Q&A: 2014 Iron Brewer Festival

We caught up with Brasseurs a la Maison president Blake Winchell earlier this week to ask him a few questions about the 2014 Iron Brewer Festival that will take place this Saturday, February 15 at 2 p.m. at the Tin Roof Brewing Company. Admission to the event is one (or more) canned good, which will then be donated to the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank. Attendees must be 21 or older. Read on to learn more about the art of blending unique ingredients into homebrew beer, the origin of the event and tips for tasting when you attend on Saturday!

Blake Winchell at Tin Roof Brewing Co.

Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank: How did the idea for this competition come about? Do you participate in other competitions throughout the year? With so many great organizations in the BR area, what motivated you to choose the Food Bank as the beneficiary?

Blake Winchell: The idea for this event started off as not much more than something the keep everyone involved in a club activity; something fun to do outside of the other festivals that the club attends.  It morphed into a community event when we realized the amount of people who wanted to be involved and Tin Roof was interested in hosting the gathering.  Last year took us by complete surprise with the turnout.  We promoted it solely on Facebook and it took on a life of its own.  The fact that 500 people came out in support blew us away.
The club participates in various festivals supporting area charities (Zapp’s International Beer Fest at the Rural Life Museum being the biggest one for us) and individually members will enter their beers into competitions.  Iron Brewer isn’t a competition in the same way that other competitions are due to the winner being “selected” by popular vote.  Last year we planned on judges coming out to officially judge but with the community turnout, we pretty much scrapped the official judging.
Since homebrewers cannot sell the beer we make, in lieu of just giving beer away we can suggest that attendees donate to a non-profit.  To be honest, we didn’t think we were going to raise a lot of money at the event last year (and didn’t want to have to deal with the money), so we thought about picking a charity that anything we raised would have an impact.  The Food Bank stood out as a way to be able to directly help the community we are a part of rather than sending the money to a charity not in Baton Rouge.  To make the decision easier, patrons can bring food rather than a monetary donation to show their support.

GBRFB: Tell us a little bit about the process of incorporating unique ingredients into beer. How difficult is it? What qualities do brewers look for in potentially compatible ingredients? How long does it take the teams to brew the beer for the festival?

BW: You can incorporate other ingredients in multiple steps of the brewing process.  Mainly it depends on the ingredient and how to best maximize its flavor.  For something like a spice you would think of adding it into the boil so that the heat could maximize the flavors.  Fruit is typically something you would add after fermentation has finished since you want a slightly more fresh profile.
When deciding how to use a specific ingredient, the difficulty comes in figuring out the best way to obtain the profile you are envisioning. Since the ingredients are typically new to you as a brewer it’s a gamble getting the flavor that you anticipate.
Brewing a beer is a day’s worth of active “work”.  From there you typically let the beer ferment for 10 days or so.  Depending on the additional ingredient used, the beer could take a few more weeks to develop into what you are looking for in the finished beer.

GBRFB: On Saturday, eleven teams will be competing for best beer. What styles of beer will they be presenting? What are some things the judges will be looking for as they evaluate the beer?

BW: Each team was assigned a certain style that they needed to brew.  The special ingredient was left open to the team’s decision.  In tasting beers with non-traditional ingredients, judges are looking for how well the beer is made as well as how the special ingredient is incorporated.  It is hard to really judge these beers because there is not much to compare it to, so it becomes a people’s choice award.

GBRFB: Do you have any advice for people that will be attending the festival in how to approach tasting eleven different types of beer in three hours or less?

BW: Really just have some fun with it.  The beers are going to be crazy off the wall flavors.  Beers that they are not accustomed to drinking.  Typically when doing a beer tasting you would want to slowly warm up your palette by ordering the flight according to how aggressive the beer’s flavor is.  With an event like this, there is no planning that will help out.  All of the beers are going to different, so your palette should be able to handle it.  Drinking some water or eating pretzels should clear your palette in between beers.

GBRFB: What is your favorite thing about hosting an event like this?

BW: The support that the community showed last year was amazing.  We were all blown away by the turnout, so we are optimistically hopeful about this year.  It is always fun sharing your beer with friends, that is why most of us homebrew.

GBRFB: What does it mean to Brasseurs a la Maison to see the community contribute by bringing canned goods totaling over 1,000 lbs in 2013 and trying to beat that total in 2014?

BW: It really was awesome to so many people come out to not only support the food bank as well as the homebrew community.  We were expecting 100 people to show up, and basically just the club and their family and friends.  And to have 500+ people show up was mind blowing.

GBRFB: Anything else you would like to share about the event/your organization?

BW: It should be a great time.  Weather should be great.  Come out, enjoy the weather and beer, and support your local community.