Homebrew famous

Meet Dayton beer Grand Master Gordon Strong

Photo: Brazilian Unika’s catharina sour beer

By Tom Morgan

“I travel all over the world doing this stuff. But it’s weird to get treated like a rock star basically everywhere but where you live.”

While relatively unknown locally, Beavercreek resident, Gordon Strong, is a larger-than-life figure in beer judging and homebrewing circles outside Dayton. He is currently the President of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), a program intended to “encourage knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world’s diverse beer, mead, and cider styles.” A position he has held since 2006, he regularly judges at national events like the Great American Beer Festival as well as international events like the Copa Cervezas de América in Santiago, Chile. His bona fides also include being the only three-time National Homebrew Competition Ninkasi Award winner, the award given to the homebrewer with the most accumulated points from medals at the national competition. Beyond that, he is the author of two books, Brewing Better Beer: Master Lessons for Advanced Homebrewers (2011) and Modern Homebrew Recipes: Exploring Styles and Contemporary Techniques (2015), and regularly writes columns for both Zymurgy and Brew Your Own, two leading beer periodicals—all of this in addition to his day job.

I’ve known Gordon for almost a decade now. I’m a National-level judge in the BJCP, so we regularly cross paths at local beer judging competitions, and I’ve always found his local anonymity amusing, especially since I’ve gotten street cred outside of Dayton for just knowing him. I sat down recently to talk to him about the role of BJCP style guidelines, the growth of craft beer globally—specifically in South America and New Zealand—and, not surprisingly, about being Gordon Strong.

Gordon was first introduced to craft beer in the 1990s via friends from college, and both homebrewing and beer judging soon followed, but his main interest in beer judging is for the educational components of the process. While the BJCP is mostly known for the style guidelines, its main focus is educational, promoting “standardized tools, methods, and processes for the structured evaluation, ranking, and feedback of beer, mead, and cider.” This attempt at fairness and transparency is part of the BJCP’s appeal, and to date, it has more than 10,000 judges registered worldwide. One recent focus with the BJCP has been on global outreach and, specifically, making sure that the style guidelines accurately reflect beer styles in the countries where those styles originated. This focus on global beer knowledge is intended to counteract U.S.-centric beer practices, and to foreground the way different national brewing traditions have evolved over time. It also emphasizes the value of learning as a life-long process.

Over the last couple of years, Gordon has spent much of his free time traveling to places like New Zealand as well as Chile and Brazil to help promote both the BJCP and beer judging. He has thus been able to see first-hand how the craft beer scene is evolving differently in those locations, as well as the different types of problems brewers—both home and professional—face in those places. Infrastructure development for craft brewing is often a necessary requirement that will allow markets to grow, so in South America, for example, limitations on the availability of liquid yeast cultures, the availability of specialty malts, and absence of local micro-malting create challenges for moving forward. Access to hops is important as well, as is the intentional cultivation of indigenous hop varieties. “So, one of the things I look for as a sign of maturity [in craft beer development] is, do they have indigenous hop varieties, and are they investing in hop research,” asks Gordon. “That’s what really impressed me with New Zealand. New Zealand has some amazing hops, but that wasn’t just by chance. They have world-class hop research going on. They start at the university-level and there is a program that leads to identifying and selecting hops that have commercial potential.”

At the same time, local conditions coupled with increased access to information via the internet has also created new types of opportunities. Thus, easy access to tropical rain-forest fruit coupled with readily-accessible knowledge on wild beer fermentation found in Facebook groups like, Milk the Funk, means that South American brewers can create sour beers on par with those in the US, as with the Unika Catharina Sour with Clementines we recently shared.

When I asked what it was like being Gordon Strong outside of Dayton, and specifically how he found time to talk with people at events, his answer took the form of a parable:

“So, the first time I went to the National Homebrewers Conference was in 1997 in Cleveland. I was relatively new to everything, and I get on the elevator, and it stops a floor later, and in walks [famous beer writer] Michael Jackson by himself. So I didn’t want to be all fanboy with him, but I had a question for him. And he gave me a thoughtful answer, and he didn’t blow me off. For me, the take away from that experience was that he showed me how someone who is well known, and has knowledge, should interact with someone who is intellectually curious. The best I can do is to try and emulate that, to treat people with respect, and to encourage people who show a genuine interest.”

 

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Tom Morgan
Reach DCP freelance writer Tom Morgan at TomMorgan@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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