Carolina Beer Guy: Just Brew It winners love the art of making beer

ALL-STAR AMATEURS: From left, Karen Grogan, Heidi Dunkleberg and Jesse Latriano took home prizes for their high-quality beers at the 2019 Just Brew It homebrew competition. Photos courtesy of the brewers

Jesse Latriano dug deep into his beer stocks to find an entry for the 2019 Just Brew It homebrew competition. Among the three offerings at his table the afternoon of June 15 at Wedge Brewing Co.’s Foundation location was a beer made on Memorial Day weekend in 2015 — a cross between a Belgian-style golden strong ale and what he calls a “super saison,” aged on tequila-soaked French oak chips for three years.

“It was 12% ABV,” Latriano says. “It needed a while to be palatable. It was like fire in your mouth for the first year.”

The choice proved to be a smart one as the beer was awarded the Mountain Xpress King of the Mountain prize by a committee composed of Mountain Xpress beer coverage coordinator Edwin Arnaudin and Xpress contributing editor Rob Mikulak along with local beer aficionado Bernie Russell.

Attendees also got in on the awards, giving the People’s Choice honors to Heidi Dunkelberg and Karen Grogan for their Creamy Mango Mosaic IPA. Brewed with 10 pounds of mango and clocking in at 6.5% ABV, the beer was made specifically for Just Brew It.

Started in 2010, the homebrew showcase is a big fundraiser for Just Economics, which works to support a local living wage. In Asheville, that figure is $13.65 per hour, or $12.15 if employers offer health insurance.

Unlike most local beer festivals, admission tickets are not sold to the public. Instead, individuals purchase annual memberships for Just Economics that includes Just Brew It access. “It’s an important event for us,” says Just Economics Executive Director Vicki Meath, who notes that the organization receives about 10% of its income from the festival.

This year’s Just Brew It pulled in 31 brewing groups with about 50 individual brewers who brought a total of roughly 90 beers to the event. Meath says brewers could bring “about any style of beer” that they wished.

Dunkelberg, Grogan and Latriano are all regulars at Just Brew It. Latriano says he’s entered beers at the festival for six years, while Dunkelberg has participated in seven of the competitions. Both enjoy the opportunity the event provides for homebrewers to get together and see what they’re all working on, as well as the motivation to advance their individual skills.

“Once I’ve signed up, I’ve got to brew the beer,” Dunkelberg says. “And being there with the other homebrewers is a lot of fun. There are so many interesting people. I’ve always had a great time.”

Dunkelberg has been homebrewing since 2005. She was just getting into the craft beer scene when she decided to give brewing a shot. “To me, it’s like cooking — and I love to cook,” she says. “It seems like there’s always more to learn.”

Dunkelberg and Grogan — who’ve owned and operated Coffee Cup Cafe in Clyde for 15 years — made about 4.5 gallons of Creamy Mango Mosaic IPA, which Dunkelberg describes as a “milkshake beer.” She says that when the public returns for another sample, “that’s when you know you’ve done a good job.” Indeed, the entire supply was consumed at Just Brew It.

Latriano has been homebrewing for 15 years and enjoys talking with Just Brew It attendees about his creations. “I have a cellar full of all kinds of stuff,” he says. “Last year, I pulled a bunch of sours out [to enter in the competition].”

At the moment, he’s gearing up to make a Christmas beer that he describes as a big Belgian-style ale. “And we always have an IPA on tap [at home],” he says. “My wife and I are both big hop heads.”

In his life away from homebrewing, Latriano is an environmental scientist and the owner of Happy Valley Environmental, where he works with clients on regulations involving underground heating oil tanks. He also enjoys baking at home, maintains an orchard and has seriously contemplated starting his own brewery.

“We eat and drink pretty well,” he says. “Some yeast and a bag of flour and some grain, and you have something amazing to indulge yourself. I’ve been working on my baking and my bread-making so that when things are right, I can sell cold sandwiches and hot pizza and eventually beer. You need something to bring in money while you’re processing your paperwork [for brewing permits].”

Should he turn professional, Latriano would follow in the footsteps of David Ackley, who started Ginger’s Revenge after winning a prize at Just Brew It for his ginger beers.

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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