Due to so much local stuff going on at the beginning of this week, I'm just now getting around to telling you that I spent this past weekend accomplishing one of my bucket-list items -- judging a beer competition.
It was not the boozy, raucous event that I had expected, which may have something to do with the fact it was 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Instead, it was a serious affair with a mostly male population comparing tips and reminiscing about favorite beers and breweries. Some people were studying intensely, trying to learn all the characteristics of the type of beer they would taste.
Beer judging is a very regimented process.
There's no way one person could taste all 300 submitted beers and even
if that person could, how would they compare a stout to a bock, a cream
ale to a light lager? Instead, the beer is broken into 23 categories with several subcategories. I was in the India Pale Ale category which had three subcategories:
English I.P.A, American I.P.A and Imperial I.P.A. Sixteen beers were submitted in the entire
category -- two
Imperials and the rest were American I.P.A.
The process is
guided by the Beer Judge Certification Program, which gives
detailed instructions for what to look for in each category. For
instance, I knew that with the American I.P.A.s I should
expect a medium to high hop flavor with "citrusy, floral, resinous,
piney or fruit aspects." The American I.P.A.description on everything
from appearance to mouthfeel fills up a page of small type. There's a similarly long description for each of
the 90-plus beer styles listed.
Homebrowers make and submit the
beer in brown
bottles with only a number on the cap. A majority of the judges are
homebrewers, many with beers in the tournament they're judging, though
they are not allowed to judge in the categories in which they submitted beers.
a novice judge, I was paired with a certified judge who had passed a
rigorous beer tasting examination and a fellow novice. After cracking open the first I.P.A.,
I learned what beer judging is really about: writing. First you write
about how the beer looks in the bottle. Then you write about the color
of the beer and the foam on the head. Then you write about the aroma.
By the time I actually tasted some beers, my hand was cramping.
writing serves the purpose of letting the home brewer get honest
feedback about his beer. Good judges like Larry, the certified judge I
was with, are skilled enough that they can leave feedback letting the
brewer know if he killed the yeast too early or the malt was wrong. I mostly just wrote
comments along the lines of, "this is good."
Initially I had
scoffed when Larry said we'd only be tasting half the I.P.A.s while
another group tasted the other half. I can handle small sips from 16
beers, I thought. I'm glad I didn't. Beer fatigue started to set in
around the sixth beer, when I found myself not only running out of
adjectives to write on people's sheets but getting phantom flavors from
previous beers. I love a good I.P.A. but by the end of the two-plus
hours of judging, I was I.P.A.'d out.
Most interesting was watching master judges determine the best in show. These master judges have to score extremely high
on the Beer Judge Certification Program exam and have years of experience. In return for all their
effort, they get to judge the three or four best beers from each
category. Watching these experts put down beer
after beer and identify immediately what was wrong or good, I realized that it's more
than a skill, it's an art form.
Time to add another item to the bucket list.