ENCINITAS — John Thompson, of Encinitas, earned an impressive silver medal in the 2021 National Homebrew Competition with his Strong Belgian Ale. His Belgian Tripel, “Don’t Trip” creation topped 244 other entries in the national contest.
The brewers shipped samples to Colorado in March, where an expert group of judges spent days sampling and rating the 5,045 entries behind closed doors. The winners were notified June 19.
So what is a Strong Belgian Ale? It has a higher alcohol content, between 7.5% and 9.5% as opposed to beer’s 4% to 6%, and be made with Belgian yeast, a yeast culture used by breweries in Belgium for centuries. Thompson also uses Belgian Pilsner Malt in his mix of grains.
He explained that each category of brew has specific guidelines set by the Beer Judge Certification Program. Along with Strong Belgian Ale, the most popular categories included Pilsner, Amber European beer, New England IPA and Imperial Stout.
While still following the strict guidelines, each brewer can control various stages of the brewing process to create a preferred taste. Using a complex set-up of stainless steel equipment in his garage, Thompson’s secret is in how he handles the delicate Belgian yeast.
“If you let it ferment at room temperature, you can get lots of ‘off-flavors,’ ” Thompson said. “I keep mine cooler, at about 72 degrees, which takes some attention, as the yeast creates its own heat, as it does its work.”
“From start to finish, a batch takes about a day to brew and two weeks to ferment. It then needs more than a week to carbonate, and you can age it beyond that, to increase smoothness, anywhere from 21 days to months. I age mine for a month.”
Following the BJCP guidelines, a Belgian Tripel should have a definite ester flavor (fruity notes), but be easy to drink and have only a subtle sweetness. A good brewer needs to strike a balance, so that the hops don’t overpower the malt profile, Thompson said.
He made his first batch as a freshman at University of San Diego, having spotted a home brew store that had just opened. It’s been a regular hobby ever since. Thompson, a creative director by trade, also designed his own award-winning label. You can’t pick up Thompson’s Strong Belgian Ale at the local liquor store. Moving to selling a brew is a huge next step, he said. Instead, he enjoys sharing his award-winning brew with fortunate family and friends.