Competition Corner: Steve Piatz

January 23, 2003 at 3:00pm

Author(s): Al Boyce

Welcome to Competition Corner! In this feature, we will seek out award-winning brewers from around the country and ask them their strategies and techniques for brewing great beer and winning contests with them.

Our very first brewer is Steve Piatz (pictured) - a member of the Minnesota Home Brewer’s Association.

Where do you live?
I live in Eagan, Minnesota - suburban Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

Are you married? Do you have children?
Married, no children.

What is your occupation?
I am an Electrical Engineer working in the computer industry on software development. I am a technical leader for operating system development at Cray Incorporated, the supercomputer company. I have been involved in the early design and development of operating systems for products such as the Cray T3D, the Cray T3E, and, most recently, the Cray X1.

How long have you been home-brewing?
I have been brewing beer since somewhere around 1991, I brewed my first cider long ago as a high school science project. I think I made my first mead in 1995.

Does your brewery have a name? If so, what is it?
No name, I guess I am not very creative. I rarely name my beers.

Do you do extract, partial-mash, all-grain, or some combination? Do you think one brewing style has an advantage in competitions?
I do mostly all-grain but threw in a few partial extract batches and even a few all extract batches. However, most of the all extract batches are lambics and the partial extract batches are things like barleywines where the extract is used to get a high starting gravity.

How big is your average batch?
For the last few years I have been using a 15 gallon kettle so my batch size is typically 11 or 12 gallons. For a number of years I used an eight gallon kettle on the kitchen stove and made five gallon batches.

What are your favorite styles to brew?
It is hard to pick a favorite style, probably the bitter English Ales and the Belgian Ales. How’s that for a broad answer?

Are you a beer judge? How long? Which BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) Certification? If so, how do you think being a judge has influenced your brewing?
I am a BJCP National judge and an Associate Director for the BJCP Exam. I have been judging since 1992 and a BJCP judge since 1993. I have been involved in the Minnesota Homebrewers Association’s BJCP preparation classes since the first one in 1993.

I don’t think being a judge influenced my beer as much as the study required to become a judge. Participating in a number of exam preparation classes as well as self study has help me understand the styles and their characteristics. Generally, I have worked with the styles enough and understand my brewery’s capabilities and ingredients well enough to be close on my initial try at any style.

Why do you enter competitions?
I enter competition for impartial feedback as well as for the challenge.

On average, how many competitions do you enter per year?
In addition to the AHA Nationals I probably enter 5 or so competitions a year.

On average, how many beers do you enter in any single competition?
I probably enter around 6 on average, it depends on what I have available that I think has a chance of winning. Fall competitions are tough since I don’t seem to find much time to brew during the summer.

What are some of the competitions you’ve won? Of which are you most proud?
I think I have taken BOS in the Northern Brewer Competition, the March Mashness, the Des Moines IBU Open twice. I have also taken a couple of medals in the AHA Nationals and a medal in the MCAB as well as numerous other medals/ribbons in competitions.

The most special/unusual is probably the gold in the Nationals a few years ago for a historic porter. The whole idea came about after I gave a few bottles of Summit’s Great Northern Porter to the manager of the Orval Brewery in Belgium. He read the label and asked if it was brewed in the traditional way with a Brettanomyces culture (Orval uses Brettanomyces). I had to say no Summit didn’t use Brettanomyces but the more I thought about it the more I thought it would be an interesting beer.

So I re-read my reprint of John Tuck’s 1817 book A Private Brewers Guide as well as Roger Protz’s The Ale Trail for the history of Porter and created a version of what was likely one of the three threads in the original porter. My version was a big, hoppy porter that was intentionally innoculated with Brettanomyces and then aged in a carboy. I still have a batch going in a carboy that was blended with some of the original medal winning batch. It has quite the perllicle growing on it now.

What traits of a competition encourages you to enter it? What traits of a competition discourages you to enter it? Which competitions are your favorite? Why?
I mainly go for regional competitions, ones I have judged at or hope to get to for judging. Being part of the competition as a judge is part of the fun. I have also entered specialized competitions such as the Spirit of Belgium that allowed multiple entries per subcategory - that allowed me to get impartial feedback on some split batches (just different yeasts) I brewed. I would like to see more competitions allow multiple entries per subcategory, though as a past organizer of the Minnesota Brewfest I understand that tracking the entries and scoresheets back to the beers is harder when you allow multiple entries per subcategory - you need to have a way for the brewer to know which beer got which scoresheets.

I avoid competitions that repeatedly come up with poor quality scoresheets. As a BJCP exam grader I expect to see good scoresheets but get more than a few disappointing sheets back.

One of my favorites was my first, the Minnesota Brewfest that was held at Sherlock’s Home the English-style brewpub in metro Minneapolis - St. Paul. Alas, the competition ended a few years ago and Sherlock’s Home closed at the end of 2002. Nowadays my favorite is probably the Kansas City Bier Meister’s annual competition. Generally a good time with a bunch of good brewers and judges plus typically some good food.

How do you develop winning recipes?
By reading about the style and then doing an initial recipe and tweaking from there. The Brewers Publications style series is a good starting point for the styles the series covers.

Another good references is Ray Daniels’ Designing Great Beers. However, remember, a recipe is not sufficient, you need to account for your brewery’s characteristics and your ingredients.

As homebrewers it is hard to get the exact same result on a recipe from batch to batch, the fermentation temperature may change or the hops aren’t exactly the same, etc. There is always some level of luck but good research will get you close.

How important are brewing techniques in making award-winning beers?

I think technique is the key to winning beers. A recipe is not nearly enough. Just like cooking (another interest of mine) technique takes you from good to great.

How important are ingredient choices in making award-winning beers?
Ingredients are important but it is hard to say that they are more important than technique. Some ingredients like hops and yeast are more significant than others in some styles. I guess it is hard to have a broad general answer other than “it depends.”

Do you routinely treat your brewing water? How?
I typically use acid to adjust my sparge water’s pH. My water source is municipal well water that is very high in temporary hardness. For styles needing low carbonates I resort to preboiling the water to precipitate the carbonates and/or blend with purchased reverse osmosis water. For hoppy British ale like an IPA I add gypsum to the boil. There is no single answer, it depends on the style.

How important are primary and secondary fermentation times and temperatures in making award-winning beers? How important are lagering times and temperatures?
If your techniques are good the primary times should be pretty short and the secondary really is just to get the beer to clear. Lagering temps are probably even more critical than the duration of the lager step - near freezing steps are called for. Letting the primary go too long (not racking) can cause problems with off flavors. Leaving the beer in secondary for an extended period isn’t as big a problem since it is sort of like bottle conditioning in the carboy.

Since I use a counterflow wort chiller I end up with cold break in my carboy. For lagers I chill, pitch, place in the fridge and then rack off the trub the next day before the fermentation has really taken off. For ales, I leave the break in the primary. For some British ales I may skip the secondary and keg straight from the primary.

How closely do you attempt to adhere to BJCP styles in brewing your award-winning beers?
I try to stick very close though I will aim for the upper end of the IBUs and the gravity allowed.

Do you make changes in your recipes or techniques based on the feedback you get from competitions? What type of feedback is most helpful to you? What type is least helpful?
Yes I do sometimes make changes based on feedback from competitions. However, many of the suggestions I see on my scoresheets have no correlation with what is needed. I am more likely to just look at the perception/description and make my own changes based on that and based on what I though of the beer.

How much attention do you pay to which competitions you enter? Do you find that some competitions are easier to win than others? What characteristics of a competition make it easier to win? What characteristics of a competition make it harder to win?
I haven’t really paid much attention to which competitions I enter other than mostly going for the regional ones. I think the more established (and bigger) competitions can be harder to win in because they draw from a broader set of good brewers. I also see smaller competitions as being hard since there can be a little less experience in the judging pool which tends to bias the competition toward the beers those judges brew and drink which may not encompass the range in the style guidelines. So a midsize competition may be easiest to win in if it draws an broad pool of judges but doesn’t necessarily draw from brewers nationally.

What other tips or advice would you offer to a brewer who would like to win competitions?
To win you have to enter. You also have to brew good beer that is very close to style. Watch your technique, everything matters at some level but technique is very important. Use a yeast starter, you really can taste the difference in many beers. Try to stay close to style, the good judges will notice beers that are very far out of style on things like color, gravity, alcohol level, or bitterness. Learn to be critical of your own beers, learn the terminology used by judges so you can use the scoresheets to improve your beer.

Would you please share with us one of your most successful recipes from the competitions you’ve won?
Here is a version of my Bavarian Weizen that has won a couple of medals. The recipe is for 12 gallons of wort after chilling. For my brewery this recipe yielded an OG of 1.053 though I was planning on 1.050 - the increased yield from the decoction mash wasn’t accounted for in my recipe planning spreadsheet.

By Steve Piatz

11.21 lb German wheat malt
7.47 lb American 2-row lager malt
36 g. Hallertauer (whole) 5.4% - 90 min
12 g. Hallertauer (whole) 5.4% - 15 min
Yeast: White Labs Hefeweizen IV / White Labs American Hefeweizen

OG: 1.053
FG: 1.020 / 1.014
IBUs: 12

Use a standard double decoction mash as in Eric Warner’s German Wheat Beer which has stops at 99F, 117F, 122F, 127F, 147F, 160F, and 170F - for the details see the book, this is a long mash cycle. I started with 0.333 gallons of water per pound of malt plus 2 gallons to account for the grant in my system. I sparged until I collected 13.75 gallons at the start of the 90 minute boil and had approximtely 12.5 gallons in the kettle before I started chilling.

I planned on 12 IBUs in the beer. For hops I used 36 grams of 5.4% whole Hallertauer for 90 minutes and 12 grams for 15 minutes. The late addition is atypical for style but I was splitting the batch where part was going to be fermented as an American wheat beer.

The Bavarian Weizen won a medal in the 2002 Hoppy Halloween Challenge and the American Wheat advanced to the second round in the 2002 AHA Nationals.

For the Bavarian version I used White Labs Hefeweizen IV and for the American I used White Labs American Hefeweizen. The primary was a touch cool, in the low 60’s F and secondary was held at 70F. Due to the cool primary the Bavarian ended up a tad sweet with a FG of 1.020 while the American had a FG of 1.014.

The beer was bottled with 90 grams of corn sugar per carboy after 18 days.

Previous Competition Corner interviews
Jamil Zainasheff- August 2004
Curt Stock - March 2004
Jeff Swearengin - May 2003
Steve Piatz - January 2003