Competition Corner: Jeff Swearengin

May 9, 2003 at 1:50pm

Author(s): Al Boyce

Welcome to Competition Corner! In this feature, we 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.

The second brewer in our series is Jeff Swearengin - a member of the "FOAM" (Fellowship of Oklahoma Ale Makers.)

Where do you live?
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Are you married? Do you have children?
What are their names and ages?

Yes, I’ve two future brewers. My oldest son Brandon is 4 and my youngest son Brett is 16 months old. My wife’s name is Tammy Lynn.

What is your occupation?
I’m an account representative for a distribution company that specializes in on-premise sales of beer, wine, and spirits to local businesses e.g. bars, hotels, and restaurants

How long have you been home-brewing?
I’ve been home brewing for ten years.

Why did you start home brewing?
I started home brewing after coming home to very few imported bottled or draught beers after being stationed in Germany.

What do you call your “brewery”?
I call it “The 95th Place Brewery” because that is the name of the street that I live on. I know it’s not very original, but there you have it.

When it comes to extract, partial-mash, and all-grain, do you think one brewing style has an advantage in competitions?
I?m an all-grain brewer now. However, I started home brewing using kits & extracts. After a year, I switched to partial mashes for awhile before finally getting a Zapap set up to do my first all-grain batch. I don’t think one brewing style has any advantage over the other. I believe that the quality of ingredients available to the amateur brewer nowadays levels the playing field.

Do you remember the first beer that you ever won with in a competition?
Yes, I still remember my first award-winning brew. It was an English-style Pale Ale that was brewed using Munton and Fison?s LME.

How big is your average batch?
10.5 US Gallons.

What are your favorite styles to brew?
I love to brew German-style ales and lagers e.g. Altbiers, Kolnbiers, Festbiers, Pilsners, Weizens, etc

How long have you been a BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) judge, and Which Certification? ...additionally, how do you think being a judge has influenced the your brewing?
I’ve been judging for about as long as I’ve been homebrewing, but I didn’t get my BJCP Certification until 2000. My BJCP Rank is Certified. I really would have to say that the only influence the BJCP has had on my brewing is probably refining my recipes for more Stylistic Accuracy.

Why do you enter competitions?
I’ve always been a competitor, but I enter competitions mostly because they?re lots of fun! I always muse over my feedback, but if it stopped being fun then what’s the point?

On average, how many competitions do you enter per year?

On average, how many beers do you enter in any single competition?

What are some of the competitions you've won, and which are you most proud of?
Overall, I’ve won over 125 different medals/ribbons in local, regional, and national competitions. These include five Best of Shows (BOS), Two AHA NHC medals, and a MCAB Champion. I’ve also won the High Plains Brewer of the Year award for the last couple of years. I’m probably the most proud of my first original all-grain recipe that placed third in the 1996 AHA NHC 1st Round.

What traits of a competition encourage or discourage you to enter it, and which are your favorite?
I prefer to enter competitions that have good organization. I am discouraged by competitions that don’t have electronic filing. I don’t like to spend a lot of time filling out entry forms by hand. I’d rather spend that time drinking a homebrew. I always enjoy entering two of my region’s biggest competitions. The Bluebonnet Brew-Off in Irving, TX and the KCBM Regional Home Brew Competition in Basehor, KS., because both competitions are extremely well organized and the sponsoring club’s are very friendly people.

How do you develop winning recipes?
That?s an easy question. It’s by trial and error, plus lots of blood, sweat, and tears. Did I place enough emphasis on the sweat part?

How important are brewing techniques in making award-winning beers?
Extremely important! Talk to any winning brewer (home or commercial) and you’ll find that brewing consistently using technique (process) over recipe & using the finest (freshest) ingredients possible is the key to winning competitions. In addition, don’t ever forget the ’Golden Rule’ of brewing. Cleanliness is next to Godliness! I’m sure that you’ve all heard that one before, but it never hurts to hear it again.

How important are ingredient choices in making award-winning beers?
Ingredient choices are important, but not as important as how fresh those ingredients are.

Do you routinely treat your brewing water? How?
Yes and no. I have moderately hard water, so it’s good for a lot of different beer styles. But I often use outside water sources, especially when brewing European Pale Lagers.

I often pre-boil my brewing water the night before to precipitate carbonates. I often adjust my brewing water with calcium chloride (CaCl2) and/or gypsum (CaSO4). Occasionally, I’ll use lactic acid (C3H6O3) or a phosphoric acid (H3PO4) solution to adjust my sparge water pH depending on the chosen style. I rarely, but sometimes use precipitated chalk (CaCO3) added directly to the mash water to achieve a more alkaline pH, but again it really depends on what you really want to achieve. Overall, water chemistry plays a hugely important role in trying to duplicate some of the world’s finest beers.

How important are primary and secondary fermentation times and temperatures in making award-winning beers, and how important are lagering times and temperatures?

Lengthy primary fermentation times should be avoided altogether. Your beer will let you know through attenuation (%RDF) and gravity readings when your secondary fermentation is finished. I don’t over extend any of my fermentation times, as I always strive to produce some natural carbonation in the tertiary conditioning process. It might sound a little crazy, but taste your beer, listen to your beer, and it’ll let you know when it’s time. Lagering times and temperatures are crucial if you’re wanting to produce a world class beer.

How closely do you attempt to adhere to BJCP styles in brewing your award-winning beers?
Most of my competition beers adhere very closely to the style guidelines. I often brew middle of the road beers, so as to not attract unwanted attention from any of the judges. I constantly remind everyone that the BJCP Style Guidelines are just that. They are guidelines. However, if you wish to compete in AHA/BJCP sanctioned events and have any hope for success; then you’re going to have to brew within the outlined parameters.

Do you make changes in your recipes or techniques based on the feedback you get from competitions, what feedback helps you?
I make changes to my recipes occasionally if they're not performing well, but my brewing techniques rarely change. My motto is, if it’s not broke, then don’t try to fix it! I always enjoy comments in the Overall Impression section of the score sheet. Especially, when I see a comment from an Apprentice/Novice judge telling me that my beer is one of the best home brewed beers that they’ve ever had. That always means more to me than any award that I could ever win.
I find that non-constructive or negative criticism is the least helpful to a brewer. Surprisingly, I often see it from some of the most experienced beer judges. Don’t give opinions, unless you’re sincere about helping a brewer by using positive constructive feedback and/or suggestions. Most BJCP judges are usually pretty helpful in this area.

How much attention do you pay to which competitions you enter?
I like to compete regularly in a couple of different homebrewing circuits and I often send my beers to MCAB qualifying events. The smaller, less established (sanctioned) competitions are usually good starting points for the novice competitor. A brewer usually gets quality feedback along with a better chance to score a ribbon or prize. Some competitions that are trying to establish themselves will often give a prize or certificate to entrants just for sending a beer. Free hops, malt, or yeast are always welcomed commodities to home brewers. Competitions that are easier to win usually have more category/subcategory breakdowns, smaller number of entries. Location, and time of the year sometimes plays a small role. Competition that are harder to win usually have higher entry numbers, combined with lower number of awards. These are usually the older "more established" competitions.

What other tips or advice would you offer to a brewer who would like to win competitions?
Here’s my top ten list:

1) You can’t win a competition, if you don’t enter.
2) Don’t be afraid of not winning. I guarantee that I’ve lost more competitions than I’ve ever won.
3) There’s no such thing as a bad homebrew! At least, I’ve never had one. Some are just better than others and certain brews have that little something extra (intangibles) to make a truly magnificent (world class) beer.
4) Magical recipes and expensive brewing systems don’t win competitions.
5) Brewers win competitions by using consistent, diligent, and sanitary (sometime methodical) methods to brew those recipes.
6) Don’t take short cuts with your brewing schedules or recipe ingredients Personal quotes: "Time is not wasted, if it’s spent on good beer." "Fresher is better, unless you’re a lambic brewer!"
7)Being a good "cellar master" is also a beneficial quality for competition success. Keep in mind, that beer, cider, and mead are perishable products with natural flavor curves. Entering a beer, cider, or mead at its peak is an art unto itself.
8) Having a little lady luck on your side isn’t necessarily a bad thing. "lucky" hydrometer hanging on my brew house wall. Call me superstitious.
9) Most of all remember that your entry stands just as good of chance of winning as the next.
10) Enter those beers, ciders, and meads with confidence. Who knows you might win something?

Would you please share with us one of your most successful recipes from the competitions you've won?
Here’s my MCAB Champion American Wheat beer recipe from last year. I call the recipe WildCat Wheat; named in honor of the "wildcatter’s" who traveled to Indian Territory in search of black gold. The recipe makes a great quaffing beer anytime, but especially for those warmer days of late Spring. I hope to see your next home brew in the winner’s circle!

Jeff Swearengin’s Wildcat Wheat
By Jeff Swearengin
BJCP Style Guidelines: 03-B Light Ale, American Wheat

Min OG: 1.035 Max OG: 1.055
Min IBU: 10 Max IBU: 30
Min Clr: 2 Max Clr: 8 Color in SRM, Lovibond

Recipe Specifics:
Batch Size (US Gal): 10.50; Wort Size (US Gal): 10.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 22.00
Actual OG: 1.054 (13.4P); FG: 1.012 (3.1P)
Anticipated OG: 1.058 (14.3P)
Anticipated SRM: 4.5
Anticipated IBU: 28.0
Brewhouse Efficiency: 72 %
Wort Boiling Time: 60 Minutes

10.00 lbs. Muessdoerffer Pilsen
10.00 lbs. Muessdoerffer Wheat Malt
1.00 lbs. Weyermann Caramel Pils
1.00 lbs. Flaked Wheat

2.59 oz. Crystal (Whole) 4.20% AA [FWH]
1.31 oz. Crystal (Whole) 4.20% AA [15 Min]
1.16 oz. Crystal (Whole) 4.20% AA [10 Min]
0.70 oz. Crystal (Whole) 4.20% AA [05 Min]

5.00 gm. Calcium Chloride (CaCl) [Sparge]
0.65 gm. White Labs Servomyces [Starter]

White Labs #WLP029 German Ale/Kolsch (2.27L Starter)

Water Profile: Tulsa, OK
Profile known for: Brown, Light, Pale Ales
Calcium(Ca): 62.4 ppm
Magnesium(Mg): 7.1 ppm
Sodium(Na): 12.5 ppm
Sulfate(SO4): 8.9 ppm
Chloride(Cl): 14.5 ppm
biCarbonate(HCO3): 74.6 ppm

pH: 8.32

Mash Schedule: Fix's 2-Step (Euro)

pH: 5.56

Total Grain LBS: 23.00
Grain Temp: 68.00F
Total Water QTS: 16.50 - Before Additional Infusions
Total Water GAL : 5.75
Tun Thermal Mass : 0.30
Total Water QTS: 23.00 - After Additional Infusions
Total Water GAL: 5.75 - After Additional Infusions

*All temperature measurements are degrees Fahrenheit.
*All infusion amounts are in Quarts.
*All infusion ratios are Quarts/Lbs.

Don't add clarifying agents e.g. Irish Moss unless you prefer a "Kristall" version.

Champion - MCAB V, Washington D.C.
Finalist - 2002 AHA NHC, Irving, TX
Silver Medal - Sunshine Challenge XVII, Orlando, FL
2nd Place - 2002 AHA NHC (1st Round), Basehor, KS
2nd Place - 13th Annual Reggale & Dredhop Competition, Denver, CO
2nd Place - 3rd Annual Wild Brew, Tulsa, OK
2nd Place - 2002 IBU Challenge, Des Moines, IA
3rd Place - 2002 FOAM CUP, Tulsa, OK
3rd Place - 2003 IBU Challenge, Des Moines, IA


Jeffery S. Swearengin

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