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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Southern New England Regional Homebrew Competition 2010

Beer judges (Jim Link bottom right)

Sundays can be pretty dry in Connecticut.  If you forgot to make your Saturday beer run, you might be out of luck, due to antiquated "Blue Laws."  Your best bet is to go to your favorite pub.  Or become a homebrewer.

Actually, there are a lot of perks to being a Connecticut homebrewer, including being able to enter the Southern New England Regional Homebrew Competition (SNERHC).  This year, candidates from throughout the region submitted a total of 250 beers, meads, and ciders to be judged on October 3, 2010 at Edmond Town Hall in Newtown, CT.  Judging beer?  Where do I sign up?

Well, I decided to attend so I could see what beer judging was all about.  And maybe try some free beers.  I did.

Upon arrival, I saw a dozen or more tables, all with beer judges tasting, discussing, and taking notes on beers.  A lot of notes actually.  Each judge had to fill out beer score sheets, in which submissions were rated by aroma, appearance, mouthfeel, overall impression, and most importantly, flavor.  A perfect beer (which I doubt was a possibility for this crowd) would receive a total score of 50 points.
Since judging something by flavor can have an inherently subjective tendency, each judge was encouraged to start the day off with what they call a "calibration beer" - something to get everyone's palettes at the same place.  This group chose Cavalry Brewing's "Hatch Plug Ale," an English-style pale ale brewed in Oxford.  Did I mention that this started at 8:30 in the morning?

Anyway, I arrived in the afternoon, after several hours of judging (plus some breaks) took place.  The judges I listened in on, including homebrewer and Connecticut resident John Watson, were in the midst of scoring an India Pale Ale (or IPA) in the low 20s.  "Tastes like unfermented wort," I heard some of them stating.  "Wort" refers to the hot, malty liquid produced before beer is fermented.

So, why so harsh and discriminating?  These beer judges will make sure you know that they are not out to be mean.  In fact, they are out to help fellow brewers and aspiring judges, by noting what may have gone wrong in the brewing process to produce "off-flavors," or flavors not intended for a particular style.  But how do you become so knowledgeable about beer that you can actually taste something and say, "I know what this brewer did wrong"???

Grand Master Beer Judge Jim Link was kind enough to discuss the rigorous process of becoming a beer judge.  Obviously, most (probably all) beer judges are homebrewers themselves.  Seasoned homebrewers, I might add.  And all of them have to take a beer judging test, which Mr. Link often proctors himself.

"It's one of the hardest tests I've ever taken," proclaims Link, when discussing his first time taking the test.  Yes, the Grand Master Beer Judge even had to retake it.  "Everyone takes this test more than once," he says.  These tests are comprised of difficult essay questions that each aspiring judge has about twelve minutes to answer, right off the tops of their heads. 

A sample question, as Link described, could ask a test-taker how a particular style of beer should be made.  The writer has about twelve minutes to write down a detailed beer recipe, plus all the steps including temperatures, pH levels, boiling time… no wonder they tell me that a lot of brewers are chemists by day.

Mark Tambascio judging beer
Some of these brewers enjoy brewing ciders and meads too, which were also featured at SNERHC 2010.  I was able to visit the mead judging table, in which Connecticut resident Russ Hanoman and local restaurant owner Mark Tambascio were tasing a "pyment," or grape mead.   The table featured a variety of flavors of mead, a honey wine which is often given the title of "most ancient beverage in the world." 

Mr. Hanoman, formerly an information technology professional, tells me about how he got into the judging gig.  "Being somewhat of a self-proclaimed gourmand," he states, "I think the passion carries through to beverages as well."  He follows up with the simple statement "I like to drink stuff that tastes good."  Pretty well sums it all up.

"All the best meads are homebrewed, " claims Mr. Tambascio, a co-owner of My Place Restaurant in Newtown.  They were kind enough to give me samples of the pyment, a straight-up mead, and a mead brewed with Grade B dark maple syrup.  And yes, they were really, really, really good.

Tambascio, a high-ranking beer judge, was put to work at the end of the event.  Around 4:00pm, he, Jim Link, and three other judges gave out awards for Best In Show.  Before judging, Tambascio made sure to rouse up a round of applause for Von Bair, who organizes this event every year.

All of the judges had their own little rainbow of beers poured into sample cups in front of them.  It was beautiful.  Beers of every style were given first, second, and third place awards.  Mr. Bair received a few of these awards himself.

Though meads were not included, the judges seemed to give high praise for a lot of adjunct beers - basically, anything with extra ingredients added, whether it be fruits, herbs, or otherwise.  Did I hear someone say "sweet potato ale?" In fact, the two runner-up Best In Show beers were a watermelon wheat ale by New Jersey homebrewer Keith Koval and a coconut porter from Massachussetts brewer Keith Antul.  Keith must be a lucky name.
Winner John Watson with malt-tastic prize
It was no surprise to me that the  winner for Best In Show was the earlier-mentioned John Watson.  I have tried his beers.  They are awesome.  All of them.  For this prestigious award, he submitted an unblended lambic, which is a sour Belgian-style ale brewed with wild yeast strains.

At the end of the day, when everyone had taken their prizes, Mr. Link asked me if I thought I would attend one of these events again.  I told him, "well, I know my beer, but not quite enough to be a judge."  Still, I think I will find an excuse.  Being the press has never been so much fun.

Article by Nick Doniger, for Sizzle Grove and The Mercurial

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