-in-law as well. The duo brew as a team, and together they took home the top prize at this year’s ProAm Competition.
Daniels started out making his own wine and added homebrewing in May 2012. McKinney’s homebrew journey began during the COVID-19 pandemic. His father-in-law Randy suggested he join him for a brew day or two. Brewing became a regular thing, and after a year of learning the process, McKinney purchased his own system and the two decided to start entering competitions as a team. “We now brew probably too much, but both [of us] love doing it and feel like we are making the best beer we ever have,” McKinney says.
The Iowa Brewers Union members have taken best of show at the Midwinter Homebrewing Competition in Wisconsin with an American lager and best of show at the Iowa State Fair with a Munich helles in 2022. They entered Kaltrauch, which would go on to win a gold medal at GABF, in the Iowa Brewers Union Open.
At the Iowa Brewers Union Open, Kaltrauch made an impression on John Martin, president of and head brewer at Confluence Brewing Company. The event was hosted by the Des Moines brewery, and Martin was helping judge best of show. “It just stood out as a really well-made beer, very well balanced,” Martin says.
Martin was no stranger to Daniels and his beer-making talent. The homebrewer had previously won the competition and brewed his Salute Your Schwartz German-style schwarzbier lager commercially at Confluence. Once Kaltrauch had won best of show, the pros and homebrewers got to work collaborating to scale up this award-winning rauchbier.
Daniels says Confluence was great about the entire process. “From the start, it was one of, if not the best rauchbier they had ever had and didn’t want to change anything unless 100 percent required,” Daniels says. “They even brought in some grain that isn’t something they normally use in order to keep it as close to our original as possible.”
“The brew day was quite an eye opener as to how much different it is to brew on that scale as opposed to a home system,” McKinney says.
Martin describes Kaltrauch as a little darker than a traditional Oktoberfest, with a nice layer of savory smoke and a sweet malt finish. Martin recalls another memorable smoky beer from his own homebrew days. His Smokey Schwarzenbach was brewed for the first annual Blue Ribbon Bacon Fest held at El Bait Shop in Des Moines. “It was a smoky dark lager that paired very well with the bacon treats that day and was a precursor to our commercial beer called Campfire Black Lager,” Martin says.
McKinney looks forward to homebrewing every week. “I get to hang out with great people and have a great time,” he says. “The anticipation of the next beer being done and getting to try it and see if it turned out the way you intended, and figuring out how you can make it better, is one of my favorite parts.”
Sticky Fingers Saison, Silver (GABF Pro-Am 2023)
Brewery: CooperSmith’s Pub and Brewing
Homebrewer: Mark Pennick
Location: Fort Collins, CO
Homebrewer Mark Pennick brings his extensive training as a neuroscientist to his brewing approach: form a hypothesis, test it, redo the experiment, and be willing to repeat the process over and over again.
“Every beer I have is an opportunity to learn something or get better,” he says. As a licensed clinical psychologist, Pennick values flexibility in thinking. Upon evaluating his creation, he turns to his homebrew club members of The Brew Crew, which meet at Diebolt Brewing in Denver, for reasoned and honest feedback. The members in the group are well educated about beer, with many members working in the beer industry in some capacity, he says.
“I really love that we just mostly want to try each other’s beer and work in constructive ways to improve each other’s recipes and processes,” he says. He also values the feedback he gets from fellow homebrewers at the Altitude Brewing & Supply Homebrew Club.
Pennick makes the vital point that he’ll patiently make a single alteration at a time. “Every single time I changed one thing and one thing only,” he says. It doesn’t always improve the beer, he explains, but then he can go back and tries something different.
His process has clearly proven successful. Pennick has won more than 215 total awards for his brews, and his Sticky Fingers Saison took silver at this year’s GABF ProAm. When he heard his beer announced, he couldn’t believe it, saying he felt like he was floating above his body in a dream.
The beer also won awards at the National Homebrew Competition in 2021, Bière de Rock, Colorado State Fair Homebrew Competition, Great American Homebrew Challenge, Rocky Mountain Homebrew Challenge, 8 Second of Froth, Halfpenny Brewing Homebrew Competition, and more.
His daughter’s love of grapes served as inspiration for this award-winning beer. In early 2016, when she started eating solid foods, she would squeeze grapes in her hands and then, of course, end up with sticky fingers. He decided to make a beer-wine hybrid with Sauvignon Blanc grapes hopped with Saaz, Hüll Melon, and Nelson Sauvin. He kept revisiting the beer to see how to continue to improve it, and when he thought it needed some citrus, he added grapefruit peel.
“It is a big beer, but a deceptive beer,” Pennick says, describing it as fruit-forward with apparent wine notes. There are also flavors of spicy white pepper and bread, with a balanced hop character and restrained bitterness.
When it came time for the Pro-Am selection, Chris McCombs, head brewer at Coopersmith’s Pub & Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo., kept coming back to this fantastic, aromatic saison. This is what I want to brew, he thought to himself that day.
Mark says he enjoyed working with Chris and that the two worked well as a team, with much communication between the two brewing enthusiasts. Mark appreciated that Chris allowed him to develop the recipe and was respectful of the beer he created. For Chris, seeing Mark smile upon trying the scaled-up version of his homebrew was a great compliment.
“Mark was a pleasure to work with,” McCombs says. “He has a solid technical background and a real appreciation for Belgian styles.” And when he realized they won, McCombs was overjoyed: “It’s always good to win a medal at GABF,” he says.
But this may not be the last Pro-Am honor for the pair. Pennick’s She Fancies Herself a Little Bit French won a gold at the 2022 National Homebrew Competition and subsequently took gold at the Liquid Poetry Slam. It advanced it to a blind tasting for Pro-Am, and was selected by Coopersmith’s for the 2023 GABF Pro-Am. For this beer, Pennick utilized Pinot Noir grapes and sweet orange peel along with Nelson Sauvin, Mandarina Bavaria, and Czech Saaz hops.
“My advice to other homebrewers wishing to win at GABF is to identify their greatest recipes and pursue a scientifically based iterative brewing process that is informed by your previous examples, the historical record of beer, and the culinary arts,” Pennick says.
Alt Ale, Bronze (GABF Pro-Am 2023)
Brewery: Shoe Tree Brewing
Homebrewer: Eric Coffman
Location: Carson City, Nevada
The inspiration for homebrewer Eric Coffman’s award-winning altbier comes from his connection to the style’s origins. His mother is from Germany and he stays in close touch with his family there. He had the chance to visit his cousin a few times in Düsseldorf, home of this unique Germanstyle amber-colored beer. “I started looking into how to brew it at home, and it’s been in the rotation ever since,” he says.
Coffman’s favorite styles to brew are Kölsch and altbier because he enjoys German beer styles, and these two Rhine classics are top-fermenting. He also likes to make a hazy IPA and an English strong bitter. He has received gold medals in local homebrew competitions for his Kölsch and English strong bitter.
Coffman entered his altbier in the Thirsty Boy homebrew competition, hosted by local homebrew shop Just Brew It, where it won best of show. Carson City’s Shoe Tree Brewing picked it up there.
“Paul and Jeff started as homebrewers before getting into the commercial business,” Coffman says of Shoe Tree Brewing’s owners. “They are very community oriented and their support for local homebrewers is no exception.”
“We have a great and talented group of home Brewers in Carson City,” says Paul Young. “The best-of-show winner gets to brew their beer with us, and we enter it in the Pro-Am. Eric knocked it out of the park.”
Coffman says the experience was a genuine pleasure and that the pros did a great job of scaling up his recipe.
“On the brew day, Robert Fink, the brewer tasked with brewing the altbier, really let me get involved with the process,” Coffman says. He helped mash the grain, fired up the kettle, and added the hops. “It was like a fantasy camp for a homebrewer.”
Coffman was astonished when he learned they had won the Pro-Am medal. “Being recognized in a competition among so many high-quality homebrewers and commercial breweries is a tremendous honor, and I will treasure this experience,” he says. “I never imagined this hobby would get me a national award like a GABF bronze.”
Young describes the beer as a well-balanced copper-brown ale, which was served at both brewery locations. “Customers are loving it,” Young says. His advice for future professional brewers involved in this competition is to stay true to the homebrewer’s vision—it’s their time to shine.
Kristen Kuchar has covered the food and beverage industries for the past 14 years and is a regular contributor to Zymurgy. She has written for Brew Your Own, BeerAdvocate, CraftBeer.com, The Beer Connoisseur, DRAFT, All About Beer, VinePair, and many more.