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Monday, March 03, 2014

KCBM 2014 Judging

I love judging beer. But of course, too, I take my Nikon everywhere. When I took Amanda's picture with her sexy beer-label-plastered laptop in the foreground, she asked me, "What do you do with these pictures?" I shoot a lot, I know, but the question surprised me. How could I not shoot this?

I couldn't help it. I actually shot a lot less than I did last year, partly because I didn't buy the banquet this time. It would have been very good, basically a seven course beer & food pairing, but after judging two flights Friday, two flights plus Best of Show on Saturday, and partaking of the kegs of craft beer in the hall after that, and after being overfed systematically (homebrew judges eat like Hobbits, there's just no other apt description), I was fat, dumb and happy without the banquet. And when you're fat, dumb & happy (not a bad thing itself), a seven course beer and food orgy just doesn't seem as special.

Among the things they ask you when you sign up is what categories you have to recuse yourself from because you're entering beers there yourself (something I haven't worried about for almost 15 years because I keg everything and consume it, so I never have bottles of homebrew to enter), and the corollary, what should you judge on the basis of passion and expertise?

Smoke and wood-aged is a category I routinely check on that last one. I've judged it quite a bit, often with judges who think all smoked beer is a conspiracy to poison beer judges, and that's a dirty shame because that assumes everyone who likes a Bamberger Rauchbier with a slice of ham (see what I did there? A food-beer pairing) is on a par with a guy ordering a Canadian rotten toe cocktail.

One of my faves in this category is a peat-smoked Scotch Ale, something I've brewed a bit myself but not encountered very often judging smoke and wood aged beers. Last time I entered one, a clerical error prevented the judges from knowing it was peat smoke or a Scotch Ale, and the resulting score was fairly insulting if understandable given that lack of information.

One of my pet peeves, actually, in this area comes when the brewer enters something that doesn't exist. I don't mean it's not a real beer that you can drink and love or hate, but the style guidelines are there for a reason, to tell the judges what the brewer is trying for. So a Smoked Belgian Quad or a Bourbon Barrel Matured Imperial Porter, no matter how much I might like them, never get medal-class scores from me: you know where Belgian Quads are on the BJCP style guidelines? They're right by Imperial Porter in the categories that don't fucking exist, that's where they are. Have I had a Quad? Sure a couple of them but it's not a recognized style. Can I read 'Imperial' and think 'Baltic' for that Porter, probably, but can't the entrant judge use the style guidelines I'm supposed to be judging by? If they do, I promise to not only give it higher marks but to avoid using half-points (something I used to annoy registrars with until I realized the hubris of saying that my palate was more nuanced than a 50 point scale).

But if I'm a fan of smoke, I tend to be less enthusiastic about wood. Oak in particular has a harsh, tannic character I generally find objectionable. All those oak casks beer was traditionally served in were lined with pitch specifically because oak tastes horrible. For years now, I've encountered perfectly good beers that folks chose to ruin by aging them in retired bourbon barrels, on oak chips and so on.

Imagine my surprise when judging a flight that there were three bourbon-barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stouts I scored at 40+ points. They were really great Imperial Stouts to begin with, and with noticeable oak character, and they worked. I didn't know that combination could be enjoyable, but damn, it really was in these examples.

Which I guess gets to the heart of what goes wrong with smoked beers. The first time I made a peat-smoked Wee Heavy, it was undrinkable at bottling. 25 IBUs is appropriate hopping for a Scotch Ale, but the dryness smoke adds means you need to cut that hopping about in half. 18 months later, that beer went from worst to first, a total favorite, and by cutting back on bittering hops I was able to make subsequent batches drinkable right off the bat. The key is what is harmonious, and the lesson I learned with my Scotch Ales, obviously the Russian Imperial bourbon barrel crew has figured that one out, too.

Of course I rode my bike to the competition. Maybe I shouldn't say of course since the bypass surgery, vasectomy and icy roads have really cut down on my riding the past six months or so, but I rode. Had a wicked tailwind going out on Friday, averaged 13.1 mph that way, but the headwind going home meant I averaged more like 10 round trip. And Front Street will be a fine place to ride bikes if they ever decided to pave it, maybe make it wider than two Model T Fords.

I have to say, getting to judge best of show just keeps getting better. The quality of entries has escalated along with the quantity the past decade or so. I can remember when the Bier Meisters were tittering over a 300 entry competition, and 350 the following year seemed mind-blowing. This competition had more like 550 entries, and four flights plus BOS judging, I have to say they were almost all solid entries. I think I filled out one score sheet that totalled 25-ish, which used to be the average but now that's the floor. Judging Stouts on Friday night, I realized by the time we had our first, second, third that there were a couple of brewers who were going to get back score sheets in the mid-40s that didn't place.

I guess the brewer has to look at the score sheet, realize they had a medal-class entry but there were more of those than medals to go around.

And judging Best of Show, wow. That's a process of elimination where you start with the first place beer in almost 30 categories, then start eliminating on the basis that 'this is a better IPA than that is a Cream Ale' and 'this Oud Bruin is more perfect at being what it's supposed to be than that Mild is.' Which gets to be quite the argument when you narrow it down to the last dozen or so entries, because in a competition like this, all those top-tier entries are textbook cases (hell they could possibly be ringers).

The jaded side of my national-rank-BJCP heart says a ringer could shame us. Soak the label off a Bigfoot Barleywine from Sierra Nevada or an Old Foghorn from Anchor, obliterate the cap with a marker, enter it as an American Barleywine. Watch the score sheet come back with a 38 because the judges wanted a bigger malt presence and a really huge hop aroma.

Or how well would Sierra Nevada Pale Ale score in the APA category? See also draft Guinness as a Dry Stout.

I'm not saying that beer judging is bullshit, mind you, I've had way too many times when three of us have independently scored an entry and come up with a two point spread tops, but I suspect at times we're all three five or ten points over/under where we'd be if we were truly objective.

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