Judging homebrews isn’t as easy as it sounds
Judging a homebrew is a fascinating experience. It’s fun, challenging, and ultimately quite rewarding. It allows one to really get into the nitty gritty of beer, a process that ultimately makes one a more aware and adept beer drinker.
This past weekend I was honored to be a beer judge for the fourth annual Ocean State Homebrew Competition, held at Johnson & Wales University and sponsored by JbreW. I spent Saturday helping out with logistics and Sunday judging in the front, which gave me different perspectives into such a big event.
Some might think beer judging is a dream come true, and it IS great, but I wasn’t able to just enjoy beers and write a grade. We rate the beers on five categories: aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression (detailed in my July 4 column). A good judge will also then write comments for why they gave the score they gave for each section. It can be tough to be critical while remaining positive, and it’s quite the challenge to come up with different ways to say “hoppy” after one’s 10th IPA.
A big contest like Ocean State requires more volunteers than a bake sale at a southern megachurch. Nearly 40 judges worked over the two days to taste all 311 entries (placed into 28 categories). There were also 25 stewards who brought all the beers to the judges and tallied the scores, six staff, and more than 40 student volunteers and chefs to prepare meals for the crew.
I helped judge the “Spice/Herb/Vegetable Beer” category, which was an adventure. Beers ranged from an American wheat with cucumber to an IPA brewed with coconut to an oatmeal stout with vodka and vanilla beans. Only one of the six beers I tasted was poor, and I really enjoyed the various flavors.
The process is relatively simple: pour a small amount into a cup, smell it, examine it, taste it, repeat. Judges then discuss the beer, noting if it’s true to its style, picking up on any of the potential off-flavors that might detract from the brew, and talking about what stood out about the beer. Everyone then writes down their comments, puts scores in each category and tallies them (maximum of 50). The judges’ scores are then averaged.
Each rating category has a different weight. In order: Appearance is worth 3 points, Mouthfeel is 5, Overall Impression is 10, Aroma is 12, and Flavor is 20. All but one beer in my group earned a 31 to 40 score, with our “Mini Best-in-Show” going to the really excellent coconut IPA.
After each of the 28 categories have a best beer, the highest-ranked judges (a topic for another column) taste all 28 winners and declare best-in-show for beers, ciders, and meads. At a big contest like OSHC, it takes two full days to winnow the field down to the winners, and those that earn the top spot have been better vetted than a presidential candidate.
Originally published on April 10, 2014