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.


  1. Nice summary! This was my fourth KCBM judging; was a little disappointed I was only assigned to one session :( Congratulations on your winnings! I haven't seen the winners' list posted yet. I'm looking to gain BJCP points by judging--maybe would be interested in Iowa, too.

  2. Huh, did you sign up for any specific categories? I wonder what happened.

    Definitely contact the guy coordinating IBU - when John emailed him, it sounded like they're happy to get anyone else to help out. At least a few people who were in KC will be there too.

  3. Partly my fault; let them know 10 days before the competition that I wasn't available Sat. morning--but wanted to judge Sat. afternoon... After that, and with the snow, didn't want to make the drive to Lawrence--let me know next time you go to Free State!


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