Congratulations, Mr. Ninkasi!

Mark Schoppe holds the Samuel Adams Utopia bottle he won at the NHC

Homebrewing for America with Mark Schoppe

Austin homebrewer Mark Schoppe recently took home a major award at the National Homebrew Competition. He sat down to discuss how he got in to competitive brewing and his thoughts on the craft beer scene in Austin.

“Brewers enjoy working to make beer as much as drinking beer instead of working.” -Harold Rudolph

To brew or not to brew? Every serious beer lover is faced with this major question at least once in his or her life. Those who consider themselves beer geeks will undoubtedly find themselves confronted with this question. While many opt to just keep buying beer, others are dedicated enough to take their love to the next level by investing time and effort in to creating beer from scratch. Those that make this leap become homebrewers, and those that get really serious about brewing often start competing in the homebrew circuit (yes, there’s a circuit).

The largest and most prestigious homebrew competition in the country is the National Homebrew Competition, held recently in Seattle. This year the top award of the festival, the Ninkasi Award (Ninkasi is the Sumerian goddess of beer) was given to Austin homebrewer Mark Schoppe. The 41-year-old former software consultant didn’t become a nationally recognized homebrew champion over night. Like many people, he started in college.

Mark Schoppe became a homebrewer at the suggestion of his career counselor 19 years ago when he was a senior at Rice University. The results of a career exploration test pointed him in the direction of a culinary career.

“I mentioned that I had spent time in Germany and loved beer, and [the counselor] suggested that maybe I could be a brewer. She said the best way to figure out if you want to do that is to homebrew.” Mark took her advice and found he had a talent for making beer.

Later, when he was getting a graduate degree in operations research at UT, Mark spent a summer working as an assistant brewer at Saint Arnold Brewing Company in Houston. Being a career brewer was within the realm of possibility, but Mark enjoyed homebrewing independently. “The Saint Arnold experience made me realize that it’s very satisfying to have people drinking your beer in a bar, but it’s also a lot of hard work and I’d rather be the boss. My dream has always been to open my own brewery.”

Mark kept brewing on his own and eventually got in to competing in homebrew competitions. In 2005 he joined the Austin Zealots (“ZEALOTS” stands for Zymurgic Enthusiasts of Austin Loosely Organized Through Suds), a local homebrew club that has been around since 1994. For those that don’t know, a homebrew club basically consists of a bunch of folks who meet up and share their libations. Like many homebrew clubs, the Austin Zealots also enter the beers of their members in competitions. They are currently the club leader of the Lone Star Circuit, a series of homebrew competitions that happen around the state, one of which is the Bluebonnet Brew-Off in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

According to their website, the Bluebonnet is the “largest single site home brew competition in the United States.” The Austin Zealots are the 2012 club leaders in the Lone Star Circuit, and Mark Schoppe is the individual leader, meaning he has accumulated the most points at the Blue Bonnet and other home brew competitions in Texas, making him the best (or most awarded) home brewer in the state.

When you earn the status as one of the top homebrewers in the state of Texas it’s hard to go back to just brewing beer for your friends. This year Mark decided it was time to go all the way to the top by entering the National Homebrew Competition in Seattle, the world’s largest international beer competition. To give an idea of the scale of the NHC, here are some statistics from the 2012 competition that might make your head spin:

Total Number of Entries Judged:
7,823
Advancing Entries Judged in the Final Round:
889
Number of Brewers Who Entered:
1,734

Mark and the Austin Zealots made quite the splash at the competition. As a club the Zealots earned 88 points, ranking them fifth in the 2011-2012 American Homebrew Association Club of the Year category. For the individual competition Mark accumulated enough points to win the Ninkasi Award.

“I won first place in the Scottish and Irish Ale category and first place in the Stout category,” said Mark. “The strong scotch ale is very malty, a little sweet, and is syrupy, yet finishes dry. It has a hint of smoke in the flavor. The Russian Imperial Stout is malty with a dark chocolate and coffee roasty character, and it finishes dry and bitter. The bitterness is from the hops and the roasted grains” (If these sound delicious you can check out the recipes from both beers below.)

The big question faced by a homebrewer after winning the largest homebrew competition in the country is what to do next. Mark has plans to brew some of his award-winning beer with San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing Co. Other than that, he doesn’t have any major professional aspirations when it comes to brewing beer, and seems to take comfort hanging out at the Draught House, meeting up with the Austin Zealots at the Ginger Man, and brewing one incredible batch of beer after another in his garage.

“I want to keep doing competitions until I lose. If I win the Ninkasi award again next year that would be great. I might get a job in the beer industry, but I don’t want to lose my amateur status.”

When asked if he had advice for those interested in getting in to homebrewing, Mark put it very simply. “My advice for someone who is interested in getting in to homebrewing is to make a lot of beer. You learn by doing.”

Finally, Mark shared his thoughts on Austin’s exploding craft beer scene, giving some insight in to some of the companies that really impress him.

“Right now I’m really excited about Jester King. I like the stuff they are doing with the barrel aging, and they’re taking some big risks. With the beer scene it seems like central Texas has reached the next plateau. We haven’t quite caught up to Portland and places like that, but I think we’re heading in that direction. Local breweries are pushing each other to achieve new things, try new styles and test the boundaries.”(The Horn)

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