Belfast first-time home brewer beats more than 100 beer enthusiasts in statewide contest

Looks like we have a 'Winnah!'

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013 - 2:30pm
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Belfast Co-op
Zafra Whitcomb holding his winning brew, which sells at The Belfast Co-op. (photo: Kay Stephens)

It's got to feel like a bit of a burn when some guy who has only been home-brewing for one year beats out more than 100 contestants in Maine Homebrewers Competition, a statewide contest run out of Bangor. However, nice guys do finish first, and Zafra Whitcomb, an employee at The Belfast Co-op humbly acknowledged his good fortune.

“I’m still kind of in shock that I took first," he said. "And this was the first lager style that I’d ever done.”

In 2012, for the Maine Homebrewers Competition, Whitcomb submitted four different beers and a sparkling mead. There were 17 finalists for each style of beer and in the end, there was one absolute winner or "Winnah" as it says on the bottle's label. His beer, made with Sorachi Pils hops (a type of Japanese hop used in Sapporo), came in as the Grand Prize Winner.  “It's a great summer beer,” he said.

As part of the Grand Prize, Whitcomb got to have his beer commercially brewed and distributed by Penobscot Bay Brewery, in Winterport.

“It’s really exciting that quantity of beer being made," he said. "I make about 10 gallons at home at a time. This was more than 200 gallons made in this batch."

The first batch of "Winnah" was brewed the second week of October 2012 and wasn’t ready to bottle until the beginning of December.  The brewery packaged 70 cases of Whitcomb's beer and a couple of kegs, which ended up on tap at Darby’s Restaurant in Belfast and Nocturnem Draft House in Bangor. Nocturnem's kegs sold out in two weeks and this past Friday, Darby's just tapped their first keg of Whitcomb's beer (complete with his own personal tap titled "Zafra's Sorachi Pils").

The Co-op was also thrilled to be able to stock Whitcomb’s beer in their craft beer section.

“Everyone was really excited like ‘when’s your beer coming, when’s your beer coming?’” he said.

Three cases of "Winnah" arrived before Christmas and at the time of this interview, they had already been sold out. The Co-op was waiting on more cases to arrive and it is now in stock again.

As home brewers are legally prohibited from selling their brew commercially, Whitcomb said the recognition was the best perk of having won the contest. Because of the contest's rules, Whitcomb won't earn any proceeds from beer sales. Like all contestants, he also signed a waiver to grant to Penobscot Bay Brewery an irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free license to all commercial and intellectual property rights to the winning beer. 

"If I ever decided I wanted to get into the business, it’s great to have that honor,” he said. He’ll continue to brew variations on his original recipe for friends and family to be given away.

The upshot is that if all of the limited batches of "Winnah" sell out and there is a demand for more, Penobscot Bay Brewing Company may invest in renaming and relabeling the beer and continuing to sell it, as they have done for past Grand Prize winners, such as their Building 5 Rye IPA.

Whitcomb's working on a new brew for this year’s contest, trying different styles like a Porter, and a low-alcohol Polish smoked wheat beer called a Grodziskie, but he’s not sure what he’ll submit this year.

“Brewing is a fascinating thing," he said, cheerfully. "It’s a combination of all the things I like, such as cooking, chemistry, physics, biology and engineering all wrapped up. And in the end, you get beer.”

Help a guy out and drink some "Winnah" next time you're in Belfast and while you're at it, submit your own review on our Facebook page.


Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com