Sunday, February 21, 2010

Judge not, that ye be not judged

Unless you're at a homebrew competition.

The Kansas City Bier Meisters hosted their 27th Annual Homebrew Competition this weekend, and Mr Wort Hog and I both had an opportunity to participate in judging. The competition was held at the Holy Field winery out in Basehor on Friday night and Saturday, during which about 30-35 judges tasted, judged, and ranked submitted beers, ciders, and meads.

Here are the basics on how a competition works:
  • Homebrewers submit their beers to a specified location, assigning each submission to a competition category such as Robust Porter or Doppelbock - or something special to the competition such as "lawnmower beer" or "eis-anything"
  • Judges sit in groups by category and review the beers based on aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and an overall impression. Each group has a head judge.
  • Stewards are there to provide the beers and manage the score sheets as well as bring up any logistical issues with the organizers. They can also sample the beers being judged, if there is enough after the judges receive their pours.
  • After each judge completes his or her score sheet for the beer in review, the judges discuss their findings and rankings then agree on a final numerical score. This process repeats until all entries have been reviewed. 
There's a lot more to it, but that's the general idea. More information on the process can be found in these quick guidelines or on the BJCP's website.

Friday was a fun introduction to the process, especially since I got to judge melomels (fruit meads). This category also includes pyment (grape juice & honey) and cyser (apple juice & honey), but we didn't have any cyser submissions this year. I did, however, get to try two pyments, which I thought were fantastic. One was made with Riesling and the other with Gewürztramier grapes, and both were sweet and light with a subtle - but recognizable - honey presence. I've been inspired to try making pyment, as I really enjoyed it; I'm a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, so I might try one (or both!) of those with some light honey such as Orange Blossom or Sage. The evening closed with several people sharing homebrew, mead, melomel (fruit mead), and a few commercial brews. One couple from Iowa brought some commercial chocolate porter and homemade berry melomel. Mr Wort Hog had suggested a while back mixing melomel and beer, and Friday's combo was a confirmation of how great idea that truly is.

Saturday morning started off with breakfast and a slideshow of Freestate brewer Geoff Deman and chef Rick Martin's trip to Belgium last year, where they walked us through some of the breweries and beer cafes they visited. They described how the brewing industry in Belgium is quickly becoming consolidated as larger breweries buy up the smaller ones, one after the other. Duvel Moortgat bought Liefmans (and closed it); they also own Ommegang out of Cooperstown, NY, Maredsous, and Brasserie d'Achouffe. InBev (formerly Interbrew) owns a ton of Belgian breweries now, including Leffe, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, Belle Vue, and a handful of others. So while these breweries in a country known for great beer get bought up by the big boys, small breweries in the States are popping up out of nowhere and taking on the conglomerates. It's an interesting time for beer, that's for sure.

The competition resumed and I judged German wheat & rye beers. It was a good reminder that German hefeweizen is really best when fresh; none of the beers we had were really outstanding. After lunch, the final judging session took place and I sat down with my group to judge categories 1 and 6 - Light Lager and Light Hybrid. I really wasn't looking forward to this category, but it ended up presenting two of my favorite beers of the day. Someone submitted a Standard American Lager that reminded me of Budweiser or Coors Original, both of which I actually quite enjoy. It was clean, crisp, lightly bitter, highly carbonated, and very refreshing. The other beer that really stood out was an American Wheat ale that was moderately hoppy - not too much so as to be out of style, but more than your typical bland wheat beer. It reminded me to pick up some Hop Sun once it's released this spring. As an added bonus, Dan of Gone Mild was in my judging group and we had an opportunity to chat for a while about blogging, local beers and goings-on.

Once judging was done, most of the group left for a tour and food pairing lesson at Free State; we stuck behind to relax at the winery and sample a bit of wine - though it's also possible that we forgot to buy tickets for the tour until after it was sold out. Oops. I really enjoyed the winery's Chardonel, which was similar to a Semillon or sweeter Sauvignon Blanc. Lots of green apple in this one, and it was inspiring to find a local white wine that was crisp and dry.

The day wound down with a Belgian-themed dinner and keynote speaker Stephen Pauwels of Boulevard. He talked to the crowd about Belgian brewing, a little history and folklore about Boulevard's beers, and a little on the Collaboration with Jean-Marie Rock. One thing I learned, and thought people might find interesting to know (especially those who think that corn & rice in beer is always a bad thing) is that the grain bill for Tank 7 is 20% corn. Pauwels reminded us all that Belgian brewers almost always use adjuncts (especially candi sugar), and that adjuncts definitely have a place in brewing.

After Pauwels' talk, the awards ceremony started and we found out that we took 3rd place in English Pale Ale for an Ordinary Bitter, 2nd place in Fruit/Spice beer for a Chocolate Russian Imperial Stout, and 2nd for a Cherry Vanilla mead. We also got an honorable mention for an English Mild. Not too shabby!

I had initially signed up to steward, but was assigned to judge instead; I was nervous about doing it but am thankful that I had the opportunity to do it. I enjoyed being challenged to define the characteristics of a beer, felt rewarded when my perceptions aligned with those with much more experience than me, and learned a lot about beer and mead in the process. I would highly recommend doing this next year to anyone with an interest in beer, mead or cider, even if it's just to steward. I met some wonderful people, tasted some amazing beer and mead, and gained inspiration for my own hobby. I wasn't really interested in studying for and taking the BJCP exam, but now I can't wait to take both the beer and mead exams. We'll be judging again next month at the Iowa Brewers' Union competition just outside Des Moines.

If you're interested in participating in competitions, you can find a calendar of national competitions on the BJCP's website. It's definitely a fun experience with a lot of interesting and exciting people, even if you're not a homebrewer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

All Work and No Play

... makes for a very boring blog. Except for when Mr Wort Hog posts.

In the past 2 months, I've been to Seattle, Detroit, Portland, Fort Worth, central Illinois, and now Miami - nearly all work-related. I don't normally travel this much and it's significantly affecting my blogging frequency as you can probably tell. I've cut back on my beer drinking as well - partly due to the amount of stress & travel, but also because I was pushing my body's ability to stay within my current clothing size. Time to scale back.

However, tonight I was in the mood for a beer (after what's already been a long week - and it's only Tuesday) but I wasn't in the mood for something heavy. I'm not typically a fan of hotel lounges, but I had to get out of my hotel room for a while (but not travel far) and figured I'd suck it up and spend ten bucks on a well gin & tonic. Or maybe just a Diet Coke.

Not this time!

Boston Beer Company to the rescue - I spotted a Sam Adams Light on the menu and thought it would hit the spot. I'm not a big fan of light beers, but there are a couple that stand out. New Belgium's Skinny Dip is pretty decent, but it's seasonal - and sometimes I want a light beer in winter to counterbalance, say, a Chocolate Oak-Aged YETI (mmm....) Sam Adams Light it is, then. For 119 calories, you actually get a really good beer. It has a nice, dry flavor that has a little bit of an orange essence on the finish from the Noble hops. There's also a prominent but light caramel flavor from the malt and none of that funky sweet adjunct taste you get from other light beers.

Does it taste like a 300ish calorie bottle of Hopslam? Well, no. Do I care? Not really. It's refreshing, flavorful, and a nice change from the winter beers I've been nursing this season. The body is still decent, head retention is quite good, aroma is pleasing. There is nothing offensive about this beer.

Of course, most 4-5% ABV beers hover around 150 calories per bottle anyway, so you could always just go for a Boston Lager, Anchor Steam, Schlafly Pale Ale, and so on; 30 calories less really isn't that much. That's half a Girl Scout cookie. 3 minutes of running. 1.5 ounces of Hopslam. Not much. But if you're looking for a good beer low in calories, Sam Adams Light is one worth your hard-earned money.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Collaboration Nation

Collaboration beers started making their appearance a few years ago - the first one I recall seeing was Collaboration, not Litigation by Avery and Russian River. (Still one of the best collaboration beer names yet.) If you don't know the story, here's how Avery tells it on their website:

The name of two intricate Belgian-style ales, created by us, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing and Adam Avery of Avery Brewing. After becoming friends a few years ago, we realized we both had a Salvation in our lineups. Was it going to be a problem? Should one of us relinquish the name rights? “Hell, no!” we said. In fact, it was quickly decided that we should blend the brews to catch the best qualities of each and create an even more complex and rich libation. In April 2004, in a top secret meeting at Russian River Brewing (well, actually it was packed in the pub and many were looking over our shoulders wondering what the hell was going on), we came up with the perfect blend of the two Salvations. Natalie, Vinnie’s much more significant other, exclaimed, “We should call this Collaboration, not Litigation Ale!” “Perfect,” we shouted! We celebrated deep into the night (or is that morning?). Fast forward to November 14, 2006. After talking about it for over two years, we finally decided to pull the trigger and Vinnie made the journey to Avery Brewing to brew his Salvation exactly as he does in his brewery.

But they're far from the only ones. Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head put together a brew they called "Life and Limb". De Proef and Bell's got together to make their delicious dark Belgian ale with cherry juice. And we all know about Boulevard's latest collaboration between Stephen Pauwels and Jean-Marie Rock.

And another collaboration beer enters the fray. The brewers at Schlafly, O'Fallon, and New Albanian got together last fall to brew their own collaborative beer - a dry-hopped, oak-aged, smoked rye pale ale. Yeah, you read that right. Mike over at put up some pictures of the brew day a while back, as well as some information about the beer.

So what does a dry-hopped, oak-aged, smoked rye pale ale taste like? You can read about it on Hoosier Beer Geek. Or, you can go to Flying Saucer on Thursday and taste it for yourself. See you there.