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Monday, February 20, 2012

Sitting in Judgment

One of my favorite things to do, though I normally only get to do it once a year.

Friday evening I got to judge English Bitters, a favorite category for me. Homebrewers have gotten a lot better, as a group, since I started judging in 1996. Back then, infected and wildly out of style beers accounted for upwards of half the entries in come categories.

The thing I love about Bitters as a category is there is nothing to hide behind in a small beer. With an original gravity of, say 1.040, everything is subtle and every flaw is obvious. The brewers who typically enter an Ordinary or Best, even an ESB, tend to be veteran brewers who really pay attention to detail.

Normally they pair the National judges with less experienced judges as a way of bringing folks along, and that's a good thing, I learned the same way: the first time I judged was on a panel with the great Jackie Rager and the late, great Steve Ford. But a no-show had to be substituted for, and the judge I was judging with was not only a National judge, but he was from Manchester, England. Before he ever judged beer, he was hanging out after work in joints that had six to eight local bitters on tap.

Saturday morning, I rode the FrankenSurly in, which was fantastic. It's a great way to wake up on the way in, plus it cleared my sinuses marvelously (I'd struggled on Friday night with some stuffiness: when you can't smell, you can't really judge).

After a morning of judging Scottish and Irish Ales, I was on a four-panel flight of Stouts in the afternoon. I love all manner of stouts, but as a category, it's one of the hardest to judge. It has a wide range, from Dry Stouts that are generally small beer all the way to Russian Imperial Stouts which are possibly the biggest of big beers. Barley Wines and Wee Heavies are in the same neighborhood, but the former is generally in its own flight and the latter tends not to be quite as over the top even if it is lumped in with substantially smaller beers in most competitions.

That finesse that it takes to make a good Ordinary Bitter; a stout can really benefit from that kind of brewing skill, but with all those strong flavors and armoas, the sorts of things that might take ten points off the score of an Ordinary aren't even detectable. Nobody can hear you fart in a Black Sabbath concert.

Anyway, it was all fun and as the aforementioned Steve Ford (you're still missed, old friend) was fond of saying, "It's just beer."

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