Lee Kexel is one happy brewer, and twice over. In September his Brewthervillle Blonde Bock won him the home brew competition at the 2016 Maryland Microbrewery Festival at the Union Mills Homestead, and now Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants in Maryland are serving his beer on tap.
Not only did Kexel's recipe win best in show, DuClaw Brewing Co. agreed to make his recipe at commercial scale, which is why the pale suds — the beer is a lighter version of a traditionally heavier German lager — were pouring out of a custom-labeled tap in the Buffalo Wild Wings dining room that night. Select restaurants will keep pouring the brew until sometime in May, when their menus change, he said.
"It's kind of a unique style in that most bock beers are dark beers, so this is the pale, or light version of a bock beer," Kexel said. "This Helles Bock style is not a style you are going to see on tap very often. If you want to experience it or give it a try, now is the time."
Kexel is from Cockeysville, where he brews with the Brewtherville Labs Home Brew Club, but it is the Carroll County-based Midnight Homebrewer's League that has run the home brew competition for nearly the entire 10 years the Maryland Microbrewery Festival has been held, according to David Shriver, festival chairman for the Union Mills Homestead Foundation.
"They run a very, very good contest, they take it very seriously. All of the judges are accredited ... and I am tickled to death that's the way they run it," Shriver said. "It has become a main feature of the festival."
The Maryland Microbrewery Festival itself was launched, Shriver said, as a way to draw new people to the Union Mills Homestead, a National Historic District that features a working grist mill and residence from the late 1700s, and has since become the foundation's largest fundraiser. The home brew festival also fits in nicely with that original festival mission.
"It's been very, very nice to see winners all over the state: We've been to Annapolis, to White Marsh, to Westminster. There has even been a winner from across the Bay Bridge," Shriver said. "I've checked people in and we've had judges from Delaware just to judge the festival; it draws people in."
The chance to have a winning brew recipe produced in a commercial brewery alongside professionals, and poured on tap in establishments across Maryland is certainly part of the appeal.
"That was awesome," Kexel said. "That's like a homebrewer's dream to have their beer brewed by DuClaw, a big, well-known brewery in Maryland, and to have it served by Buffalo Wild Wings."
That's a kind of excitement DuClaw brewmaster Bob Rupprecht can well appreciate, given he has experienced the same transition, from brewed in a bucket to brewed in 1,000-gallon batches, himself.
"I started home brewing about 20 years ago, that's how I got into the business," he said. "It's an absolute thrill the first time you get to go from brewing 5 gallons to brewing 500 or 2,000."
In some sense, Kexel's recipe and White Marsh-based DuClaw are an odd match, given that the latter is known for some rather cutting-edge, radical, perhaps even risky beer styles, including their "Dirty Little Freak" coconut caramel chocolate brown ale and "Sweet Baby Jesus" chocolate peanut butter porter. But Rupprecht said he loves to support the home brew community — making beers of all sorts is a craft.
"Lee's beer is very traditional and it is straight up German, and it's great," Rupprecht said. "I love that we can put a beer out that is so traditional and so true to style."
Though, as Kexel notes, perhaps not that traditional — there is a little more depth in the European brewing tradition.
"The Germans have been brewing these bock beers for like a thousand years," Kexel said. "This Helles Bock, it's pretty recent; it's only been about 200 years that they have been brewing that one."
Carroll County Breaking News
Kexel is already planning to dig deeper for next year's contest, with designs for a cherry bock, a traditional German style not brewed there since the Reinheitsgebot, or "purity laws" of 1516 made the use of additives other than hops, such as fruit, verboten in German beer.
"I'm just digging back into the archives, trying to find out what the recipe is and see if I can brew it on a small scale," Kexel said.
And the story isn't entirely over yet for the Helles Bock. Beyond it's still being poured at Buffalo Wild Wings, Kexel said he plans to enter it in the national home brew competition in April so it can go head to head with 8,000 other recipes. The prize?
"You get a lot of bragging rights," he said. "You don't get any money, anything like that, but you get a lot of bragging rights."