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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Indiana Brewers' Cup

Back when I got into homebrewing and beer judging, I started out traveling to judge a bit. But this was also right around when I started having babies with the artist formerly known as Frau Lobster and it became evident pretty quickly that I'd be luck to just judge local competitions. Which for a few years meant two or three a year, as Kansas City was a regional site for the National Homebewers' Conference, plus the Bier Meisters competition, and for a while there was a pretty good small competition at Renn Fest that got me in to that carnival for free.

I know what a lot of people picture when I say I'm going to judge beer. They say things like, 'I'm gonna judge a few beers tonight myself, and I know exactly what score they're getting.'

It's fun, but it's not the scene people picture. I suspect it's very similar to judging a barbecue competition. If you're just eating a slab of ribs or powering down some burnt ends, that's dinner. And an awesome dinner, at that. But if you're judging at the American Royal, you're examining how the bone pulls away from the meat and looking at the smoke ring and doing a bunch of stuff that basically takes that dinner and makes it into an academic exercise. It's not about what you like, it's about whether the target, as defined, was hit, and if not, they why not and by how much.

This was the first competition I've judged that had a professional section. KCBM is a biggie, but it caps at 600 homebrew entries and calls it a day. Indiana Brewers' Cup allows 850 homebrew entries and 650 professionals. They're segregated, of course. But a couple of the flights I judged were professional brewers entries and it was really interesting. Because one of those flights was American IPA, a genre I'm generally fond of. But judging isn't about my personal preferences, it's did the brewer hit the style as defined in the BJCP guidelines? And to sum up a 'no,' I think the highest score I gave on that flight was a 41. There were plenty of beers I'd drink buckets of given the chance, but as far as the way they squared up to the style, meh.

For the uninitiated, these things are judged on a 50 point scale. There's a fixed number of points available for aroma, appearance (which gets only three points), flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression. I used to split points up, give 2-1/2 for appearance for instance, until a registrar unloaded on me. And he was right: I was saying my palate is so refined a 50 point scale is inadequat: I need a 100 point scale so I'm scoring this beer a 27.5.

Fuck off, your palate ain't all that.

But anyway, those 50 points. I can't take them home with me, they're not really good for anything else, so your entry, homebrew or pro, I try to approach it with a presumption of greatness: you have 50 points, when I find flaws and deviations from style, you lose points. A lot of times an entry will smell fucking spectacular, and I'll give it maybe ten or eleven of the points available for aroma, finding maybe one little detail to ding it. It'll look great as far as appropriate color, head/head retention, etc. Maybe hazy, so two out of three on that one. Then I take a sip and holy cow, did you use a donated car as an adjunct? I know I've filled out score sheets with an 11 of 12 on aroma and a 7 of 20 on flavor. It happens.

And of course, in the homebrew entries you sometimes have a brewer who is competitive, is playing to win, and another who is going like, Dude, I fucked up but I don't know where, why does my beer suck? In the pro categories, there's no such doubt.

Though the reasons a pro brewer would enter a competition like this, well, if you medal you have free advertising than your Bo Pils or Dark Belgian Strong or whatever won a medal. And the judges you're trying to impress are the nerds who freak out about beer and their family and coworkers ask them for recommendations, look in their fridge to see what you'd buy if you cared about good beer, etc. So that score sheet is research into both a targeted demographic and a demographic influenced by that target demographic, so why not enter?

So if my assessment of those American IPAs was harsh, the Belgian Strongs I judged the next day, again pro category, damn. Usually you get to a mini-BOS (when there are forty entries in a category, you have four pairs of judges evaluate ten beers each, then the senior of those four pairs sits down and comes up with a first-second-third among the winners of the sub-flights.

So at the after-party, which looks a lot more like what people envision when they think 'homebrew competition,' there were tons of beers, brewers, etc. Including, after the awards ceremony, I got to meet the brewers who took bronze in the Belgian Strongs. I'm like, dude, usually there's eight beers at the mini-BOS and three or four of them are obvious clunkers and get kicked straight away. That category, there were eight beers on the mini-BOS that deserved to medal. If you think third place sucks, the second place beer got a 48/46 in initial judging.

I said you have 50 points until you give me a reason to take some away. I've given a 50, I think two times in my twenty years of judging. When you smell, examine, taste an entry and really can't come up with anything they could do better relevant to the style, that's Fifty Point Entry. They are rare. A 48, that's almost as rare, and for such a score to wind up with a silver, I just gotta say WOW.

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