By Julia Burke, Niagara Escarpment Correspondent
Photos courtesy of Tom Ocque
Of course, some problems shouldn’t be solved. Jake Ocque was introduced to me as “the greatest homebrewer in Buffalo” when I met him a year ago while bartending at Pizza Plant Italian Pub, but now his brewing skill has won him and his brother Tom an honor beyond the average beer geek’s wildest dreams: the opportunity to brew at the legendary Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico, California.
On Friday, the beer he brewed there –a Baltic Porter — was tapped at Pizza Plant for an exclusive release to the public. I spoke with Jake via email (nasty weather prevented him from attending the Friday night event) about his once-in-a-lifetime experience and his passion for making great beer.
The Ocque brothers won a gold medal in this year’s National Homebrew Competition, a contest with over 5,500 entries from 1,500 brewers across the country, for their mild ale and a bronze medal for a sweet mead. Like Willy Wonka’s contest in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sierra Nevada offered each of the gold medal winners a “Golden Ticket” — a trip to the brewery for a tour and a chance to brew beer and learn from Sierra Nevada’s brewers at what’s known as “Beer Camp.”
Apparently it is every bit as fun as it sounds. “Beer Camp was amazing!” Jake told me. “I was totally surprised. I liked Sierra Nevada’s beer and all but I just didn’t expect to be treated like a king for two and a half days.”
Upon arrival the Beer Campers were invited to the brewery pub for dinner with a “special guest.” As it turns out, “that was the day that Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head Brewing was there brewing the Life and Limb (and Limb and Life) collaboration beer,” says Jake.
The next day the Campers were treated to an eight-hour tour of the brewery. “They walked us through every aspect of the brewery from the ingredients arriving, to the mashtuns, to the boil kettles, to the huge 800-barrel fermenters — that’s nearly 25,000 gallons…and they have like 50 of them — to the filling line, and finally to the packaged beer departing,” says Jake. “They even showed us how they’re environmentally sustainable. The whole thing gave me a new-found respect for the brewery.”
The highlight of Beer Camp, however, wasn’t until the next day, when the campers were placed in charge of brewing an exclusive beer to be released by Sierra Nevada. “There were thirteen other brewers there,” recalls Jake. “Let me just say that it was not easy coming up with a style of beer to brew when you have thirteen homebrewers. We all wanted to brew something that Sierra Nevada hadn’t made before and decided on a Baltic Porter.”
Pizza Plant, a popular hangout for serious beer geeks, was the lucky Buffalo bar that received a keg of the Baltic Porter, and it was enthusiastically received on Friday night. And rightly so, since it’s delicious: a roasty, chewy, slightly sweet porter with just the right amount of hops in the finish — a great beer even without the great story behind it.
Jake refers to his National Homebrew Competition win as getting "lucky" but his brewing skill has been hard won over many years of practice. “I got into homebrewing because I love good beer,” he recalls. “As a student at UB I did my master’s research on the yeast that is used to make beer, Saccharomyces cerevisae. Although the research was not beer related at all, it gave me some insight into how beer can be made. My friend Ethan and I used to sit in Alternative Brews (a University-area bar with an extensive beer list) sucking down some brews and we would usually come to the conclusion, ‘we should brew our own!’. Jake bought his brother a homebrewing kit first, then his brother returned the favor.
“I got serious about homebrewing when I entered the Amber Waves of Grain homebrew competition in 2007 and won a gold medal with a Belgian Dark Strong Ale. It felt good to have my hard work recognized in such a large and competitive homebrew competition,” says Jake. “In 2008 I started to enter more and more competitions within New York. This past year I teamed up with my brother Tom and we brewed at least twice a month together and we entered every competition in New York in hopes to win the New York State Homebrewer of the Year award. In seven competitions throughout the state, we won at least 50 medals.” For these accomplishments, Jake and Tom were awarded Homebrewers of the Year, and now with Beer Camp under their belts, their brewing success has reached the national level.
Jake encourages aspiring homebrewers to take the plunge. “Believe it or not, it’s not that hard to make good beer,” he says. “There are books available today that explain every part of the brewing process. There are websites that have forums where you can have your questions answered, sometimes within minutes.” Jake lists the Niagara Association of Homebrewers (www.niagarabrewers.org) as an especially helpful resource. “The club is full of a bunch of really great people that are willing to help others with their brewing skills or to just have a good time at one of their many events.”
I had to ask Jake one final question: what would his five stuck-on-a-desert-island beers be? “If I had some Russian River Temptation, Sierra Nevada Estate, Cantillon Lou Pepe Gueuze, Dogfish Head Paolo Santo Marron, and some Westvleteren 8 I’d probably be happy on that island for a while,” he says. “I suppose that when those beers were finished, I’d find something on that island to ferment.”