Friday, February 15, 2013

Homebrew Alley Contest


[link to podcast page]
WFMU's Beer Hear! with Bob W. and B.R. from 2/15/2013

The New York City Homebrewers Guild has been conducting homebrew contests in New York City since long before B.R. and I started homebrewing. And we had our own exciting adventures organizing a bunch of contests for our Malted Barley Appreciation Society -- the first one in February 1998! One year we had over 500 entries in our Best of Brooklyn contest, which was held annually at the Brooklyn Brewery.
B.R. hard at work, along side Mike, across from James.
We've been judging beer since 1997 -- B.R. is a National Judge and I'm a Certified Judge in the Beer Judge Certification Program -- and we try to participate in at least one contest per year. This January, we judged Belgian Specialties and French beers at the Homebrew Alley 7 contest, organized by Guild members Chris Cuzme of 508 Gastrobrewery and Mary Izett of the Ale Street News. Though judging the same styles at the same table, we were in different sub-panels. My judge partner was Mike, and we had 11 beers to evaluate out of the more than 750 total entries. The contest was held at Alewife, which provided the judges and volunteers with a complimentary lunch and pint of beer!
View looking down from the 2nd floor at Alewife.
Many homebrewers have never entered their beers in a contest, and of those that have, many have never judged, stewarded or been spectators at a homebrew contest. For those wondering how it's done -- what actually goes on at those panels -- we've recorded some of our session. While an entire other blog post could be written about the incredibly mammoth job of the contest organizers -- promoting the contest, securing a space, receiving and processing entries, signing up judges and volunteers, etc. -- we'll just cover the basics of the initial round of judging.
Mary and veteran judge John "Cascade" Naegele.
It all starts with the announcing of the judging panels. Panels are broken down by the BJCP style guidelines. So, all the pilsners are judged by one panel (or sub-panels), stouts another panel, etc. That way the beers are competing with similar entries, and it allows the judges to really focus on the particulars of each style, and judge the beers on relative grounds.

Organizers are careful not to place judges on panels for categories in which the judge has entered beers, and they also try to assign judges to styles which they prefer. For B.R. and me, getting Belgian and French beer is about as good as it gets -- and that's what we got! Those are styles which we know well. In fact, just eight months ago we spent a week visiting breweries in northern France and southern Belgium. B.R. even translated a chapter of a book that Phil Markowski wrote on Farmhouse Ales, so, we consider ourselves quite experienced with those styles.
To wit, a wit.
I had met Mike, my judging partner, at some beer events in the past, but we didn't really know each other, which is often the case at contests. We found our panel's table, looked over the list of entries we were to judge, each with an entry control number along with the beer's style and sub-style, and any additional information, such as special ingredients or processes which distinguishes the beers. The judges have no idea whose beer they're judging -- the bottles and caps must be blank, with no labels or distinguishing markings. Our Steward, Harlie, asked which entries we wanted first, and Mike and I looked over the list, seeing if there was any reason to alter the order. There was -- two sour beers were on our pull-sheet, and we thought it best to save those for last, so that their potentially strong flavors wouldn't cloud our palates when sampling the milder flavored entries.

The stewards are assigned to specific panels and they help the judges manage the process, bringing entries from the "cold cellar" to the table, resupplying judges with water, pencils, score sheets, etc., and basically making the life of the judges simple and easy, so that the only thing judges have to worry about is evaluating beer. Harlie was exceptionally helpful! And we pointed out which entries she should sample when we were done -- a small reward for her hard work!
For those unfamiliar with homebrew contests, the BJCP has a standard score sheet that has sections to note an entry's aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, overall qualities, etc., along with a range of points to assign for each category. (There are differently formatted score sheets for meads, ciders, etc.) 50 points is the highest that a beer can score. Most beers score in the 30s, some in the 20s, few in the 40s and, mercifully, very few score below 10. Our panel ended up with three beers in the 40s! The Belgian Single Mike and I judged, which i think scored a 46, ended up going to the best of show round, too.

Different judges have different processes. B.R. and I have a similar process, and Mike, who is a fairly new judge, was down with our technique. The basic process is:

-- you look at the bottle, see if there is any tell-tale signs of problems, such as a ring at the top of the neck (usually indicating an infection), or a low fill, or anything out of the ordinary, and you note that on the sheet; some judges use a flashlight to look at the beer before opening it;

-- you handle the bottle carefully, so as not to disturb any sediment; you carefully open the beer... slowly... and you're always at the ready for a gusher! (our very first beer was an extreme gusher! you can actually hear it gushing in the podcast!);

-- then you pour out the beer into your sample glass with enough vigor to get the aromatics going, and form a head; most contests use plastic cups, but we hate those, because they often have a residual phenolic/plastic smell, which can affect the smell and taste of the beer, so we usually opt for a small glass tumbler, rinsing it thoroughly after each beer;

-- immediately, before all else, you stick your nose in the glass and experience the aroma as quickly and fully as possible, before any of the subtle notes are lost; it's super important to get the aroma down right away and write down your perceptions on the score sheet; if you let it sit for even 3 seconds, the volatile aromas are gone!

-- then you can take your time analyzing the color, clarity, head, mouthfeel, and, most importantly, the flavor of the beer; you may consult the style guidelines if you're not very familiar with that particular style -- there are apps for the style guidelines for mobile devices;

-- you're sipping, sniffing, looking, re-tasting and writing as descriptively as you can about what you perceive, without saying a word to your partner, so that your perceptions don't influence his or her own perceptions, and visa versa (just mutter the word "oxidized" and all of a sudden your partner is picking up cardboard flavor, even if it's not there); I generally don't write any scores for the categories until I'm done writing out my comments; then I will usually write a final score, if I have a good sense of where the beer should land, and then go back and see if my scores for the 5 individual categories add up; it takes, on average, between 5 and 10 minutes to judge an entry;

-- once both judges are done writing, then you being to talk; you might start out with comparing each others scores, or by launching into a speech about why that beer is awesome (or awful); if the scores are close, that's good news; if the scores are far apart, then somebody has to do some convincing; often times, compromises on the score sheet are made and a consensus is reached; and often times, one judge will realize that he or she is missing something that their partner is perceiving; good judging teams work together with mutual respect for each judge's strengths, helping each other rather than battling each other.

And on this panel, Mike and I were always within a point or two of each other! This is without discussing anything before revealing our scores. On the very last beer of the panel, not only did we score exactly the same total points, but we scored each of the 5 categories exactly the same, and had near identical comments! (Very rare!)

When there is more than one panel for one category, as was the case for us, then the sub-panels send their 2 or 3 best entries to a mini-best of show, and out of all the entries, one or two beers are sent to the best of show round, which includes ALL of the best entries from ALL of the different panels/categories.That's where the best Pilsner goes up against the best Porter, Alt versus American Light Lager, Belgian Pale Ale against Barleywine -- all the best dogs from each breeding category in the contest vying for the trophy!

NYC's resident beer photog, Juren.
Over the years I've come to believe that a homebrew judge should not be too negative. It's so easy to be a harsh judge, but one must remember that you're judging HOMEBREW -- not a commercial beer. And the judge, in my opinion, has an obligation to the brewer to find something -- anything -- positive to say about the beer. People pay money to enter their beers, and often they're doing so solely to get independent, objective, experienced feedback on their work (rather than their pal from work saying "Yeah! This rocks!" to everything that they offer. Of course, you must be honest. But we should encourage the brewers, not discourage them. And if we can impart any brewing tips, suggestions, hints, knowledge that might help improve the beer, we most definitely should. The judge must keep in mind that the brewer is going to get that score sheet back eventually -- the more supportive you can be as a judge, the better.

Thankfully, this sign was WRONG! Hard to get to Alewife sans the 7!