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Tiffin native wins silver at Great American Beer Festival

Tiffin native Joel Miller, in collaboration with a Virginia brewery, won a silver medal at this fall’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

“It’s the biggest competition in the country,” he said. “It’s kind of like the Oscars of beer competition, or the Super Bowl.”

He, an amateur home brewer, and the Precarious Beer Project, Williamburg, Virginia, entered the GABF pro-am category after working together to brew Miller’s Leicht, a German “leichtbier.”

“We were actually there at the awards ceremony,” Miller said. “They could barely get the name out and we were jumping up and screaming that we had gotten a medal. We were just so ecstatic that we had gotten a medal.

“I couldn’t believe we did it,” he said. “It was so awesome to walk up on stage and receive a medal from Charlie Papazian, who had retired the year before from the Brewers Association, but made a surprise appearance again this year.”

The Brewers Association is a non-profit trade association “for small and independent American brewers, their beers and the community of brewing enthusiasts,” according to its website.

“I found out after the fact that I’m one of 39 homebrewers in the country to have a medal from GABF,” he said. “The pro-am division started in 2006 and three medals are awarded each year.”

The most recent award is a culmination of the last several years of awards for Miller, who works a full-time job as a nurse anesthetist at a hospital in Richmond, Virginia.

When he isn’t in the operating room, he said he likes to make beer for people to enjoy.

“It’s kind of a challenge to brew really quality beer, so that’s what I strive for,” he said.

Miller said he got started in brewing through a co-worker.

“One of my co-workers had started brewing a little bit,” he said. “I was kind of reluctant at first.”

But he decided he was interested enough to see what it was all about.

“We brewed two beers that day and I was hooked,” he said. “I started trying to soak up and much information and knowledge around brewing as I could.”

He joined the James River Homebrewers “to hang out with like-minded people,” and he brewed beer.

“I have always strived to produce the highest-quality beers possible,” Miller said. “My philosophy has been I want my beers to be something that the most respected breweries would put on their taps and serve to customers.”

Then he started entering competitions.

His first experience brewing on a commercial system was when David Hunter, founder of the Fans of Virginia Craft Breweries, asked him to accompany him to brew a beer, which he said was “aptly named Fandom of the Hopera” with Dave Warwick, head brewer for Three Notch’d Brewing in Charlottesville.

“It was an eye opener brewing a 650-gallon batch,” he said.

Miller won the 2016 Center of the Universe Wort Share competition with French Toast Brown Ale.

“It was the first time I saw my name on a commercial bottle,” he said.

“In 2018, I was extremely honored when two different Richmond breweries that had some national attention asked if I’d brew beers with them,” he said. “First was a hazy IPA with Final Gravity, followed by a hazy DIPA with The Answer.

“I dabbled with brewing a lager or two in 2017, but decided to make it a goal of mine to brew some really good lagers in 2018,” he said. “I decided I wanted something light and refreshing that had more taste than an American lager so I brewed a German leichtbier, which is the lowest alcohol German lager style.”

He entered some of his beers into the Dominion Cup, which is Virginia’s largest homebrew competition sponsored by James River Homebrewers. He won a gold medal with his Leicht leichtbier, and it then took second-best in show out of 718 entries.

He also won a bronze medal with a Vienna Lager and a silver with a German Schwartzbier in that competition.

“That reaffirmed I had at least temporarily achieved my goal of brewing some solid lagers,” he said.

Miller said his Leicht won gold again in the Virginia Beer Blitz early this year, and was best in show out of 336 beers.

A couple months later, he said he was contacted by Greg Fleehart, master brewer of Precarious Beer Project in Williamsburg, Virginia, who asked if he would be interested in brewing Leicht with him to be entered into the Great American Beer Festival ProAm competition.

“I was once again humbled and honored to be asked by someone I respect so much in the brewing world,” he said. “He kind of had the strategy of brewing a very light lager that you can’t hide any flaws. He thought it would get extra attention from the judges, and apparently it did.”

They started working together, and Miller kept tabs on the brewing process.

“He seemed very pleased with how it was coming along and early tastes seemed promising,” Miller said. “It lagered for about a month, and then had to be packaged to make it to Denver in time for the deadline.

“Once again, he said he and the rest of his team were extremely happy with how the beer was tasting,” Miller said. “A week later, I was able to make it down to Williamsburg to try the beer for myself. I was very pleased with the results. I couldn’t have asked for the beer to turn out any better.”

In the overall GABF competition, he said about 9,000 beers were entered from thousands of breweries.

“The pro-am competition had 113 entries and is a best-in-show category, meaning any style goes,” he said.

Each beer entered in the pro-am had to have won an award in a sanctioned homebrewing competition.

“Some of them were a lot more complex,” he said. “We had the strategy of brewing a simple, well-brewed beer.”

Miller said he’s frequently asked when he’s going to open his own brewery, but he plans to remain a hobbyist.

“I feel my career in anesthesia is very rewarding and stimulating,” he said. “I enjoy brewing tasty beverages for friends and want to keep it at that for now. We are lucky to have so many great breweries in Virginia, just as Ohio has, that I feel my contribution in anesthesia outweighs another brewery in Richmond.”

Miller got started in his career after high school when he trained as an Army medic and served in the 385th Ambulance Company in Tiffin for a few years while attending Marion Technical College to become a registered nurse.

“After I graduated nursing school in 1995 I received my commission in the Army Nurse Corps and was based out of the 145th MASH in Port Clinton,” he said.

He later worked as a nurse at Grant Medical Center, Columbus, in a cardiac step-down unit, and then in the surgical intensive care unit.

In 1998, he moved Charlottesville, Virginia, and worked in the surgical trauma ICU at the University of Virginia Medical Center, and then in the thoracic cardiovascular postop ICU.

“While working there I went back for my BSN at UVA,” he said. “I then moved to Richmond, Virginia, with the hopes of going to anesthesia school at Virginia Commonwealth University.”

He graduated from VCU with a degree in nurse anesthesia in 2005 and started working for a hospital on the outskirts of Richmond, where he still works today.

“I feel that career is very rewarding, so I’m content doing this for now,” he said.

However, Miller does plan to enter more contests.

And he said three classmates from Columbian are considering a brewing collaboration.

Aaron Stalsworth, is co-owner of Tiffin Brewery, and Dan Ditslear is owner of 300 Suns Brewery in Longmont, Colorado.

“All of us graduated together,” Miller said.

When it comes down to it, Miller said he just enjoys brewing.

“Contests to me aren’t everything. I just enjoy the hobby of brewing things I can share with friends and family,” he said. “There are things they’re paying good money for that I can give them instead. I enjoy making things that make them happy.”

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