ZEPHYRHILLS — Zephyrhills already lays claim to some of the best water, and now a national competition has determined the city has some of the best homemade beer.
Zephyrhills resident Robert Hilferding won first place for his Scottish ale “Way Off Kilter” at the American Homebrewers Association competition held June 14 in Grand Rapids, Mich. Hilferding competed among 8,172 entrants from across the nation.
Hilferding, 65, brews his beer and ale in his garage at his Fifth Avenue home in Zephyrhills.
“I started in December 2012 after my youngest son, Gregg, gave me a one-gallon make-your-own beer kit, and it was way better than the tie of last year and the sweater from two years ago, so I said OK, I’ll give this a try,” Hilferding said. “It takes about a month to get a batch from beginning, to bottle, to drink. So I made seven bottles of beer and at the time I thought it was the most awesome thing ever, and now I make five-gallon batches, and last year I brewed about 190 gallons.”
Hilferding joined a beer club called “Special Hoperations” — based in South Tampa.
He learned more of the intricacies of homebrewing. In the homebrew club, he heard about competitions and decided to enter.
“I was just making some Irish red ale. I sent three bottles away and immediately forgot about it … and I got third place,” he said. “I wore that third-place medal until [my wife] Terry said you can’t go out of the house wearing that.”
Motivated by his success, he has entered 15 competitions in the past year. Hilferding said that one good thing about competitions is that the judges offer specific critiques that help perfect the recipe.
The road to first place began with sending Way Off Kilter to Memphis along with three other entries. Way Off Kilter took first place in its category and qualified for the national competition in Grand Rapids, where it again took first place in its category.
The winners of 24 categories were judged for Best of Show, and Hilferding won. He also was named Homebrewer of the Year.
“At some point the giddiness will go away and I’ll behave like a grownup again, but it is not going to happen soon,” Hilferding said.
Hilferding gives a short lesson on beer and ale. “Ale and lagers are both beers,” Hilferding said. “Beers are basically water, malted grains, hops, yeast; so ale is beer. Lagers like Bud Light and Miller Lite are all beers. Primarily the difference is that ale is fermented in the 60s — 65- to 69-degree temperatures. Lagers are fermented for a much longer time in the 40s. Primarily the difference is in taste,” Hilferding said. “Ales are a much more complex taste, where lagers are cleaner and crisper, but not as round.”
Hilferding said he paid attention to details to make his winning ale, which he wanted to taste smoky or peaty, but perhaps the most unusual thing he did was to match the mineral content of his tap water of Zephyrhills to the mineral content of Edinburgh, Scotland, to start.
“Yeast is really fussy about the mineral it likes,” he said, but he added that Zephyrhills water is really good for making beer.
Hilferding said he sent all he had of Way Off Kilter to the competition so he has no samples. “If I go by what people say on Facebook, I need about 100 gallons,” he said, laughing.
Now that Hilferding has put Zephyrhills on the map for homebrew, he hopes to get more involved in homebrew pourings at events. There are possibilities of bringing a homebrew competition to the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber for Commerce’s Barbecue & Blues event.
After hearing of Hilferding’s accomplishment, Chamber Executive Director Vonnie Mikkelson thought it would be a great thing to include at the barbecue competition.
“Cheers to Mr. Hilferding for coming up with the award-winning brew, an extraordinary accomplishment,” Mikkelson said.. “With national recognition like this, we have to ask Mr. Hilferding, ‘When’s the brew-tasting event?’ ”