THE IRON BREWER sounds like a steel-cage death match between rival beer makers. But the annual homebrewing showdown held at Iron Hill's brewpub in West Chester might be the feel-good beer event of the year.

Head brewer Chris LaPierre cooks up his golden barleywine and, once a year, invites members of the local homebrewing club, Brewers Unlimited Zany Zymurgists (BUZZ) to fill their tubs with its "second runnings." That's the sweet, steaming liquid produced by sparging, or pouring hot water through grains left over from the original mash. The second runnings are weaker than the initial batch, not unlike the coffee you'd get if you reused the grounds. Usually, second runnings are added to thin the beer to its proper gravity; often, they're simply dumped down the drain.

But you can make perfectly good beer out of second runnings. You can brew a weakened variety known as "small beer," an old-time style so low in alcohol it was once served to children. Or, you can give away the second runnings to some local homebrewers and let them have a shot at making something tasty, to be evaluated by professional beer judges.

That's the Iron Brewer, a unique contest that's a tribute to the bond between professional and amateur brewers. It might sound like a simple gesture on the part of Iron Hill, but imagine how cool it would be if Alison Barshak or Jim Coleman or some other famous Philly chef offered you a steaming pot of delicious fish stock to take home and turn into bouillabaisse or tuna pasta or anything you like.

In this case, LaPierre brewed with simple pilsner malt to provide a mostly neutral base - a blank canvas - for the homebrewers' recipes. They could add any ingredients - hops, spices, fruit, yeast - and brew any style, or invent a new one.

The collection of entries this year was esoteric. More than 20 area homebrewers took their five gallons of second runnings late last year and returned with styles ranging from basic English brown ale to a hoppy Belgian dubbel. There were ales made with vanilla, chocolate and honey, and most were up there with what you'd find at your corner bar.

"Homebrewers can make a beer as good as any professional brewer, just not on a consistent basis," declared Dave Houseman, a grand master beer judge who sampled the entries earlier this month with LaPierre and his fellow Iron Hill brewers, Jean Broillet and Mark Edelson. (I sat in on the judging but didn't have a vote.) For more than three hours, the judges sipped and swished (but didn't spit out), scribbling notes and sharing opinions.

A brown porter: "Too much sugar. I would've notched it back by 20 percent," LaPierre said.

A double India pale ale: "This is like eating grapefruit," Houseman said.

A sour Flanders brown ale: "I get some cherry [flavor], a little funky," Edelson said.

Unlike the stricter guidelines of typical judged beer events, the main criteria of Iron Brewer is simply: Would you order a second glass? The rankings ranged from Delicious! ("How the heck did you do this and can I get more?") down to Marinade ("Better luck next year").

The clear winner was a French-style biere de garde from Chris Clair, 36, of West Chester. Aromatic and flavorful, the ale was made for sucking down while your Weber is smoking on a hot and hazy afternoon. Would I pour a second glass? Yeah. Let the burgers burn.

But Iron Brewer is not just about the beer - it's about sharing, about friendship. "We've just always had a great, two-way relationship with the homebrewing community," LaPierre said.

BUZZ has been holding its meetings at Iron Hill since 2001, and the brewpub hosts other homebrewing events throughout the year. "We borrow ingredients from each other. I've even had to borrow a hydrometer from one of them in the past," LaPierre said. "And homebrewers are always the ones who come in telling us about the latest weird hop variety."

You'd think that a man who could make his own beer would be reluctant to spend his hard-earned money drinking somebody else's. But Clair said he'd miss "the social element" and "the inspiration" if he wasn't rubbing elbows and kibitzing with the brewers at Iron Hill.

When homebrewers meet the pros, Clair said, "Everyone's like, 'Let's try this, let's try that . . . .' Every once in a while, they bring out something new to us for a taste. It really is the amateur-professional thing, not just 'Would you buy this beer?' but, 'Hey, what do you think, one craftsman to another?' " *

"Joe Sixpack" by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.