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Sunday, April 06, 2014

NHC First Round

I love judging beer. I enjoy the process, the people, even most of the beers I evaluate.

This last part wasn't always the case. When I started judging (in 1996 or 1997), the overall quality of entries in any given competition seemed very uneven. The people running competitions would stress in pre-flight talks about how if you get a bad example, you need to really provide constructive feedback, help the brewer get better. That's still what we try to do, but I think I hear the speech less often these days and I think it's because the speech is less necessary. Some of that may be because there are more judges who are well trained to evaluate a sample as it relates to the style guidelines more than how it relates to their personal tastes, but I think it's more that brewers who enter competitions are increasingly sophisticated.

Like with competitive barbecue, it's about the defined target and whether an entry hits it.

Friday night I judged IPAs, a huge category. Homebrewers almost all love IPAs. It's a style that exhibits a lot of hop flavor, aroma and bitterness along with ample malt. If you love beer, the things that make beer taste like beer are there in spades in an IPA. To keep the flights manageable these larger flights are broken into subsets, with a pair of judges evaluating upwards of ten beers, then advancing their strongest entries to a mini-best-of-show. The mini-BOS is where the ultimate first, second and third come in—which determines what entries advance to the finals at the National Homebrewer's Conference in June.

Mini-BOS is interesting in part because while fresh bottles are opened for each of the entries, those bottles have been out of the cooler for as much as an hour longer than when the first beers of the flight were judged. That can make quite a difference in how a beer shows, since some flavor defects are harder to detect at cold temperatures, and others really express well at slightly warmer temperatures. Case in point, an American IPA I judged, one that reminded me of Three Floyd's Alpha King, which I scored a 47. I think my judging mate gave it more like a 44 and we assigned it a 45, advanced it to the mini-BOS. Once there, a couple of hours later, it got kicked for having excessive diacetyl (the stuff they stink up microwave popcorn with). Diacetyl is a natural fermentation byproduct, and I actually kind of like some beers that tend to have it, but it's a flaw in an American IPA, so some poor brewer got a score sheet back with a 47 and didn't advance to finals. I can just see him crying out, 'What do I have to do?' I guess the answer would be don't enter a category with 50+ entries—a spot on Düsseldorf Altbier that gets a 47 is probably not going to get knocked out in a mini-BOS by three examples that don't have that one minor flaw. If that sample had been a little warmer, I might have picked up on the diacetyl and only scored it a 43 (or something like that), but there are plenty of categories where a 43 gets you on the podium.

Saturday morning was Belgian & French Ale, another behemoth category that had 49 entries. It's big for a lot of the same reasons as IPA, these are beer lovers' beers. I didn't have any 47s, but I also didn't have any sub-30s. This is almost impossible to believe when I think back to the flights of ten or fifteen years ago—this is a 50 point scale, and to get 30 points a beer has to be pretty good and pretty close to the style it was entered in. It has to be pretty awful to get down to 20, I always think a bottle of club soda with some yellow food coloring entered as a Lite American Lager would score a 23 or so. It would look about right and have no off-aromas, and the mouthfeel would be appropriate.

But to judge ten beers in a row without anything being below 30 points, that's a streak. A streak, I think, that says a lot about how good these brewers have gotten. I guess it must be the internet effect, information, equipment, ingredients that were elusive in 1995 depending on where you lived and who you knew, well, all that is available to everyone now.

Category 21 was Saturday afternoon. What a category it is, too. Spice, herb and vegetable beers, generally someone making a classic style with the twist of a special spice or adjunct. The kind of thing that can be really awesome or really awful and it can be a fine line between. I judged this very interesting Saison with beets. It advanced to the mini-BOS, the brewer nailed the Saison part, and the beets were evident in the aroma and flavor (not to mention the purple color—you don't get to judge a lot of purple beers). I can't say I'm an enthusiastic fan, but it was a strong entry both in terms of quality and originality. Win or lose, at least you didn't bore the judges.

The final flight for Saturday was smoke and wood aged beers, category 22. A small category as far as entries go, but one of my favorites. I personally brew a peat smoked Scotch Ale from time to time that's one of my favorites. I tend to sign up to judge the category in part because I know there are a lot of judges who think there's no such thing as a good smoked beer. Judging isn't about what you like, but I think if you really think even an excellent example of a style stinks you maybe shouldn't judge that. I'll stipulate that a bad smoked beer is worse than most bad beers, but the good ones are delightful.

And we had a damn near perfect Rauchbier, one I couldn't prove wasn't a ringer imported from Bamberg. And several fine bourbon barrel aged Russian Imperial Stouts. This is a homebrewer's specialty, one that has become so popular I won't be a bit surprised if it becomes its own subcategory in the Stouts. One of the most interesting smoke beer entries, and one of the advancing ones, was a Grodziskie—a small Polish smoked wheat beer. I know, that description sounds like a mistake on many levels, but it's a real beer and the entry really nailed it.

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