Just the other night I volunteered to judge the Tulsa State Fair homebrew competition. I’ve only judged a few other events through F.O.A.M. or Fellowship of Oklahoma Ale Makers, Tulsa’s homebrew club. Over the years of attending meetings and sharing a wealth of beer, the act of judging has grown on me. Not so much as an ego booster but in a quest to learn more than I ever could just sitting on the couch having another beer.
First off, if you’ve never been to a homebrew meeting I’d highly encourage you to go. There is no better place to gain incalculable knowledge from those who came before us and those eager to soak up any new brewing technique/technology on the market. There are novices and experts in almost every category and most if not all are willing to talk your head off about their failures and triumphs. Paired with home brew there is no more ideal place to expand your brain and more fun than typing into a forum on the computer.
Back to judging. There are several opportunities each year where F.O.A.M. holds competitions and always in need of judges and stewards. A steward is one that runs behind the scenes and keeps the event flowing. This is a perfect entry-level spot to see how a competition is run and learn the ins and outs of what is needed to make it successful. Delivering beer, keeping water and supplies at the ready and organizing score sheets. It’s more work than it sounds but thoroughly rewarding.
The Beer Judge Certification Program has been around since 1985 and spurs the education, evaluation and ranking of diverse styles of beer, mead and ciders. They have an extensive breakdown of all the known beer styles with descriptions of how each style should smell, look, taste and feel. Brewers all over the world follow these guidelines that serve as an instrumental tool in judging beers for competition.
A typical judging scenario for a novice like myself would have me paired with a certified judge that has taken and passed the online course from the BJCP. Judges are provided with multiple worksheets to track and break down each beer and evaluate how close this beer was brewed to style. Beers are divided up into categories and subcategories. The beer is typically poured between two to three judges with enough left over to possibly move on to the next round of judging. About 2 ounces is more that enough to get an accurate reading of the beer.
Beer is an experience, let’s get that right. You are now tasked with breaking down the components of this beer in several aspects. I tend to fill out the appearance section first as head retention is the first to either stay or go. However, aroma may slap you upside the head first depending on the style. Whichever it is, keep an open mind and try to jot down everything you can possibly think of. Is it sweet or sour, how fast did the head disappear, is the color accurate? You’ll acquire a wealth of information just by aroma and appearance alone before you take one sip of the beer. If you think you are ready, take a small sip but don’t swallow, let it coat your mouth because your sensory glands aren’t just on your tongue. That first sip will always be unique in telling the story of this beer. This is an emotional experience as it may stir up nostalgic feelings from childhood of things you ate like gingerbread cookies or enjoying watermelon on a hot day.
This could probably take the most amount of time and rightly so. Flavor makes up for over a third of the points and most be scrutinized thoroughly. Once you feel you have judged this beer to be worthy or not you’ll give your overall impression on if you’d drink it again or what flaws need to be fixed. Be open and honest as the brewers will receive these tasting notes. Honesty does not mean cruelty though. We are all in this together to help each other brew better beer. Keep that karma in mind if you ever enter a beer into a competition.
As Charlie Papazian is best known for saying, “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.” Keep the experience light and fun. Who knows, you just may learn something new, or judge the best in show beer like I did for the Tulsa State Fair. Find out for yourself who won this September 28th – October 8th.
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