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A Homebrewer and a Judge Walk Into a Bar…

By DCBeer Contributor Elizabeth Hartman

DC has a vibrant homebrewing scene that usually exists just beneath the notice of the the public’s eye. But occasionally, in partnership with local establishments, the scene will surface for a public or semi-public event that catches the curiosity of local beer enthusiasts. This is one of those weekends. The finals of two popular homebrew competitions will occur this Saturday, May 11. Nearly 300 homebrewers from the greater DC area will be graded on the quality of their beer. To get in on the fun, I volunteered to help out, talk with some judges, and learn more about how the competitions work.  

The Challenge

As interest in homebrewing has grown, competitions have become a more frequent occurrence in the local scene. They are great opportunities for amateur brewers to share their product with judges or with the public and receive more in-depth feedback than your friend who says, "Man, you made this? This is awesome!"

For the last 21 years, Brewers United for Real Potable (BURP) has hosted Spirit of Free Beer, one of the largest regional competitions in the country. It is recognized by the American Homebrewers Association and attracts more than 500 entries. As an AHA-sanctioned event, it follows the rules and guidelines established for the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). Participating judges have passed an exam to verify their knowledge of brewing science and beer styles. The Spirit of Free Beer winners will be eligible for the national Masters Championship of Amateur Brewing.

Newer to the scene is the DC Homebrewers competition, in partnership with Sam Adams and DC 101. The competition, now in its third year, attracts primarily local brewers and beer enthusiasts. A field of approximately 70 submissions is narrowed down to the top 15, which enter a final judging round that is open to the public. Meridian Pint will host the finals this year. Judges will award prizes for the top three beers, but a public vote will determine the "people's choice" winner. These winners will be entered into the Sam Adams Longshot competition

It's unusual that these competitions are held on the same day. Many local homebrewers are going to have to choose which competition to attend. Last year, I was able to participate in both, as a finalist in the DC Homebrewers/Sam Adams competition and as a steward to the judges at Spirit of Free Beer. Since I can't be in two places at once on competition day, I met up with club members last week to lend a hand preparing for each event. 

The Inner Workings

I've been on both the brewer's and judge's sides of the table, but what happens in between submission and grading? Last Saturday, I joined BURP members at their May club meeting, where much of the preparation for Spirit of Free Beer is done each year. The host's garage was filled with cases and six packs of entries that had been collected from three local drop-off points, as well as submissions that were mailed. After meeting with the registrar for instructions, I joined a rotating team of volunteers to register, label, categorize, and repack over 1000 bottles. It was after nightfall by the time we hauled the cases to Port City Brewing Co., who generously offered to store them. Once they were packed onto two pallets and carted to the cooler, we finally called it a night. 

"For Spirit of Free Beer and 500 entries, how do you start to break that down?" asks competition organizer and certified beer judge Mike Reinitz. "You need to have categories to judge beers against." The AHA outlined criteria for 28 different styles of beer, cider, and mead. Not only do they identify characteristics of aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel for each style, they also provide technical information such as typical ingredients and appropriate alcohol levels. In an AHA-sanctioned competition like Spirit of Free Beer, each entry is submitted into one of these style categories. The labels we applied to each bottle on Saturday included a beer-style number and a submission number in order to keep the beer organized on competition day. 

During the competition, a team of judges will be assigned a flight of beers within the same style. They will assess each entry according to the guidelines, identify strengths and flaws, provide written feedback to the brewer, and score the beer on a scale of 0-50 points. Most scores range from 25-42 points, although scores in the 40s are more rare. Adherence to style is the bulk of the score in an AHA-sanctioned competition, but it isn't everything. A judge considers a variety of factors, which can range from the technical skill of the brewer to whether or not label glue was removed from the bottle. Reinitz shares, "If the beer is clean and well brewed, that's important and I'm always sure to note that on the judging form. That's the hard part." The most common flaws cited by the judges I talked with include sanitation and fermenting at too high a temperature, both of which can affect the aroma or add an off flavor to the beer.

Of five scoresheet categories – aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression – the last one speaks to the real goal behind brewing: to make, enjoy, and share great beer. "I will evaluate the beer according to its technical merits and adherence to style in everything but 'overall impressions'," explains Wendy Aaronson, a certified beer judge and member of BURP. "That is where I like to talk about how I react to the beer." Despite any flaws, recipe errors, excessive creativity, or mis-categorization, do you like it? Would you buy it or recommend it to a friend? 

A good judge will take the time to provide thoughtful feedback., This is the main reason most brewers enter competitions: it's a quantitative and a qualitative way for brewers to learn what they're doing right and where they can improve. It's also a way for judges to give back to the homebrewing community. "Being a part of BJCP is really a commitment to teach," explains Aaronson. "If you've gone through this exercise and taken the exam, you really do want to teach others, because the more people who know something about beer, the better quality you get from a brewer." 

Do It Yourself

Most judges I've talked with started out as homebrewers and began judging in order to brew better beer. Bob Rouse is an active member of both DC Homebrewers and BURP who is serving double duty as a co-organizer for the Sam Adams/DC 101 competition and registrar for Spirit of Free Beer. I had to know, how did he become so interested in judging? Apparently, it all started with his first competition. "I got a second place ribbon for an oatmeal stout and I was so proud. I'm an award-winning homebrewer! That got me interested in how that process works," He explains. "I thought, 'If they can do it, I can do it.'"

Rouse is currently working towards his certification. "I'm reading. I'm studying. I'm doing non-BJCP competitions just to get experience with it and get a feel for what's expected of you." He's prepared to take the exam when a slot becomes available. For most prospective judges, the certification process takes about two years, during which they learn the science behind brewing, hone their palate, and practice judging, often as stewards to certified judges at competitions like Spirit of Free Beer. 

As a homebrewer for six years and a fellow club member, Rouse invited me to join the judging team for the DC Homebrewers/Sam Adams competition. One night last week, I met him, 11 judges, and a neutral Sam Adams representative to narrow the field to 15 finalists. Submission categories for this competition were derived from flavor profiles (hoppy, malty, fruity, boozy, etc.) rather than specific beer styles. I was assigned a partner and a flight of 10 beers with similar flavors. For each sample, we needed to identify what we were tasting, evaluate it, come to a consensus, and communicate our feedback in a way that would be helpful to the brewer. We then had to apply scores to rank the beers. 

Through this experience, I found that each judge may apply slightly different criteria when determining a score, but we all consider the same general standards: Did the ingredients work (recipe development)? Was it brewed well (technical skill)? Did I enjoy it (overall impression)?  While beer judging sounds like an excuse to enjoy free beer and express an opinion, the process is far more thoughtful than that. "Judging is not easy. It's kind of intense," agrees Aaronson.

But what about those of us who like to just enjoy a good beer without all of the official trappings and a sense of responsibility? I asked for some advice and, surprise, I was consistently told that the best way to build an appreciation for craft beer is to simply drink more of it. Rouse suggests, "Even if it's a professional beer, you know it's a good beer, you've had it many times, just take a moment to stop and think about it." To develop your vocabulary and awareness of flavor, bring along some friends and swap opinions. "It's not something you can do alone. Everyone is going to bring some different perspective," says Aaronson. Other suggestions to enhance your beer appreciation include travel and reading. Reinitz recommended Randy Mosher's Tasting Beers: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink

If you're a reader of DCBeer, you're probably a beer enthusiast who could appreciate some well-crafted home brews. Come out to Meridian Pint on Saturday and judge for yourself. With a $15 donation to Brainfood, you'll be able to sample the 16 finalists, talk with the brewers, swap opinions with fellow beer lovers, vote for your favorite, and hopefully expand your appreciation of the world's greatest drink.   

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