World Expo of Beer

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I skipped the weekly beer review because I judged at the World Expo of Beer homebrew competition this weekend. It was held at the Lumber Baron's Charcoal Grill in Bay City, Michigan, and had about 270 entries.

We judged in 3-judge panels, and there were anywhere between 3 and 5 flights, depending on the size of each flight for each trio. I was lucky enough to be matched up with a brand new judge named Mike from Berkley (MI) and veteran judge, Michigan Beer Guide Editor and Michigan beer icon Rex Halfpenny. I'm 3-for-3 in competitions, as back last July at the Indiana State Fair competition I judged with the creator of the very guidelines used to judge beer, Gordon Strong, and again last August at the Michigan State Fair competition, I got to judge with Dragonmead Brewery co-Founder and brewer, Bill Wrobel. So there I sat for 7 and a half hours with the be-all-and-end-all of all things beer in Michigan. Rex is a wealth of knowledge and it was a fun learning experience to judge with him. Though, I was tempted to cheat off of his judge sheets like I was back in high school.

I'm going to link to some categories over at Beer Advocate, but the Alstrom Brothers have a very different classification system that the BJCP does, so I'll do my best. I'm trying to find some samples of beers you can look-up so nobody's lost when I say "Saison" or "Biere de Garde;" instead, you'll have some commercial examples to view.

My first round of beers was a series of four "Amber Hybrid Beers." This category included 2 Northern German Altbiers and 2 California Common "Steam Beers." The altbiers won out here, as really the whole California Common classification was created for people to attempt to recreate Anchor Steam. If you're not using Northern Brewer hops and the right mix of malts, you're not going to get it right. It's a really narrow and very challenging classification. The altbiers, however, were really well-done.

Next was a series of 4 English Pale Ales. I had 2 Ordinary Bitters and 2 Extra Special Bitters (ESB). As wth the amber hybrid beers above, these were above-average examples of the style; obviously, these were some homebrewers who knew what they were doing. The gold medalist from this round was an ESB that remonded me in every way of Fullers ESB, the "gold standard" of the brew. A true pleasure.

The third flight for us was English Brown Ales. I was really looking forward to this category as I am a fan of Brit Browns, and if the success of the morning sessions was any indication, this was going to be a real pleasure. We had samples of all three from the category; Mild, Southern and Northern. The clear winner in this caegory was an especiall tasty Northern British Brown Ale that was reminiscent of Newcastle. Mild hop bitterness, calssic nutty and toffee flavors...the winner was a classic example. SOme of the other ones had some pretty common homebrew problems that you find with malty ales: "green apple" taste (acetaldehyde) from dead or unhealthy, sluggish yeast; lactic acid tartness from improper sanitation; wet paper taste from oxidation. None were truly foul, but in close competitions, little off flavors are what keeps a beer from scoring higher. We had 9 beers in this style, and it took us right up until about 2:15 pm. We started our first flight, above, at just before 10:00 am.

After lunch, we knew we had a style with 11 beers in it. With eager anticipation, we trotted upstairs to the judgng hall, and found our final session was going to be French/Belgian Ales. YUM! For our part, we did Saison and Biere de Garde. There were also 2 "Belgian Specialty Ales," which is a catch-all that allows a brewer to brew the "standard" style but do something weird to it. For example, one of the 2 specialty beers had mugwort added to it. I thought mugwort was something from Harry Potter. The other was fermented using 4 different yeast strains and fresh orange peel. The latter, by the way, was very very good. At any rate, this was the hardest category of all to judge, as each entry, with only a few exceptions, was absolutely amazing. The difference between the gold and silver medals here was the difference between tear-jerking and exceptional. The saison that took gold had every characteristic of a perfect saison, plus that...intangible something that just made it pop. It was so subtle and delicate, perfectly attenuated...I could go on and on. It was simply amazing. I would go out of my way to buy that beer in a remote store if it were commercial. The silver medal, one of the biere de gardes, was a glowing example of malty amazement.

Final results including best of show, will be posted later. But overall, it was a nicely-run competition with some very above-the-cut submissions. I don't recall once wondering if someone had even tasted their beer before they submited it. These were all outstanding efforts and it was a real pleasure to be a part of this competition. The only regret I'll have is that I'll miss out on judging the commercial brew competition for the World Expo of Beer, but the regret turns into sweet joy, because that competition will fall riiiiight about the time the Smitty Twins will be born!


B Mac 2:30 PM  

Just let Smitty Jr. (the original one) take your place at the Expo.

They need to develop the palate early...

Rickey Henderson 3:28 PM  

So how exactly does one become a judge for the World Expo of Beer? Rickey wants in!

Smitty 3:33 PM  

If Rickey is serious about becoming a beer judge, I am happy to oblige. I may even show you the secret handshake.

Sopor 5:04 PM  

Dude, what a fricken event! To start with, paired with Rex? Can't go wrong. And then to hit such AWESOME and underrated styles! I love me some Milds and Bitters, and the Belgian funky stuff is pretty good too ;-)

Cara 8:37 PM  

Very impressive. Saison...described as an endangered style. I am intrigued. After doing a little reading on this particular strong pale ale I can see why you enjoyed it so much!

Smitty 7:48 AM  

Sopor: To start with, paired with Rex

It was a real challenge to not be a drooling, star-struck sycophant.

Cara: Saison...described as an endangered style.

Not so much any more. A ton of American brewers are trying their hand at this style to great success. In fact, your local beer mecca should carry something by Ommegang. Ommegang's Hennepin is a great example of the style. A decent Michigan-brewed saison is Jolly Pumpkin (Dexter, MI) Bam Biere.

Joel 9:25 AM  

Sounds like quite a show! I wish I'd had the time to steward this one. If I could stwerad for you I might actually get some beer! I would have loved to sample some of those English Browns.

Smitty 12:11 PM  

Yeah, Joel, this one was a LOT less chaotic than the Michigan State Fair (though, to be fair, there were 600 less brews in this one...600). Mostly, our steward got a lot of studying done.

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