Mason takes silver in national brewing contest
Roll out the barrels, the High Country has its very own brewing champion.
Boone resident Andrew Mason won a silver medal in the 32nd annual American Homebrewers Association's National Homebrew Competition, considered the world's largest beer competition.
The winning beer? Mason's own Biere de Garde, described as a French/Belgian peasant beer.
The beer doesn't resemble an impoverished European, but is named rather for its historical context - when surface waters were contaminated, people would often turn to small beer, boiled pure and low in alcohol.
"This probably started as a low-alcohol sustenance beer," Mason said, "beer for storage or provision."
It's a malt-centric beer, as opposed to hoppy, but to brew it properly, "You've got to obtain and use products indigenous to the area, North France, Southern Belgium," Mason said, mentioning Belgian malts, German yeast and Alsatian hops. "I've wanted to brew one for a long time and spent a long time researching this particular style."
And the research paid off, as the first time he brewed it, Mason hit the nail on the head (no pun intended). "I had a good idea of the characteristics of the beer before I did it," he said.
He also had a good idea of judging criteria. In the competition, beers are judged on a 50-point scale, and a score in the 40s is well worth toasting. Mason's Biere de Garde garnered a 43.
"You have to get a 45 or better to be a world-class beer," he said. "Forty-three's as high as I've ever gotten."
The winning entry marks Mason's third time participating in this particular competition, he said, usually competing in regional and local contests - a corkboard in his brewing room boasts 11 ribbons from the latter.
"But I was the only guy in North Carolina to get any medal at all in the second round of the National Homebrew Competition," he said.
According to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, which hosts the event, this year's competition saw a record 6,287 homebrew entries from 1,599 homebrewers in 50 states, Washington, D.C., six Canadian provinces and England - and that's just the first round.
The final round sees the top three entries in each of the competition's 28 categories compete at the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) National Homebrewers Conference.
Under those categories are 80-odd sub-styles, each with their own special criteria, Mason said, meaning beers are judged against those of the same ilk, his own category pitting him against 410 fellow brewers.
Then, on June 17, the country's brightest beer judges evaluated 760 brews, the Brewers Association reports.
"For homebrewers, taking a medal in the AHA National Homebrew Competition is the ultimate achievement," National Homebrew Competition director Janis Gross said in a press release. "With more than 6,200 entries, the National Homebrew Competition is by far the toughest and most prestigious homebrew competition - the medal winners can truly take pride in knowing that they brew the best beer in the world."
"Someone once said there are about 160-odd variables you can manipulate while making beer, most dealing with time and temperature," Mason said.
"But it's really about understanding the product and manipulating (the variables) and how the process works ... to the point where if you give one the same collection of ingredients, based on the way I manipulate them, I can give you two distinctly different beers."
But Mason has an edge, as well as a Ph.D. As a forensic toxicologist with a background in chemistry, the science of brewing is practically second nature. "You've got to use your knowledge and skill to achieve that vision in your head ... but beyond that, it's the skill of the brewer to help you know how to achieve. It's a real blend of art and science, and that really appeals to me."
And it's the artistic side that pours the wow factor, along with an even less tangible ingredient - luck, as competition also depends on the order and experience of its judges.
It also boils down to the experience of the brewer. In Mason's case, he's got 21 years' worth. "I blame it on my wife," he said.
In 1989, a neighbor in Chapel Hill introduced him to homebrewing. It didn't take Mason's wife, Lynne, long to realize his interest was piqued. She bought him his own equipment and, in 1990, Mason had brewed his first beer, a stout.
"It was drinkable ... it was clearly a first attempt," he said. "The Brewers Association motto used to be, 'It's not rocket science unless you want it to be.' Technically speaking, if you can boil water, you can make beer. Now, if you want to make great beer, it's a lot more difficult."
But as a homebrewer, it's a lot more comfortable. Mason converted his basement into a home brewery, complete with an ever-expanding array of equipment, a home-rigged kegerator with several varieties on tap, and more ingredients than you can shake a stein at.
"I pretty much make all my equipment," he said. "I buy the pieces and put them together, all modified."
Mason can't even guess how many beers he's brewed - he suggested 100 or so, with a heavy emphasis on the "or so." The list includes porters, meads and a recently brewed Belgian black beer. But out of all his attempts, the Biere de Garde has met with the most critical acclaim, he said, "though I've made beers I like better than this."
All the same, he's more than happy with the results.
"It's a really well-rounded beer - round, rich, the kind where you can imagine yourself saying, 'I'd like another.'"
Folks can taste for themselves at the third annual High Country Beer Fest ( http://www.hcbeerfest.com) on Sept. 4, where Mason will roll out the barrel of Biere de Garde, along with some other surprises.
At present, he hasn't any plans to go pro, rather enjoying the freedom and outright pleasure of brewing for friends, family and himself.
"The beauty of American beer is that there's no confinement," he said. "If you dream it, make it."
For more information on homebrewing, visit http://www.homebrewersassociation.org.