Interview with Karl Weiss, award winning homebrewer and BJCP Beer Judge!

We recently spoke with Karl Weiss, an-award winning homebrewer, Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Beer Judge and President of MASH (Morris Area Society of Homebrewers) to get some insight into his approach to homebrewing ad competitions, and to find out: What exactly is Hungusfest? Follow him on Instagram and checkout Hungusbrews.com for recipes and more information on the homebrewing process.

When did you first start getting interested brewing beer, and how did you go about starting the process of learning how to brew?

Karl Weiss

Karl Weiss

My trip into home brewing began on my 2007 Appalachian Trail thru hike. I was about 5 months into the hike, stumbling through the White Mountains in New Hampshire, when I spent a night at the Zealand Falls Hut. The huts in the White Mountains are all pretty high-end compared to other Appalachian Trail shelters. Zealand Falls Hut had a pretty well stocked library where I found a copy of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. I spent a few hours reading this book and was hooked. I basically spent the next month and a half in the woods thinking about beer brewing.

When I got home and re-assimilated myself back into society, a coworker turned me on to this company NorthernBrewer.com. He said that he had ordered a starter kit and brewed a couple of batches of beer. I said, “That’s it? That’s all you needed to get started?” And then I immediately ordered the same kit. That was back in December of 2007. I brewed my first batch, which was an Irish Red kit using the partial boil extract method.

From there I was hooked. My first batch came out surprisingly well. My second batch, an English Pale Ale, was even a success. The third…not so much. It was an English IPA that got a post fermentation infection and had to go down the drain.

After that experience, I began reading as many books as I could get my hands on and lurked a lot on homebrewtalk.com. My hobby quickly grew to include fermentation temperature control, a transition to all-grain brewing, building a kegerator, and then filling kegs. I switched over to making 10 gallon batches, and by the time I was ready to leave the rental house, a dedicated brewing space was high on my “must have” list for house shopping.

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Hungus Hideaway

When did you build Hungus Hideaway?

In July of 2009, I found the current property I’m on. It is about one acre on a dead end dirt road that backs up to a 2000-acre state wildlife management area. It feels so secluded back there, but is still very close to town. I called it the Hungus Hideaway. Hungus is my trail name from hiking.

One of the main attractions of the Hideaway was this 10×20 outbuilding that had heat, water, and electric. I was instantly sold. The house needed some work, but who cares? I now had a dedicated home brewery! The 200 square foot building was formerly used as a taxidermy shop, so it was pretty nasty in there. I basically ripped the interior down to the sheet rock, tiled the floor, put in a floor drain, re-did the lighting, and installed a new industrial double basin sink. This has been my brew space ever since, and the brewery is constantly evolving. My current endeavor is to transition over to all electric brewing since my house is now completely powered by solar.

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Inside the brewery (picture by: Kevin Noland)

What would you consider your prize possession when it comes to your equipment?

That would 100 percent be the “brains” of my operation: the Brew Control System – 462. The BCS reads eight different temperature probes and can turn things in the brewery on and off based on programming that I can control. For example, I have two upright freezers that house my conical fermenter and my sanke fermenter. Each freezer can be turned on via the BCS to provide cooling, or a heater inside of each can be turned on to provide heating. This allows me to control my fermentation temperatures to within plus or minus one degree. The BCS will also control lots of automation projects once I go electric.

When was the first competition you entered, and which of your medals do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?

The first competition I entered was the War of the Worts hosted by the Keystone Hops Homebrew club. I won a third place ribbon for a dry stout, and that was such a huge accomplishment for me at the time! The WotW is one of the largest homebrew competitions on the east coast.

Every year I enter the National Homebrew competition and have had beers go forward to the final round every year. I have had an American Amber and a Kolsch go to the finals but not place. In 2015, I actually had a Raspberry Mead go to the finals, and it took third place in the nation out of 133 total entries. I think it is hard to top that one, but I have 5 entries in the first round this year.

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Some award ribbons (picture by: Kevin Noland)

Have you taken the Beer Cicerone certification test? Was it a necessary to have this certification in order to start judging competitions?

I have not taken the Cicerone exam, but I am currently a Certified Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) beer judge. The Cicerone exam has a tasting component as well, but places a lot of focus on beer serving and food pairing. The BJCP is focused on beer evaluation against style categories. The guidelines that the BJCP publishes are used for most sanctioned homebrew competitions. I recently took the written portion of the BJCP exam and hope to achieve a national rank in the next few months.

Having a BJCP rank is not required to start judging, but you should show the organizers that you plan to pursue that. Taking the online entrance exam is a great place to start. At competitions, new judges are often paired with experienced judges to help them along in the judging process. There is a competition in New Jersey on April 30th called the Skyland Region Taste of the Town Homebrew Competition hosted by NJ HOPZ. Aspiring judges are welcome, and they can register online.

Out of all the different beers you’ve brewed over the years, do you have one batch that you would consider your all-time favorite?  And do you have a preferred type of brew?

That’s like asking a father which is his favorite kid. I do have a few recipes that I have brewed repeatedly. My Punch you in the IPA is one that my friends demand I have on tap for parties. I also make a mean Kolsch. I’m a sucker for sour and barrel aged beers. My carboys are always filled with sour beer of different ages that I can use for blending.

Last year, I picked up a Dads Hat rye whiskey barrel that I have been cycling beer through. Everything coming out of that barrel has been magic. It started with an Imperial Stout, then a Barleywine, then an Imperial Coconut Porter, and there is currently a red wine Saison in there. Soon it will be committed to a sour culture.

How do you feel about the homebrew scene in New Jersey? Homebrewing seems to be exploding — do you feel that it’s a good thing or that its becoming a little over saturated?

Home brewing — and craft beer for that matter — in New Jersey has a long way to go, and there is plenty of room to grow. There are a lot of homebrew clubs in New Jersey with a similar mission, and one of the things I am trying to accomplish with my club (Morris Area Society of Homebrewers, or MASH) is more group collaboration.

Last year at the Motown Mash, which is our club’s BJCP homebrew competition, we hosted a beer dinner that paired three local clubs with three local breweries. MASH and Magnify, SCUBA and Angry Erik, and NJ HOPZ and Man Skirt all created unique beers that were served at our beer dinner at Nicole’s 10 restaurant in Randolph. We hope to do something similar this year.

MASH has also kicked off a New Jersey Homebrewer of the Year award and a New Jersey Homebrew Club of the Year award. The points earned for these competitions are tied to the only three BJCP sanctioned competitions in the state. (Details can be found here.)

MASH is also hosting a Big Brew event for National Homebrew Day at The Great Divide Campground in Newton, New Jersey. We welcome any local club to come and set up camp for the night with us. Info can be found on our club’s Facebook page.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting to homebrew?

Before you get carried away with grain and kegging, learn about sanitation and fermentation first. One of the best investments a homebrewer can make for his or her beer is fermentation temperature control. Spend your money on that before buying a mash tun or building a kegerator. You can make great beer with extract!

Do you have any plans to take your talents professional and make a career out of brewing?

Maybe one day in my future, but at this point I love this as a hobby too much. I actually think brewing is one of the best hobbies in the world! There is always something to learn and something new to build.

I have a great career that supports my hobby and am happy where I’m at. I think one of the things a lot of aspiring pro brewers forget is that actual brewing is only about 5% of a pro brewery, and the rest is cleaning and running a business. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be a business owner.

I’m also alarmed at the current growth rate of new breweries. Two new breweries are opening per day in the country. That is pretty crazy. I think a successful model will be to support your local market instead of trying to grow into a regional brewery. The fight for shelf space at the bottle shops is a real struggle.

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Hungusfest (picture by: Kevin Noland)

How did you get the idea to start Hungusfest? How many different brewers participated in this year’s event, and are any of these brewers taking their products to market?

Hungusfest started as our housewarming party in ’09. We invited all our friends and family over to celebrate the new house. We had an amazing catered barbecue, and anyone drinking set up tents around the property. We had so much fun that we decided to make it a yearly event.

It has been cool that some of my home brewing friends are now going pro and they are still coming to hang with us. The folks behind Twin Elephant Brewing are very close friends and they brought some R&D batches. Twin Elephant is opening in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey very soon. The guys behind Two Ton are old college buddies, and they were able to bring beer for us. In addition to those two, last year we probably had about ten homebrewer friends that brought kegs. Hungusfest has turned into quite the homebrew fest!

We are also blessed to have so many musically inclined friends that are down to jam. This last year we had the Gypsy Funk Squad with belly dancers; a Bluegrass Superjam with various friends including Dave Tucker, Harry Morris, and Ken Trotta; our friend James from The Hollow played an acoustic set; and The Stank Tank, Looms, and Blue Tropic Soul all rocked out as well.

Maybe one day we can turn Hungusfest into a public event, but for now this is strictly invite only since it’s at our house.