That First Blue Ribbon

Bill Vandevort at The Side Yard Brewery

Bill Vandevort at The Side Yard Brewery

I arrive at The Side Yard Brewery just as Bill and Deb Vandevort are finishing up the mash (steeping malted barley and any other grains in hot water to convert their starches to sugars). “We can talk and sample beer, but we’re here to brew. That comes first today,” Bill, 72, says, setting the tone.

Personalized control panel from More Beer

Customized control panel from More Beer

The Vandevort’s “brewery” is actually a shed located—where else?—in the side yard of their Monterey, California home. Their three-vessel brewing system (a hot liquor tank, a combination mash/lauter tun, and a combination kettle/whirlpool tank), custom-made for them by More Beer, according to the metal plaque on the control panel, cost about 20 times more than my own very basic equipment. Since this is a brewing day, they’ve rolled the system, on a single cart, out onto the paver-covered patio.

That First Blue Ribbon

That First Blue Ribbon

Inside the shed, past the two kegerators and a gorgeous conical fermenter, one of the blue ribbons on the back wall reads, “9th Annual California State Homebrew Competition-San Francisco, California, November 8, 1987-First Award.” A lavendar ribbon beside it simply says, “Chico Home Brew Competition-Best of Show.” Three certificates declare that Bill and Debbie have been awarded the Brewmaster’s Silver/Silver/Gold American Homebrewers Association 1990 Awards. They’re signed by the National Competition Director whose signature I can’t decipher and by then AHA President, Charlie Papazian.

Debbie Vandevort on brew day

Debbie Vandevort on brew day

“That first blue ribbon was the most exciting,” Bill says. “I actually wrote up something about it for the homebrewing club Debbie and belonged to, at the time, in Sacramento. I think I can probably find it.”

A week later, an emails arrives, and I learn that Bill Vandevort is just as charming in writing as he is in person. Below is the piece he wrote in 1987 after placing first in the Wheat Beer category at California State Fair Homebrew Competition. His prize was that blue ribbon which hangs today on the back wall of The Side Yard Brewery.


By Bill Vandevort

Maybe after you have won a few blue ribbons and a “best of show” now and then, the impact of winning “one more” isn’t so thrilling.

 But how about that first one? Oh, what a feeling.

 Once you have entered your beer into a competition, several things suddenly go through your mind. Why is it that you immediately begin to second guess why on earth you even did such a thing in the first place? You might ask, who am I to suggest that my beer could possibly be best of class? Or, you start thinking about all of the information you’ve read and aren’t sure that you understand half of it. And what about those seemingly dumb questions you are always asking?

 It doesn’t end here. You start worrying about all that effort you put into making your beer, always wondering if you followed the proper procedures. Should I have used more hops? What about dry hopping? And the yeast, should I use one packet or two? Should I use this brand or that one, or what about using a grown culture? And if this seems like an overwhelming number of concerns, it doesn’t even come close to the thought of comparing your beer to the other club members and contestants whom you admire for their beer making knowledge and past brewing experience.

But when you hear that you did indeed win a coveted blue ribbon, a very warm, joyous, exciting, and satisfying feeling overtakes you. And the best part is yet to come.

 While you are riding on a cloud of euphoria, your fellow club members and competitors come up to you and offer their congratulations, as if you were the only one that had ever won such a prize. When, in fact, if it were not for them and their continual advice, assistance, and support, you would not be wearing that pretty ribbon.

 But I guess that’s what home brewing is all about. To help one another, to give encouragement, and to congratulate each other for the single purpose of brewing fine quality beer.

 Thank you friends. You can bet I will always be by your side to help you brew the finest beer and congratulate you when you do.

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