Home brewers from across the state gathered at Sunday evening for the first-ever CT Beer Trail home brewing competition award ceremony. The competition, which organizers say will be held again next year, included a separate "novice" category for home brewers entering their first competition.
CT Beer Trails is a website founded by Bryon Turner that hopes to unify the Connecticut home brewing scene.
In the last hour or so before the awards were announced, the event's organizers were still working to make sure each one of the 105 beers entered had been judged.
The mood upstairs at The Cambridge House was hectic. Paul Zocco, owner of Zok's Homebrewing and Winemaking Supplies in Willimantic, said that he had received two or three entries that morning, and that Scott Riley, the owner of the Cambridge House, had received at least one. The Nov. 5 deadline was extended because of the October snowstorm and subsequent power outages.
But although the start of the ceremony was delayed, downstairs no one cared.
The crowd at Cambridge House was convivial and festive. The main dining room was packed almost to capacity, as servers darted to and from the kitchen, pushing through gaps in the throngs of animated men and women, many of whom had entered a brew, or several brews, and had come to hear what they hoped would be good news.
Prizes were donated by the event's sponsors, the Thomas Hooker Brewing Co. of Bloomfield, Zok’s, Brew and Wine Hobby of East Hartford, and Maltose Express of Monroe, and ranged from one-pound bags of hops to other home brewing supplies.
A panel of 18 judges hashed out the winners in each of the contest's nine categories, but the contest's most coveted prize was left for Riley alone to decide.
This beer, a mild brew crafted by Dana Bourque, whose various brews won several accolades, was "The Brewmaster's choice."
But what does this unparalleled honor mean for the chosen brew's creator?
"It's the ultimate bragging right," Zocco said.
Bourque will receive one of the noblest aims to which a home brewer can aspire: commercial distribution.
"We'll brew a seven-barrel batch," Reilly said. The beer will then be available on tap at The Cambridge House Brew Pub until it runs out. The batch should last between two and six weeks, Reilly said.
To reach the corner table where Reilly, Zucco and Turner stood with the awards, each winner or winning team in attendance climbed through an ecstatic back-slapping mob. With award in hand, some winners returned to their seats. Others joined the mob.
From competition veterans to first-timers, and couples to siblings, there was no "typical" contestant and no typical brewing methodology — proof that home brewing appeals to a wide range of people, but also that home brewers are very innovative about how they use whatever space is available to them.
Ryan Galligan and Ryan Dacey, a couple who run "Rye Brewing" out of their Wallingford apartment, took home third-place honors in the experimental category.
"We're pantry brewers," Dacey said. She and Galligan have been brewing together for about two years, and although they've crafted about 40 different brews in that time, the batch for which they won third prize in the experimental category was the third they had ever made.
"It's a Bourbon Barrel Porter," Galligan said. "The way it aged is really nice. You can taste a lot of the vanilla notes."
Heath Gelinas, his brother Jason Gelinas and Stacy Labante, who call themselves "Bottom-Side-Up Brewing," won first place in the experimental category with a Black IPA.
"It's done well in the past," Heath Gelinas said. "We've placed two other times already — but this is the first time it's placed first."
Turner said he felt the event exceeded his expectations for the number of brewers participating.
"There's a lot of really great beer here," Turner said. "Especially when you think about how people are making these in their garages, back porches and kitchens."
One reason for the success, Turner said, was the novice section because it encourages new or isolated brewers to become involved in a community which is held together by similar competitions and other beer-centered events.
"It was kind of nice for these guys to give the young folks a chance," Turner said. "To reach out and see what they can do."