One Of These Beers Is Not Like The Other

Monday, August 27, 2007

Around the Keg contributor Joel and I attended the Michigan State Fair Homebrew Competition yesterday. I judged, and Joel was a Steward.

There were well over 700 entries this year. About 130 of them were actually judged last Monday evening; they were the beer-not-beer beers like melomel, mead and cider. The remainder were done yesterday.

We judged at the wonderful world-award-winning Dragonmead in Warren, Michigan. Their Final Absolution Tripel is considered a world-class example of the style, winning first place in the World Beer Cup last year. Bill Wrobel, the head brewer and owner, was on-site and, of course, judged Belgian-style beers in the afternoon with me. It was an honor.

As for what I judged, I did Light Hybrid Ales, which include Cream Ales, Blonde Ales, Kölsch and American Wheat/Rye beers, in the morning session. I did Belgian Strong Ales, which include Blond, Dubel, Tripel, Golden Strong and Dark Strong, in the afternoon. All in all I did 25 beers combined; 15 in the morning and 10 in the afternoon.

Specifically, in the Light Hybrids, I did Kölsch and American Wheat/Rye. By and large, with the exception of one, the Kölsch were very good and it was hard to choose one to advance. Finally, one that had just a touch of lemon and perfectly balanced malt, grain and subtle hops won out.

The American Wheats were, mostly, perfect examples of...a German weizen of hefeweizen. Wonderful banana and clove aroma with a great malty-sweet background. Unfortunately, that's inappropriate for an American style, which is hoppier and grainy with no clove and banana. A few did it right, though and moved on.

In the afternoon, I did Belgian Dark Strong ales. I really like this kind of beer, but it is also very easy to screw it up and get a bacterial infection (smells and tastes like the contents of your medicine cabinet) given the huge amounts of sugar in these beers. And indeed, about 6 of the 10 samples I had were indeed that: medicinal and solventy (turpentine). What you are looking for is peppery spice (good phenols), huge sweet malty background, floral hops and a warming (but not hot) alcohol bite. Happily, one of the beers had that and was a wonderful example of the style. In fact, it came in second. It lost to a Belgian Blond Ale, judged by Bill Wrobel. Not gonna argue with that calibre of judge with a nose for Belgians (don't take that the wrong way...).

It makes for a long day. Joel and I got there about 9:45 and helped set up. We didn't leave until about 6:30. But what a great day. Days like this, and being a judge, have really helped me be a better homebrewer, what with understanding the brewing process a little better, especially with regard to "off" flavors, what makes them, and how to avoid them as a brewer. We have to give that advice as a judge; I can't just say "it tasted like boiled, canned veggies." I have to say "it tasted like boiled, canned vaggies. This can be caused by a slow, cooler boil or too slow of a cooling period. Either increase your boil time and temp, or invest in a wort chiller to cool the beer faster." The judging process is meant as much for selecting a winner as it is for providing feedback to make someone a better brewer.

I'll leave it to Joel to document his Stewarding experience. But for me, it was another great learning experience and, of course, a real pleasure. Free beer for a whole day? Cool. Even when it's not that great. ANd especially when there's a winner.


steves 4:39 PM  

Steward? Is that kind of like the piss boy...wait for the shake?

Colin 5:18 PM  

Smitty you lucky guy, that sounds like a blast! I had the honor of pouring Final Absoltion once, but Jim wasn't there (that I knew of)...

Anybody do any Rye beers? I LOVE me a good Rye beer! Been really wanting to try my hand at brewing some! But first I gotta get me some more equipments so I can go all-grain... I personally think it's a bit off that Rye is in with wheat; I understand the "different grain" connection but the flavors and textures are just way different.

Man I need to brew some beer...

Joel,  8:13 AM  


Joel,  8:19 AM  

whew! it works. too often I write 2 paragraphs and this thing dumps it.

Stewarding was a lot like being the piss boy, so yes. While the judges sat and poured tiny amounts of beer into little plastic cups, mulling their color, aroma, taste and what-not, the steward was compiling the judging sheets for his or her assigned group of judges and essentially "managing" the beer. When a particular team of judges was finished with one entry, we would take it from them and have the next entry ready. We kept the table picked up, cleaned up messes, kept the bread and water (to clear the palate) coming and generally tried to make the process run smoothly for the judges so they could, well, JUDGE. We should have been called "judge bitches."
Overall the whole thing was quite interesting. I learned a lot about what goes into judging, how the whole process works and, more importantly, I now know where Dragonmeade is located.

Smitty 12:32 PM  

One could infer from Joel's comments that he actually thought it was a waste of his time and a day. I certainly hope that's not the case, as I will feel really bad.

Now give me some more bread and wipe up this mess.

Joel,  12:57 PM  

Not at all! It was a tiring day to be sure, pretty much standing for the entire time, but it was interesting and fun too. Now, would I want to make a career out of stewarding? No. That would get old fast, eventually you'd either want to be a full blown judge, or just start drinking. But the process was fascinating and the experience gave me a first hand look at how it's done, something you can't really grasp any other way.

As an aside, I would have liked to have sampled a few, but being a noob, I wasn't sure on protocol, and none of the judges offered.

Smitty 8:19 AM  

I am sorry your judges hosed you on getting to taste the goods. A good judge always takes care of their steward. That said, I am sure much of the goods were not much worth tasting...but the winners were exquisite.

By the way, dude. Your brown ale turned out great!!

Joel,  9:02 AM  

You think so? That's good. I've enjoyed the few I've had. Different then the last batch, less banana than the last batch, more of a Molasses thing, stronger finish...

Joel,  4:27 PM  

I will say this though, I've been to and in a lot of "contest" type things over the years, horse shows, dog shows, solo & ensemble, law school trial advocacy competitions... and the thing that was missing here is judging someone's beer and having them BE THERE when you announce their's as the winner. It was odd to have all of those judges there, making their decisions, and not a single contestant around.
Of course, there is no other way to do it really, but it did give the whole proceeding a bit of an anticlimactic feel. Those that moved on will probably be on hand at the fair when the "real" winners are announced I guess. But not seeing someone jump up and down and pin a blue ribbon on themselves made the whole thing less "exciting" than what one would normally expect from this kind of thing.

Mike 5:40 AM  

As usual, Smitty's weekends sound more enjoyable than mine.

Especially the "canned vaggies" part. Sounds tempting, though I generallly prefer fresh vaggies over the canned sort.

(Frozen vaggies are the worst though.)

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