Each December, one of my local homebrew groups, Colonial AleSmiths and Keggers (CASK) hosts a big competition, the Beer Blitz. This year, they received over 400 entries – that’s a LOT of beer, considering every entry requires two bottles. I’ve observed parts of the competition in previous years, but was never able to judge until this year. Now, I have no formal qualifications other than liking to drink beer, so I was a bit skeptical when asked to help judge, and continued asking “are you sure you want me?” Reassured that it was okay, and that I could provide a consumer’s perspective, I signed up to judge two sessions.
The morning of, I reported for duty. The CASK members were generous enough to have provided a large breakfast spread, which helped me prep my stomach before I headed to my table. For the morning session, I was assigned to the Spice/Herb/Vegetable (BJCP category 21, for those of you interested) group. We were a table of 6 judges, with approximately 24 entries. Luckily, we had two seasoned BJCP-certified judges at the table, who quickly got us organized. Splitting into two groups of 3, and distributing the experts and novices, we divided up the entries and plunged in. I had predicted ahead of time that we’d be tasting a lot of pumpkin and pepper beers, and was definitely wrong – coffee ruled the day. Working off the advice of the expert judge leading our panel, I found this category easy to judge – when something is labeled as having honey, or maple, vanilla, or roasted beans, you concentrate on looking for those ingredients, and let those factors drive your scores. In our half of the beers, we had two excellent pumpkin beers (better than a lot of the production versions I tried this fall), one winter warmer, and multiple coffee stouts/porters/nut browns. The stand out though was a berlinerweisse with cucumber – it smelled just like a pickle, but tasted amazing. Lip-smackingly sour, but with a refreshing cucumber bite. After each picking out our favorite three, the two sides of the table came together, and held a mini-best-in-show to send a winner forward. The berlinerweisse came in second, after a chipotle porter, but it was a heated debate (no pun intended).
For the afternoon, I was assigned to the European Amber Lager table (Vienna Lagers and Oktoberfests). I had probably jinxed myself at lunch by talking about what interesting, high-quality beers we had in the morning, and how I wasn’t as out of my depth judging as I had feared. I learned quickly that it was actually harder to pick out the subtleties of these more mainstream beers – we were really focusing on technicalities, rather than the described flavor cues of the morning. I was on a sub-team with a professional brewer and an experienced homebrewer. Most of our scores were similar, but I was definitely providing the “this tastes funky” type of commentary, while they were identifying the chemical compositions or technical errors. There was some smack-talking with the other sub-team, about how they seemed to be getting better beers than us, based on our scores, but at the mini best in show, it turned out we’d had the luck of tasting the overall best in category.
At the end of the day, I had some takeaways. One, beer judging is actually pretty hard work – by the time you hit the 8th or 9th beer in the category, you start to get tired and think “really? how many more?”. It’s a lot to think and analyze every sip, and try to provide useful comments! Two, it’s actually much harder to judge the “easier”, more mainstream beers – they’re more subtle in flavor, so you’re picking them apart, and issues are more technical in nature (rather than, “dude, you’re crazy, these flavors don’t go together at all). Three, there are some really friggin’ awesome homebrews out there – I was really impressed by the creativity and quality that I tasted. Finally, there is apparently room for us non-brewer, just-drinker types. While I didn’t think I was providing much helpful commentary, my palate and scoring were on target with others. Turns out I judged a beer made by someone I know, and he has now said that my comments made him laugh, in a good way. I am definitely game to sign up in the future, and keep reviewing my BJCP app to guide my way;