There was a point during the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest back in January when all of us judges in its homebrew contest -- brewers, writers, drinkers all -- gathered in a circle and ended up expressing our awe over one particular thing: the Monolith. It didn't dawn on me then how appropriate our gathering was, considering that the beer, Monolith IPA from homebrewer Justin Pribbenow, takes its name from the giant, black, awe-inspiring, ape-encircled pillar that appears in the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Oh, but it all makes sense now. Monolith as we tasted it then was a big, bright, clean IPA, with great citrusy flavor and excellent balance. As a result of his victory in the home brewing competition (sponsored, as is the entire festival, by Isthmus), Pribbenow would be invited to brew a batch of Monolith at One Barrel Brewing with owner and brewmaster Peter Gentry and head brewer Dan Sherman. That batch has been brewed, and the release party is set for Thursday, April 3.
I don't want to overexcite you guys, easily excited as beer people can be, but this should be a pretty special event. Pribbenow, 28, had barely been brewing for a year when we all sampled Monolith IPA, and as of now has still only brewed twelve 5-gallon batches. He has, however, already switched from extract to all-grain brewing; for those unfamiliar with home brews, this is like making a from-scratch pie crust versus a using a pre-made crust. The results can still be delicious with store-bought, but there's an added time commitment to doing it the old-fashioned way, and there's a degree to which the flavor deepens with an all-grain bill.
Plus, more steps equals more chances that things could go wrong; though there wasn't a thing wrong with Pribbenow's home brewed batch of Monolith. I think Justin has the intangibles to be a great brewer, and while he humbly didn't say as much himself, I think he knows it, too.
"Good ingredients and a good recipe are not all you need to make great beer," says Pribbenow. "I find that is what really excites me about beer."
Monolith is a 7.0% ABV India Pale Ale, packed with 70 IBUs worth of Citra and Apollo hops. These are big boys in the world of hops, and they're put to good use here. Gentry was one of the judges for the competition, and saw something special in Monolith.
"The group judged Justin's to be the best based on the fact that it stood on it's own as an excellent beer," says Gentry.
"The citrusy hop character was allowed to shine through. Overall it was a very clean beer. And on top of that," he explains, "if I'm judging several styles of beer and the prize is to offer them for mass consumption, a variable I consider is the approachability of the style. This IPA certainly had that."
One Barrel is committed to involving homebrewers in the commercial brewing world, owing in no small part to Gentry's success in the 2009 edition of the homebrewing competition hosted by the Grumpy Troll -- his winning beer was the basis for #2 Strong Ale, a standard on tap at One Barrel.
The brewery regularly serves as a host to homebrewing contest winners. In early 2013, One Barrel brewed H.O.P. Hop on Pop Imperial IPA, the winner of the Hoptoberfest competition put on by the Wine and Hop Shop. During the upcoming Madison Craft Beer Week, running May 2-11, the brewery will releasing winning beers from two other contests, a smoked porter and another IPA.
Dan Sherman says the brew day with Pribbenow was a successful one, in spite of the two being total strangers going into it.
"The brewing process was a little different than the usual process of brewing a One Barrel beer," he says. "It was Justin's recipe and our goal was to recreate it as accurately as possible on our system. It started with Justin emailing his recipe and notes to me, and from there I scaled it up to our system and procured the specific ingredients that we would need to make the beer. Then Justin came in and actually brewed the beer with me."
Gentry says the April 3 release party will be a straightforward affair, a tapping of the single barrel's worth of Monolith. It's not likely to remain on tap long, amounting to 390 pours in a goblet, a glass that will the IPA's aromatic character. Pribbenow will be in attendance -- and drinking for free, Gentry points out -- if you want to gather 'round and ask questions before the home brewer really goes big-time.
"I am planning on brewing more often with a new electric system this summer," says Pribbenow. "There is always something new to learn in the world of brewing. I would love to brew for a living whether it be for a brewery or my own. I will just have to see where life takes me for now."
Sherman is "very pleased" with how Monolith has turned out on One Barrel's setup, and with the combination of small volume and popular, delicious hop varietals, this beer won't be around long. Even the apes in 2001 knew they had something special on their hands -- this Monolith is worth your attention.