Williston homebrewer sweeps in state meet

Observer courtesy photo Aaron Ritchie, a Williston resident, swept a state homebrewing competition last month, winning nine awards for his ciders and beers, including Best in Show.
Observer courtesy photo
Aaron Ritchie, a Williston resident, swept a state homebrewing competition last month, winning nine awards for his ciders and beers, including Best in Show.

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

A Williston-based homebrewer and beer connoisseur won nine awards and finished “Best in Show” at the annual Green Mountain Mashers tournament, held last month in Westford.

Aaron Ritchie, who lives in Southridge and works for IBM, was bestowed with more awards than any other contestant at the Greg Noonan Memorial Homebrew Competition on April 30, winning nine prizes in total and two of the top all-show awards, Best in Show and the Vermont Pub and Brewery Brewmaster’s cup. He also won Cidermaker of the Year and two first-prize selections in their category: first place for the Strong Ale category for his Old English Ale, and first place in the Specialty Cider and Perry category for a hard cider aged on bourbon oak.

The competition is Vermont’s largest for amateur brewers, according to a press release, and annually honors the best home-brewed beer, mead and cider created by amateur brewers in the state. The contest is named for a former brewer, author and member of the Mashers, who was known for his openness and willingness to help new brewers, but who passed away in 2009.

“It was really exciting; I got my scoresheets and I didn’t really have any clue that I was going to win that many ribbons at all,” said Ritchie, who has been brewing for just over two years.

Judges ranked 253 overall entries this year across 31 distinct style categories of beer, cider and meads (each of which has distinguished qualities that certified beer judges make their decisions around.)

They judge on a range from 0 to 50 points, with 45 to 50 identifying ‘world class style’ and zero having ‘major off flavors.’ Because Ritchie couldn’t tell from the scoring whether he had placed, he didn’t know where his numbers had landed him. “But I just assumed I wasn’t in the Best in Show at all,” he said.

SLIDESHOW: Ritchie’s homebrewing setup >> 

“Then they were judging and eventually one of the judges, was like ‘OK, how about all of us pick out our top three beers.’ So they all pick out their top three, and they go in order left to right…And every single guy was like first place, the Old Ale…every single one was like, “the Old Ale, the Old Ale,” and I was listening, because I made an Old Ale… and people clapped, and they decided pretty quickly. A lot of times the Best in Show can take a few hours,” he said.

His other prizes included third place in the Strong Stout category for an Imperial he brewed with coconut, cacao nibs and bourbon-soaked oak cubes; second place for the Spice and Specialty Mead category for an orange-blossom honey braggot (a cross between a mead and a beer); and second place for a New World cider, in the Standard Cider and Perry category.

While Ritchie said the entire experience was wholly gratifying, he was most excited about being awarded the Vermont Pub and Brewery’s Brewmaster’s cup, mainly for the grand prize that goes with it. Again, it was an honor that caught him off guard.

“The Pub and Brewery guys came over and they said, ‘You’re going to come and brew with us!’” he said, after he’d heard the other judges’ decisions. “It’s been like a big dream or goal of mine to go and do some brewing at a professional brewery.” His winning Old English Ale would likely be brewed at the Burlington-based restaurant/brewery in November, he said, and with the aging time required, be available at the brewery sometime in April 2017.

This contest isn’t Ritchie’s first win this year: he made it to top-10 status in an early round of Make the Cut on Feb. 27, a newer local competition in which restaurants and beer fans help decide the best home-brewed beer that deserves distribution. As he noted, a lot of his cohorts at this year’s Mashers competition – which was in its 25th year — have been brewing for decades.

He credits reading books about home brewing, drinking great beer and watching a lot of videos to his success. “I try to just drink the best beers in the world. When I go to the store, I’m only going to trust in the best-rated stuff. The best examples of a category-rated beer,” he said. “I’m going to compare [what I’m making] to the best examples in the world,” he said.

Also, he always starts out small. “One thing I really focus on is quality over quantity,” he said. “I think a lot of people go to instantly producing a large amount of beer. I try to make a small batch,” he said, and then he tweaks and meddles with the recipe until he finds something special.

He also seeks out interesting recipes, especially ones from professional breweries. “Then I use this software [called Beersmith] that you can basically design a whole recipe with, and can scale it up or down… it really lets you do anything,” he said.

Other secrets to his success

  • Brew in batches no larger than 2 ½ gallons
  • Brew in a bag method, which allows him to use one single vessel and his kitchen stove
  • Look for the best ingredients he can find
  • He mills the grains himself
  • Use liquid yeast
  • Be very careful about temperature control

“I just put a lot of care, a lot of my soul into it,” said Ritchie. “I just enjoy doing it. And I don’t know, I taste a lot of these beers at the club meetings, and there’s a lot of great beer out there.”

He humbly added, “It’s a subjective type thing when it comes to judging these beers. There’s got to be a little bit of that.”

Though he walked away with nine ribbons and has the Pub and Brewery now on his dance card, Ritchie said he did suffer a small letdown that Saturday with one very rare beer he tried to make. It was brewed in a historical style called Grodziskie, made with an oak-smoked wheat malt and with hoppy character. He read a book devoted to smoked beers in preparation for brewing “Polish Champagne” as the once-extinct brew has been called. “It’s been around for hundreds of years and went away for some time. That’s one I thought had a good chance of winning something,” he said. He even went to the lengths of sourcing hops that were grown in Poland for a truly authentic touch. The problem for the unusual beer may be “it’s the brewer’s best guess at how it should taste,” as an article in Draft Magazine noted in 2014.

“It may have hurt me because people may not have tasted any examples of it,” he said.

When he’s not getting all ambish with his brewing, Ritchie is a big data curriculum developer at IBM and father to a 4-year-old named Matt. He credits his wife Liz, who he met when they were 15 years old at Champlain Valley Union High School, with helping him bottle his beers, some of which, aged, wound up winning this competition. “Maybe she was my secret to success this year!” he said. When he’s not brewing or working with data sets, he is playing and recording music, and will soon be trying smoking meats. His next great challenge though? Entering national brewing competitions and possibly doing collaborations with local breweries.