Monday, November 10, 2014

Judging at the 2014 "Knickerbocker Battle of the Brews" homebrew competition

The Knickerbocker Battle of the Brews is a popular homebrewing competition held every November at the Albany Pump Station. This is an event sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association and entries are judged according to guidelines established by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). In other words, this is a traditional homebrewing contest for traditional homebrewers making traditional beer styles. If you’re the type of homebrewer who makes no frills/by-the-book beers, then this is the competition to enter.iphone 073
I judged at this event for the first time last year and it was an educational experience. It wasn’t my first time judging homebrews, though, as I’d judged at The Ruck’s semi-annual contests (wherein they make up their own eccentric categories). In 2013 I was paired with a highly-ranked BJCP judge, and the two of us tried all the wheat beer styles. Up until that point, I had been used to reviewing beer and judging homebrew to my own personal preferences. I figured, since I was a fan of hefeweizens, dunkelweizens, and weizenbocks in general (and had even homebrewed a few myself), that I knew how beers of the type should smell, look, taste and drink. However, when you’re judging at a BJCP event, you’re not supposed to go by personal preference alone, but rather by the detailed descriptions in the guidelines. What you might not find acceptable, may indeed by acceptable by BJCP standards (or vice versa), so you can’t penalize a homebrew for that.10801687_807281556046469_3550882843028094127_n
Not surprisingly, the BJCP judge and I initially clashed over our scores – I tended to be quite generous, whereas he was rather stingy. As someone who had been used to “hedonistic” beer reviewing, I found the structure a little too constrictive. But I realized that people enter their beers into these types of competitions because they want honest feedback about their beers, especially as it pertains to the technical aspects of brewing. Anyone can tell you whether or not they enjoy your beer, but it takes experience in brewing, tasting, and judging to provide insight about what’s right or wrong correct or incorrect with a homebrew and how well it conforms to style guidelines.

A lot has changed in the last year for me as a brewer and a reviewer of beer. I bought an all-grain homebrew setup and I’ve even brewed at a commercial brewery twice (once with a friend at Ommegang, and once with my homebrew club at Rare Form). It’s a different world for the all-grain brewer, since there are so many more variables at stake (extract kits tend to be rather foolproof). In order to do it well, you absolutely must educate yourself on brewing science and techniques, so I’ve picked up quite a few books on homebrewing which have really helped. Also, when I review beers for my website, I’ll look up the BJCP guidelines to see how well it represents the style (but only for beers that claim to be of a traditional style). I still review beer hedonistically, but I’ll recognize the subtleties between styles that I hadn’t before (e.g. the difference between a Czech and German pilsner).

This year I was assigned to judge at the “strong beer” table, which included entries of a variety of higher ABV styles, including: Belgian Blond; Belgian Dubbel; Belgian Tripel; Belgian Dark Strong Ale; Old Ale; Barleywine; and Imperial IPA. As someone who prefers variety to monotony, this was an ideal judging situation for me.KBOTB 009
I was teamed up a woman named Jes who has a BJCP certification, and Dustin Mitchell, the president of the Albany Brew Crafters homebrew club. This time around I made a conscious effort to score the beers more conservatively. I also read the guidelines for each individual style line-by-line as I judged the beer. We would each score the beer on our own silently and then discuss it afterwards. I found myself pointing out specific descriptors and words in the guidelines that I used to justify my grades. Though, Jes and Dustin did this as well and pointed out to me that even though a beer may not have tasted great, it still would meet the criteria in the BJCP guidelines.10153878_806622682779023_2411464171701717909_n
We reviewed about 20 beers over the course of four to five hours (with a lunch break around the halfway point). No beer received a final score from the three of us that was the same, though the higher-scoring samples seemed to have a closer consensus than the average and bad beers. In fact, I was a little disappointed by the number of beers that scored below a 30. However, these are all difficult styles to brew as they require a lot of attention to detail, not just in the brewing process, but in the fermenting process. Yeast esters play a major role in the aroma and taste of Belgian beers, and those esters are affected by temperature. If you just ferment your beer in your basement at the whim of the ambient temperature, you might end up with a lousy-tasting beer (I know, I’ve done it). However, if you really want strict control over the fermentation temperatures, you’ll need to invest in chest freezers and other equipment of the sort, and that stuff isn’t cheap.KBOTB 010
There was an English-style barleywine that all three of us ranked as our highest score of the day (averaging 41, I believe). It was a delicious blend of milk chocolate, toffee, dark fruit and alcohol. In my opinion, it was commercial-grade quality. It took the gold at our table and went on to place second in the Best in Show round.KBOTB 029
I myself won a silver medal for my “Chocolate Cherry Chile Porter” from the table that judged sours, spice/herb/vegetable beers, fruit beers, and meads. It was my third time brewing that beer (or a variation of it); though this was the first year I brewed it with all grain instead of extract. It was a robust porter base recipe that was taken verbatim from John Palmer’s Brewing Classic Styles book. I did add some cocoa nibs to the boil, though. I also added three pounds of cherry puree to the fermenter, along with vanilla beans and cayenne peppers. It tastes of chocolate-covered cherry at first and finishes with a warming (but not spicy) sensation. It’s a recipe I want to continue to refine.
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Congratulations to Kerry Walker on winning “Best in Show” for his cherry lambic! (photo courtesy of Kerry Walker)
Oh, and the beer that beat my porter for the gold at the table? It went on win Best in Show. Now that’s a beer worth losing to!