For being one of the planet’s most promising wine zones, there’s no shortage of beer freaks frolicking on the sidewalks of the American Riviera. That was plainly evident on Monday night at Carr Winery on Salsipuedes Street, where more than 100 people crowded together to witness The Santa Barbara Independent’s inaugural dive into the world of competitive craft brewing.
Dubbed the Holiday Homebrew Hoedown, the contest attracted 20 beers of seasonal natures — lots of vanilla, plenty of oak, pumpkin, even some juniper, pine cones, and sugar plums — from 14 different brewing teams, whose handiwork was subject to two rounds of judging from 14 of the brightest brew-minds in town, including professional brewers, winemakers, food journalists, sommeliers, and two certified Cicerones, which is the beer world’s equivalent of a master somm. Along the way, guests enjoyed sliders from the Burger Bus (theburgerbus.com), empanadas from Rodrigo Gimenez Cocinero (rgcocinero.com), wine from Carr (carrwinery.com), and beer from Telegraph Brewing Company (telegraphbrewing.com), which sponsored the event with prize packages.
When the suds had settled, eight finalists emerged for the last round of judging, and three prevailed: Best in Show went to Mike Pottbebaum’s “Vanilla Pumpkin Porter;” second place, for Best Fireside Ale, went to Nitin Anand and Grayson Brill’s “The Recliner Bourbon Vanilla Oaked Porter;” third place, for Most Creative, was claimed by Kirk Leven’s “John Muir Christmas Ale,” which had been aged on pine cones for 11 months.
“I’m a very doubtful brewer, a very hard critic on myself,” said Pottbebaum, a Buellton resident who has been brewing for three years and is affiliated with Valley Brewers in Solvang. “I was gonna dump the batch on Monday before I submitted, but, after time, I think it became pretty balanced.” One of the four beers he has on tap at home right now, Pottbebaum’s Vanilla Pumpkin Porter featured fresh pumpkin grown locally and vanilla bean from Madagascar. His prize is a day with Telegraph’s head brewer Brian Thompson, plus some extra brewing supplies from the award-winning brewery, which is also located on Salsipuedes Street, next door to Carr, and is currently in the midst of an expansion.
The second place finishers were equally stoked. “We were pretty darn happy with the title of Best Fireside Ale,” said Grayson Brill, whose brew-buddy Nitin Anand chimed in, “That was what we were aiming for.” Indeed, it’s even clear in the name of this porter, “The Recliner,” which employed whole vanilla beans, charred oak, and high-quality bourbon to get the job done. Brill has been brewing for six years (he’s also studying to be a Cicerone), and Anand for two, but this was their second batch that the two Ventura Charter School teachers made together.
In third place was Kirk Leven’s John Muir Christmas Ale, whose pine power was evident on the nose and played out much like a fine sparkling wine, according to some of the judges. He’ll be getting a keg at Telegraph as a prize for enjoyment and inspiration.
Altogether, the Holiday Homebrewing Hoedown showed that Santa Barbara’s beer culture is thriving, creative, and proud to show off their stuff. Although the day’s toughest job might have gone to the 14 judges, for the wide range of spices and spunk required by “holiday” ales can certainly challenge to the taste buds. Said one with a smirk a few beers into her round, “I feel like I’m eating Christmas.”