Competition Corner: Jamil Zainasheff

August 31, 2004 at 8:15pm

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 fourth brewer in our series is Jamil Zainasheff - a member of the QUAFF homebrew club. Jamil recently won the Ninkasa award at the 2004 AHA National Homebrew Competition, for winning the most medals in the final round of the competition.

Where do you live?
Elk Grove, CA

Are you married? Do you have children?
My wife's name is Liz, and and we have 2 kids.

What is your occupation?
Software engineering. Director of Engineering, Macromedia Inc.

How long have you been home-brewing?
About 4.5 years.

Do you belong to a beer club?
Yes, I belong to QUAFF, from San Diego, CA.

Why did you start home brewing?
My wife bought me a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas. I had no interest in beer
before that. Beer to me was B/M/C. I've learned a lot since then. :-)

Do you do extract, partial-mash, all-grain, or some combination?
All grain. I use a B3-1550 system from

Do you think one brewing style has an advantage in competitions?
Yes, but that is not the most important aspect. There is so much more that is important, like fermentation, that the extract or all-grain question is unimportant until you get the other things 100% right.

How big is your average batch?
5 gallons.

What are your favorite styles to brew?
To brew? I like to brew period. The style doesn't matter. What styles do I like to drink? Scottish ales, Flanders sour beers, English bitters, bocks, robust porter.

How many batches do you brew per year?
In the past 12 months I have brewed about 15 batches.

How long have you been a BJCP beer judge, and what is your certification?
About 3.5 years, I think. I'm currently a National judge.

Do you think being a judge has influenced your brewing?
Yes, absolutely. I was telling my wife just last night at dinner how foods have even become more enjoyable since learning to judge. It is a different way of thinking, where you become an instrument to detect flavors, aromas, etc. and then appreciate them as a whole against the best examples you've ever had. I urge anyone that wants to really understand beer to become a BJCP judge.

Why do you enter competitions?
To make better beer. I believe strongly in the process of brewing, entering, judging as a way to improve your beers. Without objective feedback, brewers tend to believe what they want to believe about their beers. When I started brewing people told me my beers were fantastic, though I had my doubts. Objective feedback from competitions helped me improve my beers tremendously.

If you do enter competitions, make sure you don't dismiss the judges comments whether you win or lose. Try to learn from them and apply the information to the next batch.

On average, how many competitions do you enter per year?
I used to enter quite a few. Now I'm down to just a couple where the entry fees help fund work to expand homebrewing and/or the judging is of very high caliber.

On average, how many beers do you enter in any single competition?
It depends on the competition. Maybe an average of 10?

Of which competition wins are you most proud?
The Ninkasi, of course.

The Brewing Machine award at America's Finest City, because you're up against some really great brewers.

BOS at the Maltose Falcon's Mayfaire competition. It is a big competition, with lots of high quality brewers entered. I display very few awards but the two Falcon BOS awards are two of the very few that I display.

Sierra Nevada's homebrewer of the year twice. That award is based on total points from three competitions. I'm proud of that because I more than doubled the amount of points anyone had ever scored in the competition previously. Then even though some people told me it was a fluke that I won so big, I was able to do it again the following year.

In the final round of the NHC I've placed three years in a row in Scottish ales. A gold the first year, a silver the second, and then this year a gold and a silver. I think it shows that I have really come to understand the style and learned to brew it well. Just getting a beer past the first round in California is quite a feat, so I'm quite proud of these.

This year Ray Daniels and Geoff Larson (Alaskan Brewing), who together wrote the smoked beers book, were two of the judges for the Smoked Beers category in the final round of the NHC. I was really thrilled to get a silver for my smoked porter. I love Alaskan Brewing's smoked porter and to have Geoff consider it good enough to place was a thrill.

What traits of a competition encourages you to enter it?
High quality judging, funds going to further homebrewing in the community. Some clubs use the revenue to fund parties and such. While there is nothing wrong with that, it is much nicer when the club uses the funds to pay for BJCP study materials or to get a booth at a local fair so they can promote homebrewing.

Which competitions are your favorite, and why?
The National Homebrew Competition, because it is so difficult to win consistently. The size is huge (4,443 entries) and that means a lot of great beers just don't make it. That it is so hard to win makes it that much more appealing.

America's Finest City, not only because it is my club's competition, but I feel the judging is high caliber and I know the funds go to further homebrewing.

Washoe Zephyr Zymurgists, because the judging is great, the funds go to further homebrewing, and the people involved are just fantastic. You're not going to meet an nicer group of beer enthusiasts.

The Prison Brew competition was something some friends (Randy Barnes and Chad Stevens) and I got together on. We decided to hold a competition of beverages made as if you were in prison or out in the field for the military. We had about 12 entries and the judging was done in the hospitality suite at the NHC. The judges were Peter Zien (AleSmith brewery), Charlie Papazian (AHA), David Houseman (BJCP Grand Master) and Jim Parker (editor Zymurgy). The judging was a blast. The comments and facial expressions from the judges were priceless. I tried every entry myself and most were pretty bad. Some were incredibly bad and a couple were passable, if you were doing hard time. I lost horribly and every time I ran into Jim Parker after that, he took great pleasure in telling me things like, "You would not do well in prison" and "Your brew would get you killed in the joint." Now, Jim's a very nice guy, but I think he was planning to make a shiv out of a bottle opener and use it on me to get even for having to drink my prison brew.

I also like the California State Fair and MCAB. I really like the concept of MCAB, but since it is all volunteer with duties shifting around from group to group each year, the organization in some years tends to be very weak.

How do you develop winning recipes?
1) Read Ray Daniels Designing Great Beers to understand the recipe formulation process.
2) Read the BJCP style guidelines.
3) Take your best shot at making a recipe to match.
4) Brew it.
5) Enter it.
6) Read the judges feedback, adjust the recipe or process, brew and enter it again.

Which brewing techniques are most important in making award-winning beers?
There are three very important factors in great beer:

Everything else is almost unimportant.

How important are ingredient choices in making award-winning beers?
Not very. Make sure your ingredients are reasonably fresh.

Do you routinely treat your brewing water?
I adjust the pH with lactic acid, nothing else. While judging I get lots of beers that have a huge mineral or chalky bite to them. My advice, don't add that stuff. Start simple and adjust little by little.

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

Temperature is a critical component of fermentation. And fermentation is EVERYTHING.

How important are lagering times and temperatures?
Same answer as #37. You can't make a decent lager without really good temperature control.

How closely do you attempt to adhere to BJCP styles in brewing your award-winning beers?
I try to stick very closely. I always stay within the targets for O.G., SRM, and IBU. There are a few cases where the style are broad and then I try to stay close to what the common commercial beers are like.

Do you make changes in your recipes or techniques based on the feedback you get from competitions?
Yes. Otherwise it is a waste of beer, time and money. Several people have asked me if I have a wall covered in hundreds of ribbons. What happens to them is they get tossed into a box and my kids use them from time to time when they have a stuffed animal show with their friends.

It is nice to win and I do display my BOS awards and my medals from the final round of the NHC. However, the greatest value is in the objective feedback that can help me brew better beer. Without this BJCP process of certifying judges and giving feedback from competitions, homebrewing would not produce the high quality as it is today.

What type of feedback is most helpful to you?
Detailed comments on what was perceived. Don't write, "good malt" or "nice hop". Those phrases mean nothing, yet I see them often. Judges should strive to describe in detail the aromas, flavors, textures, colors of the beer. So was the malt like fresh french bread? Stale white bread? Warm biscuits? Crackers? Was it powerful and up front or mellow and in the background? What did you expect the malt to be like for the style and how did this compare?

What type of feedback is least helpful?
"I love this beer."
"I didn't like it."

What characteristics of a competition make it easier to win?
In general, the smaller it is, the easier it is to win.

What characteristics of a competition make it harder to win?
Sheer volume is one aspect. For example, in the first round of the NHC in California this year there were over 700 beers entered. In some categories you have 40 or 50 other beers you are competing against. While the judging is excellent, you can have some great beers get bumped because of flight order or other factors.

Another factor is the quality of the other entrants. For example, MCAB is comprised of first place winners from a set of other competitions. The entrants tend to be quite good brewers, so it can be harder to win.

What's your "secret" to winning homebrew competitions?
Learn from the feedback on the score sheets. Learn to think critically, like a judge (better yet, become a BJCP certified judge) and evaluate your beers critically, not like a new parent. Change your process/recipe if you're not winning. And most importantly, improve your fermentation. The better your fermentation, the more you will win.

What other tips or advice would you offer to a brewer who would like to win competitions?
Don't make massive changes to a recipe or process. It is impossible to learn what changes have what effect if you change 3 things between batches. Instead, brew a beer, enter it, change ONE thing based on feedback, repeat. By doing it this way, you can learn how specific changes have specific effects. This will improve your beer over time and will fortify your knowledge of brewing. Trying the shotgun approach will most likely result in the same quality of beer as before, just "different."

Would you please share with us one of your most successful recipes from the competitions you've won?
Here is a recipe I made based on reading the BJCP style guide and Designing Great Beers. I've won all sorts of awards with this and it just won an award in the final round of the NHC. I also gave this recipe to the excellent EJ Phair brewery in Concord, CA and they won gold at the California State Fair commercial competition with it. (Of course, they tweaked it for their needs so I can't take credit for their success.)

I've brewed it and entered it many times, but I've never had to change this recipe. It is a really great drinking beer that everyone seems to enjoy.

Jamil Zainasheff's Schwarzbier
By Jamil Zainasheff
BJCP Style and Style Guidelines:13-B European Dark Lager, Schwarzbier

OG: 1.044-1.054
FG: 1.010-1.016
IBU: 25-35
SRM: 20-40
ABV: 4.2-5.4%

Recipe Specifics:
Batch Size (US Gal): 6, Wort Size (US Gal): 7.74
Total Grain (Lbs): 12.50
Anticipated OG: 1.054
Anticipated SRM: 29.7
Anticipated IBU: 30.1
Brewhouse Efficiency: 70 %
Wort Boil Time: 90 Minutes

7.00 lbs. German Munich Malt
4.00 lbs. French Pilsen (2 Row)
0.50 lbs. American Crystal 40L
0.50 lbs. American Chocolate Malt
0.25 lbs. American Roasted Barley
0.25 lbs. German Carafa

0.80 oz. Hallertauer (Pellet) 7.10% AA [60 min.]
0.50 oz. Hallertauer (Pellet) 7.10% AA [20 min.]
0.50 oz. Hallertauer (Pellet) 7.10% AA [1 min.]

1.00 Unit Whirlfloc Fining [20 Min.(boil)]

White Labs German Bock Lager Yeast (WLP833)
(I used Ayinger from slants before White Labs came out with 833.)

Mash Schedule
Mash Type: Single Step
Grain Lbs: 12.50
Water Qts: 16.25 - Before Additional Infusions
Water Gal: 4.06 - Before Additional Infusions
Qts Water Per Lbs Grain: 1.30 - Before Additional Infusions

Saccharification Rest Temp: 154F Time: 60 min.
Mash-out Rest Temp: 168F Time: 10 min.
Sparge Temp: 170F Time: 60 min.

Total Mash Volume Gal: 5.06 - Dough-In Infusion Only

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