Craft Beer Challenge: Cloning the Champagne of Beers

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Miller High Life Challenge

On a brisk, jet-black night at the end of January, Washington Avenue’s 706 Bar was abuzz with chatty, happy Brooklynites throwing back glass after glass of yellow, fizzy American Light Lager. The windows were damp and foggy, warmed by the boisterous crowd huddled inside the narrow dive. High-fives were flying, late-90s alt-rock dominated the soundtrack, and a few punctuating Southern drawls rose above the cheerful din. Sound like one of the local brewing community’s most creative and innovative weekend events? Not so much.

Yet, upon closer inspection, these thirsty denizens weren’t just pounding pints and crushing cans. No, these folks were actually tasting their beer–swirling, sniffing, lifting glasses up to the light with an eye towards color and cloudiness and, finally, carefully sipping, the bubbly brew slowly expanding over their trained palates to provide a keen sense of the beer’s illusive mouthfeel. Each gripped two almost identical half-full cups, studiously evaluating telling characteristics in an attempt to discern which one of these bland, domestic lagers was produced in a massive factory tucked away in some nameless industrial park and which was homebrewed just steps from 706 Bar’s front door. This wasn’t a re-staging of Budweiser’s abysmal Super Bowl commercial–this was Bitter & Esters’ Miller High Life Challenge.

“We were at 706 bar after work drinking their Miller High Life & Jameson special–a shot and a Miller for six bucks. Sometimes you just need that,”explained Bitter & Esters’ John La Polla, who co-owns and operates the beloved Prospect Heights homebrew shop. “[Bitter & Esters employee] Bobby mentioned how hard it is to clone a light American lager, and Derek, the owner of 706, said, ‘I bet you can’t make one.’” And thus, in a moment that brewer Bobby Bendily later described as “post-workday alcohol-fueled braggadocio,” the stage was set. A challenge was born.

A few weeks after that fateful night, La Polla stood guard in a corner near the bar’s front seating area, pouring from two pitchers of bright, foamy beer. Each aspiring beer judge was given two plastic cups marked “A” and “B” and then released back to their friends to discuss Bobby’s relative effectiveness. Sixpoint Brewing Manager Heather McReynolds accepted two cups and peered deep into each brew before declaring her choice. “Bobby’s is B,” she concluded. “I mean, it’s not too hard–it’s a 50-50 chance. But it’s a good clone.” What tipped her off? “DMS,” she said with certainty, referring to the sulfur compound produced during fermentation that gives the Champagne of Beers that all too familiar creamed corn aroma. It’s difficult to replicate such a distinct marker.

Bendily’s version was a good one, just a tad cloudier and more biscuity than his macro competitor. Cloning–homebrew intended to mimic a particular professionally brewed brand–has always been a popular entry point for new craft-obsessed homebrewers as well as a fun experiment for veterans like Bendily. “It helps to have a reference as to what beer you’d like to brew and drink,” remarked La Polla on the growing trend. “I tell homebrewers to do their research and try lots of brewery’s beers — it gives you a good reason to drink. That way, when you make two cases of beer, you are more in the ballpark of what you like drinking and have a better idea of what ingredients to use.”

Despite increasingly competitive murmurings arising from big beer’s ample marketing budget, La Polla found that many professional outlets–the craft ones, at least–are happy to share their secrets with homebrewers and few view cloning as a direct threat. “Most breweries are pretty open to at least giving you the ingredients and the IBUs, ABV and so on. They might not tell you exactly how they make it and the proportions, but you can figure it out,” he said. “Most craft breweries today were started by homebrewers, so they get the whole fun aspect of homebrewing. Homebrewing is an asset and not a threat to craft brewing–an educated consumer is their best customer.”

That distinction between craft’s transparency and macro’s secrecy was confirmed by another Miller High Life Challenge attendee who happened to also be a former Anheuser Busch employee. “They would never reveal their recipe or how they made it,” she said of the multinational corporation famous for their adjunct lagers ‘brewed the hard way.’ “It’s like KFC over there.”

In the end, 706’s Derek stood at the end of the bar, flanked by La Polla and Bendily, and read the results. Bendily’s High Life only fooled ten out of fifty-five drinkers into thinking it was the real deal, marking a sad defeat but a valiant effort. “Ten people thought Bobby’s beer sucked!” exclaimed La Polla, slapping Bendily on the back. “Double digits!” hooted Bendily, pumping his fist in the air, “ I was thinking I’d only get four!

Derek handed the homebrewer a shaker pint embossed with the iconic Miller High Life logo. “Bobby, I now sentence you to drinking every beer brewed at Bitter & Esters out of this beautiful glass for the next calendar year!”

The guests returned to drinking, the battle now settled and the punishment sufficiently doled. Damaging as this loss may have been to his brewing ego, at least Bendily will be primarily filling his shiny new glassware with delicious, all-grain homebrew in the coming months–beer brewed with equal parts passion, creativity and real hard work.

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