ZEPHYRHILLS — The best home-brewed beer in the nation started in a picnic cooler in Robert Hilferding's garage.
From the cooler it went into a kitchen pot and boiled on a camp stove. Then, with a tool Hilferding calls his magic wand, he added oxygen to the infant beer, sealing it in big glass jugs. The jugs went into his old freezer, and fermentation began.
Altogether the setup cost a couple hundred dollars and fills the garage at his house on Fifth Avenue. He built it from scratch after his ambitions outgrew his first kit, a 1-gallon set his son gave him for Christmas in 2012.
He lovingly calls the gear his "brewery."
"If I call it my brewery too many times, though, my wife gives me the look," he said. "The look means 'It's still just a garage.' "
But to Hilferding, it's not just a garage. It's where he practices his passion.
After two weeks, the beer finished fermenting. He bottled it and sent it to the American Homebrewers Association's National Homebrew Competition in Michigan, where it won Best of Show among 8,172 entries from the United States and six other countries.
Hilferding also was named the AHA's Homebrewer of the Year. He said he was told he's the first person from Florida to win.
"I assume someday the giddiness will wear off," he said, "but right now it's unbelievable to me."
• • •
Until it won, Hilferding had no idea the Scottish ale, which he named Way Off Kilter, was any good. He had entered it in contests before and had mixed results.
Since he started in 2012, he has brewed almost 200 gallons and entered about 15 contests.
He got third place once, he said, much to his elation. But none of his other concoctions came close to first.
So he took the beer to his home-brewing club in Tampa, Special Hoperations.
There he learned the importance of sanitizing all his gear and carefully monitoring the temperature during fermentation. The most important detail they helped him with, he said, was tasting each iteration of Way Off Kilter, suggesting subtle changes.
After multiple brews, Way Off Kilter finally became the beer Hilferding loves — malty and not bitter, low in alcohol with a smoky flavor. Despite its subtleties, he said the beer's best quality is its accessibility. A drinker can enjoy it without having to be a connoisseur.
"I like it when they say, 'Hey, that's better than the stuff I buy at the grocery store,' " he said. "It's like that."
• • •
Hilferding could move out of his garage and start a commercial brewery, but he's reluctant. He said he'd miss giving people his beer for free.
There's no money in home-brewed beer because, well, it's illegal to sell. Each batch costs $20 to $50 to make, so he's in no hurry to commercialize.
"I haven't made up my mind" about whether to expand.
Meanwhile, he's working with Special Hoperations members on an Irish stout with hints of vanilla and Maker's Mark whiskey.
At 65, he said he won't slow down.
"I'll keep brewing beer until I can't lift the beer jugs out of the freezer. Then I'll get someone else to do it."