"I took off work [at Cerner] early," 27-year-old Tim Squires says. "It was a fun day. I brought a buddy, and we had a few beers in the tasting room." He had in mind a beer-and-wine fusion, something he figured he'd tweak after tasting the wort, which Boulevard had kept as neutral as possible.
Boulevard received 94 entries in the contest, called "Wort Transformation 2013." And on August 3, in the former Coors warehouse off Front Street - a few odometer ticks from the Isle of Capri casino - a group of volunteer employees is preparing to determine which home brewer's creation has earned a featured slot in the brewery's taproom.
"We're not looking to crush anybody's spirit," brewer Jeremy Danner says. "The question is, what was the goal of the beer and did you accomplish it?"
Elizabeth Belden, who oversees the brewery's quality-assurance lab, explains the judging rules to the three dozen gathered employees. A perfect score is 50 (three points for appearance, five for mouth feel, 12 for taste, 20 for flavor and 10 for the overall impression). A "world-class beer" is in the 45 - 50 range. A "problematic" brew (there were none Saturday) would score between zero and 13. Each home brewer will get a sheet explaining the scores from each judge, along with a series of descriptors: metallic, say, or astringent. Maybe vegetal. Maybe grassy.
I'm at a table with Master Cicerone Neil Witte and six other people. My half of the table is judging the Belgian specialty category. There also are fruit, saison, specialty, American ale, spice/herb/vegetable, "smoked and Scottish," and lager/Pilsner categories. I'm allowed to weigh in, but my vote won't determine whether someone moves on or stays in the competition.
The brown bottles arrive with white stickers and three-digit numbers but no other distinguishing marks. An Excel spreadsheet includes a brief description of the beer, focusing on its style and the ingredients used. Quick hisses of air sound as bottle caps are pried off. It's 9:14 a.m., and I've suddenly got eight beers to drink.
"I wanted to use saison yeast, but the home-brew store was all out," Squires says of his brew, which he has named Fusion. "So I used Belgian strong yeast. I boiled some pinot grigio grape juice and added orange and lemon peel. There's a little bit of candied ginger, although it didn't come through at all. And then I dry-hopped it with some Cascade hops."
With each beer, the judges bury their noses in the small, clear-plastic sample cups. They often swirl the contents to help oxygen open up the beer, as they would with wine. The nose goes back in. Next comes the sip. Some then stare and think. Others look down into the beer for answers.
"Beer gets more honest as it warms," Belden says. "If you still like it when it's warm and the carbonation is gone, that's the true test."
"I keep coming back to this one. The cucumber one is ... " McDonald trails off.
"Cucumber-y?" Boulevard brewer Sterling Holman suggests.
McDonald nods and smiles. The beer doesn't advance to the finals, but another of McDonald's picks - a wheat with lemon and ginger - moves on.
Eight Boulevard employees sit down for the last round. They won't get up for another hour.
"What is the best beer?" McDonald asks now that the field has narrowed to three choices: Squires' Fusion, a dry-hopped Belgian, and the wheat with ginger. "Is it something you can drink a lot of?"
The day belongs to Squires. On Monday, he gets a call from Boulevard, inviting him back to brew his beer on their equipment. At home in Olathe, Squires has been upgrading his home-brew system, retrofitting a 10-gallon water cooler from Home Depot to serve as his new mash tun.
"I didn't want to give my six-pack up for tasting, but my wife, Ashly, convinced me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Squires says. "It's going to be neat seeing my beer in the taproom."