Beer Issue 2017: Two wrongs could make a right at the Ultimate Brewer

More breweries and some changes are set for the brewing battle and blind tasting's second year.

click to enlarge On March 3, Ultimate Brewer II competitors will face off at Safety Harbor's Crooked Thumb Brewery. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
On March 3, Ultimate Brewer II competitors will face off at Safety Harbor's Crooked Thumb Brewery.

“If there was a bomb that went off here, half of Tampa Bay’s brewing community would’ve been toast.”

That’s how St. Pete Brewing Co. general manager Casey Cothran describes the Jan. 12 congregation at his craft brewery’s home base in downtown St. Pete. The purpose of this get-together? To randomly draw ingredients for the second installment of what is becoming a Tampa Bay Beer Week tradition: The Ultimate Brewer.

Likening the event to Iron Chef or Chopped for area brewers, Cothran, who also serves on the TBBW board as secretary, organized the inaugural Ultimate Brewer for last year’s weeklong celebration of local beer culture. The brewing battle and blind tasting, held at Seminole’s Rapp Brewing Company, turned out great; the response from attendees and brewers — whose feedback, in a market that’s starting to get oversaturated with beer events, matters most, according to Cothran — proved as much.

The idea was to host the TBBW-presented competition on both sides of the bay, similar to the Halfway There fundraiser and countdown to Beer Week. But with double the amount of breweries — 28 compared to the first year’s 14 — it had to be the right venue. Although Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing didn’t work out (the parking lot isn’t wet-zoned), Crooked Thumb Brewery, which volunteered its 6,000-square-foot Safety Harbor space for the Ultimate Brewer II, did.

“And,” Cothran said, “Safety Harbor’s pretty much centrally located.”

The location of the bayside town is important because more than 50 breweries, new and established from Jacksonville to Miami, were contacted to participate this time around. The farthest north the Ultimate Brewer II got was Marker 48 Brewing in Weeki Wachee, and Sarasota’s Big Top Brewing Company and Calusa Brewing down south. Other competitors include de Bine, Six Ten, Cueni, Motorworks and Pair O’ Dice, along with reigning champ Brew Bus.

As the event continues to grow, Cothran says he’d love if places like Intuition Ale Works, Funky Buddha Brewery or J. Wakefield Brewing, and eventually out-of-state brewers, got involved.

Which breweries are participating isn’t the secretive part of the Ultimate Brewer, though — it’s who’s brewing what. As with the inaugural competition, Ultimate Brewer II volunteers will pour each beer entry during the tasting to prevent favoritism from creeping in, and branded material such as jockey boxes (those portable taps-in-coolers breweries use at events) will be covered.

Without attendees knowing who they are, competitors have to incorporate super-strange flavors into their beer’s nose or taste, and get people to want to drink what they’ve made.

“The Ultimate Brewer is just adding another awesome way for the breweries to get together and have a friendly competition and show our involvement as a community,” said Mastry’s Brewing Co. founder Matthew Dahm, who brewed a curry and coffee stout for the inaugural battle alongside head brewer Micheil McElvey, who’s taken the reigns for Ultimate Brewer II.

Beets, garlic, curry and watermelon, pickles, lemon peels and celery seed, wasabi and ginger, and bacon and sweet potato are among the single ingredients and ingredient combos the breweries are tasked with turning into any style of their choosing — in about two months. Cothran expects to see some browns and stouts, sours, IPAs and probably saisons, since the process involved with other beers, like lager styles, takes more time than participants are given.

“But then again, 7venth Sun barrel aged a beer,” he said. “Which is tough because you [usually] want to let it age for at least six months.”

Some flavors may seem more difficult than others, but those easier, or complementary, ingredients come with their own challenge. As Cothran points out, the blackberries and brandy beer better really bring it; otherwise, if the garlic beer (one of the creations he’s most excited to try) tastes somewhat decent, he’s voting for that one.

“There’s such interesting pairings and combinations. I’m always excited to see the thought and direction any of the brewers take with it,” Dahm said. “It’s not surprising, but it’s just so cool to see how people get innovative with their choices.”

The tools his St. Pete Beach brewery, which began at St. Pete restaurant CD Roma, has to work with this year are totally different. Mastry’s five-barrel direct gas system is a game-changer as far as strategy is concerned, considering that confidence in their new facility and equipment has given them less trial and error than the year before.

In addition to its venue, ingredients and brewery count, the Ultimate Brewer II will also switch up the scorecard. Tallying the results at the end of the night was tough, Cothran says, so rather than judge every beer on originality, difficulty and taste, the crowd will likely write in their Top 3 favorites to determine first (which holds on to the battle’s Stanley Cup-style trophy until next year), second and third place. He plans to get the breweries to select their own winner as well, presenting the brewers’ choice with a prize — Toys R Us wrestling belt, anyone? — to keep.

Tickets to the Ultimate Brewer II, planned for 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. March 3, are $25 in advance. While online sales are set to cap at some point, day-of admission will cost $35 at the door. If folks want to spectate and not partake, that’s OK, too; they can do so free of charge while enjoying food trucks and live music.

Cothran doesn’t think the competition’s medley of weird ingredients speaks to the future of Tampa Bay beer, because some brewers are perfecting styles that’ve been around since the beginning of time. But he says he does think the Ultimate Brewer opens the minds of more traditional brewers, and may change up the game when it comes to local beer events and competitions.

According to Dahm, who has a similar take on the Ultimate Brewer, it’s a boundary-pusher for Beer Week, and the beer community itself.

“Beer’s not as one dimensional of a product as it used to be. Now, it’s all these choices of beer. Now we do beer and food pairings, and now we do these exotic styles of beer we weren’t doing before. I think it’s just continuing to bring more well-roundedness and attention to the craft beer scene,” he said.

Cothran also hopes the event, meant for novices as much as avowed geeks, attracts people to the world of homebrewing.

“When you go out and try a different beer, it’s almost like R&D,” said the hospitality industry vet. “It gets me excited to brew and try something different. And if you’re not into beer, I think it’s a fun way to get you into beer.”

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