Like every great hero, the latest addition to DuClaw Brewing's arsenal of craft beers has a sweet origin story and even some “super Powers.”
The Harford County craft brewery announced Monday that they had a winner in their second annual H.E.R.O. homebrewer's contest—a chocolate chipotle stout brewed by Nottingham's own Vince and Suzanne Powers.
The beer will be brewed and bottled by DuClaw Brewing and available at retailers sometime later this year. The best part? All of the proceeds, not just the profits, from the sale of the beer will benefit a charity.
Vince Powers, 39, and his wife Suzanne, 38, are united both by marriage and a love of craft beer.
Suzanne said that she's always been a fan of good beer. Her passion shows in the odd names she says she's given to all her pets over the years.
Currently they have a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Clipper City after the Baltimore-based brewery and a dog named Sierra Nevada. Their daughters’ two cats are named Theobroma and Chicory after a pair of beers from Dogfish Head.
The weirdest one ever? Suzanne said that she had a German shepherd and wanted a German beer to name him after. A call to Harford Beverage Company yielded an unusual one: Hacker-Pschorr.
"When I had my first son I told the people at work I was going to name him Samuel Adams. They believed me," she said. And she almost did—instead his name is Seth Alan, which she would point out to you has the same initials.
Daughter Sydney got away without a single beer-related reference to her name though.
"I guess I just didn't have anything clever," Suzanne said.
Vince said that he first got interested in beer during his time in the Navy.
"I was never a beer drinker, but when I was stationed in Europe I'd go out with the guys and they'd buy you a beer, it's just what you did," Vince said.
His first love was Murphy's Irish Stout and to this day, he'll drink a pale ale, but if he had to drink only one style it'd be something dark: a porter, he said.
Back in the United States, Vince took an interest in homebrewing—he learned from a friend who was brewing regularly and became a member of the Wootown Homebrew Club, based out of The Thirsty Brewer in Baldwin.
That was five years ago and now Vince is regularly brewing batches to share with neighbors and friends on block parties and camping trips.
Before this year, though, he'd never submitted his beer for judgment by anyone other than his friends.
"It was my first competition and I knew I wanted to do something unique," Vince said.
So he turned to his wife.
DuClaw's H.E.R.O. contest places special emphasis on creativity, and Suzanne, who loves to bake, knew that chocolate and chipotle were made for one another in the culinary world.
Before they moved on to brewing, Vince wanted to make sure that the flavors would work together in a beer.
"So I just tried it one night," Vince said. "I took a Guinness that we had on hand, added some chocolate syrup to the glass and a little chipotle spice and tasted it. I thought, 'Yeah, that's it.'"
That was just before the inaugural H.E.R.O. contest last year but the couple wasn't able to brew and submit the beer before the April 1 deadline. Back in December he decided to brew it anyway.
The beer, which will be called H.E.R.O. '12 when it's brewed by DuClaw, started like any other: as water, grains, hops and yeast.
But how do they come together? Glad you asked.
Vince is happy to show off his brewing set-up: two half-kegs with the tops cut off, two propane burners, a cooler, a pump and some hoses. It goes a little like this.
Water is heated in one of the kegs to a specific temperature and then pumped into the cooler (called a “mash tun” in brew-speak). The water and grain steep in the cooler producing a sugary "tea" called wort, which is then pumped into the second keg where it comes to a boil.
Once the wort is boiling, all the things that flavor a beer are added: in this case, hops, dried chipotle peppers and a chocolate extract for brewing and cooking. The boil continues for anywhere from an hour to two hours, then the hot liquid is cooled.
Yeast is introduced to the cooled liquid and begins going to work on the sugary wort—processing the sugars into the alcohol that gives beer its punch, and carbon dioxide.
After fermentation, which can take anywhere from weeks to months, the beer is bottled or kegged and soon after it's ready to drink.
So, what does the finished product taste like?
"I left two of the chipotles whole to get that smokiness and cut two open to get some of the heat," Vince said. He explained that the heat and smoke are balanced out by notes of chocolate at the end. "I didn't want it to be overbearing."
Vince's chocolate chipotle stout was crowned the winner out of the 50-or-so beers submitted to DuClaw's homebrewing competition, explained Duclaw Brewing President Dave Benfield.
Beers are ranked by a panel of seven judges in a blind taste test.
"We have a coordinator who knows what each beer is and makes sure that they're grouped together by style so that we don't have a golden ale (light beer) next to a stout (dark beer)," Benfield said. "But we are blind other than that."
The judging process for this year’s contest consisted of three rounds, Benfield said. In the first round, each taster gave a simple 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down' vote to weed out the beers with "significant flaws".
Then the remaining beers move on to the next round where, along with the up and down votes, the panelists talk about the merits of each brew and argue why they should or shouldn't move on.
In this year's contest they were left with seven concoctions after the second round and had to eliminate two more before moving onto the final round, where beers are ranked by each judge on a scale from 1 to 5.
"It actually came out to a tie between the first and second place beers," Benfield said. That is, Vince's stout and a "S'more's" porter.
"We felt heat from the pepper that died out when the chocolate finished up," he said. In the end, Vince's beer "eked out" the second place beer because the judges felt the use of chipotle peppers was unique and difficult to pull off successfully.
The judging criteria are somewhat nebulous and vary from taster to taster, but Benfield tried to nail them down.
"Number one is: does the beer play to the style," he said. "That means if a beer should have a full-body, it shouldn't be too thin for example."
"Number two is: we look for creativity—what sparks the imagination. What will people hear and think, 'I've got to try that'. A really well brewed porter wouldn't make it in just for being to style; we've got to be able to answer if someone asks 'why did you make this beer?'"
"Number three is drinkability: we look for a beer that's not going to be a 'one-and-done'; even with the peppers we felt like you could just keep drinking it, it wouldn't overwhelm the palate."
So there you have it—Vince and Suzanne Powers' chocolate chipotle stout won the second-ever H.E.R.O. homebrewing contest and so joins the DuClaw Brewing arsenal alongside last years' winner: a chocolate peanut butter porter.
Benfield said that because of its style, Powers beer will likely be brewed for a September or October release. In the meantime, though, the brewery has to decide which charity will receive the proceeds from this year's sales.
"We don't give just the profits, we give every dollar that's spent—that means we're actually losing money on this beer after packaging costs," Benfield said. "It felt so good to set that example and raise awareness."
Last year, Benfield explained, they donated around $15,000 to the Cool Kids Campaign based in Towson.
"We want to be able to offer support to individuals who are going through hard times," Benfield said. Last year's decision was driven by a group of families with children who had cancer.
"We were going to give directly to the families but they told us they'd rather see the money go to Cool Kids," he said.
They're taking suggestions by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and by phone through the end of June. Benfield said they'd prefer to keep it local and give to a cause that would ordinarily have trouble raising funds.
"We want to help out someone who doesn't have the resources the United Way might have to raise funds. We want to make sure the money goes somewhere that it will have an immediate impact."