I recently met with Chris Banker, creator of a beer that was the winner of Stone Brewery’s 2014 American Hombrewers Association-sanctioned homebrew competition. As the competition winner, the beer was commercially produced (with minor collaborative adaptations by Stone Brewing and Cervecería Insurgente) and released in 2014 as a collaboration beer known as Chris Banker/Stone/Insurgente Xocoveza (pronounced SHO-CO-VAY-ZA) Mocha Stout.

As described by Stone Brewing –

“This year’s winner of our American Homebrewers Association-sanctioned homebrewing competition, Chris Banker, helped keep us grounded to our homebrewing roots by introducing flavors consistent with our regional palate. His chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg, chile pepper and coffee-infused milk stout was built to mimic the flavors of Mexican hot chocolate, a beloved specialty from our neighbors to the south, as our collaborators from Baja California, Cervecería Insurgente, will attest. Layered with tiers of earthiness, spice and roast, this creamy, semisweet blue-ribbon beer confirms that the spirit of the American homebrewer is not only alive and kicking, but thriving at an all-time high.”

Xocoveza was first introduced at the 2014 Beer Bloggers Conference in San Diego to a room full of about 300 thirsty beer bloggers, media writers, and industry representatives sampling beers from numerous respected breweries. I was one of those thirsty beer bloggers and wrote my impression here, noting the “Great flavors of dark cacao chocolate, coffee, and nutmeg with mild chilies.”

After its release, beer critics raved about Chris Banker/Stone/Insurgente Xocoveza Mocha Stout with Draft Magazine naming it one of the top 25 beers of 2014; RateBeer giving the beer an overall score of 100 out of a possible 100, and Beer Advocate rating Xocoveza as World Class.

So just who is Chris Banker and what was the process of going from homebrew contest entry to successful commercial product called Xocoveza?

An avid homebrewer, Chris Banker works on satellite communications systems for a leading corporation in north San Diego County. He earned Bachelors and Masters degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. In addition to homebrewing, Chris’s hobbies include developing homebrewing technology, cheese making, cooking, photography, biking, motorcycling, snowboarding, web design, hiking, and playing the tuba. He is a Certified Beer Judge and avid member/participant in cheese making and brewing organizations, including:

Chris and I met at Rip Current Brewing (one of his favorite north San Diego County breweries) to drink beer and talk.

The best way to convince a homebrew to meet for an interview? Beer, of course!
The best way to convince a homebrewer to meet for an interview about Xocoveza? Over beer, of course!

When did you start homebrewing?

I started in 2009 after moving to California from school in Massachusetts. I had been considering brewing for a time and had even tried a homebrew kit while a graduate student. It turned out terrible, but I wanted to continue. Once in California, I started by finding a clone kit for a Pale Ale to mimic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. At the time, I thought the beer turned out pretty good but in retrospect I realize it wasn’t that good. However, the results encouraged me to continue brewing and learning. From that point forward I started brewing almost weekly. I started inviting friends over to help drink the beer so I could brew more.

Did you start with 5 gallon batches?

Yes, I started with 5 gallon extract batches. After a while I started doing 5 gallon all-grain batches. Later, I decided that I was going through the beer too quick and I also wanted to be able to experiment with different yeasts and treatments so I devised a way to make 10 gallon split batches work in my tiny apartment. I designed a brew kettle that I could run and control off of two separate circuits.

[You can read details about Chris’s homebrew system design and see photos by clicking here.]

Do you have a favorite style of beer?

I tend to gravitate towards big Barrel-aged Stouts and Sours, especially traditional Belgian lambics and gueuzes . I also love drinking an outstanding IPA. In terms of homebrewing, some of my favorites are Double IPAs and Milk Stouts. I use the base beer stout recipe that I used for Xocoveza for a lot of stout variations I create at home.

Congratulations on the tremendous critical success of Xocoveza Mocha Stout. Tell us what led you to that style/recipe initially for the homebrew competition and how the collaboration process worked after your win.

When I was planning out the profile, I wanted to create a beer that was reminiscent of Mexican hot chocolate. I find cinnamon and nutmeg are very complimentary flavors to hot chocolate. Also vanilla is very complimentary to chocolate and helps bring out the chocolate flavor. My parents had just stopped by from their visit to Baja Mexico and brought me some Mexican vanilla beans so I used those in my homebrew entry.

The beer I entered into the competition was different from my typical base stout in that I reduced the gravity slightly to ensure the entry was compliant with Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guidelines. After winning, Stone suggested raising the ABV to 8%. I was all for the change as that would create the potential for aging and actually bring the beer more in line with my personal taste preference. Also, Cervezería Insurgente offered recipe tweaks that added more Mexican regional heritage to the flavor and brewed a batch.

Stone came back with a scaled-up recipe for the larger brewing system. The collaborative team brewed the first batch for taste testing, resulting in us adding a little more pepper to increase the heat in the finish.

Xocoveza Mocha Stout was such a critical success, are there plans to brew and release this beer again?

Xocoveza was planned as a single release specialty beer. There are no plans at this time to brew and release the beer again. However, if Stone Brewery wanted to do so, I’d be all for it.

 What advice would you give people interested in homebrewing?

Join a homebrew club. Homebrew clubs are great sources for early mentoring. Taking advantage of the mentoring will help you avoid many mistakes commonly made initially and speed your ability to make quality homebrewed beer.

Thanks Chris for your time and insights. I hope we can share beers again soon!

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