Homebrewing Conversations (The Session #132)

The Session #132 on Homebrewing Conversations is hosted this month by Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site.

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

So in this spirit of homebrew education and evangelism, I want to open up this Friday’s Session topic to be on homebrewing—the good, the bad, your experiences, ideas, (mis)conceptions, or whatever else suits you, as long as it starts the conversation!

Here are some ideas and questions to get you started:

Do you homebrew, and if so, for how long? How did you get started?
Talk about the best beer you ever brewed at home—and your worst!
Are you a member of a local homebrew club (or even the AHA)? Tell us about your club.
Describe your home set up: do you brew all grain? Extract? Brew in a bag? Unusual mashing/sparging/etc. methods?
Have you ever judged a homebrew competition? Talk about that experience.
Are you a BJCP or other accredited beer judge? Talk about the process of becoming certified/official.
Never homebrewed/not a homebrewer? No problem! Consider these questions:
Do you know any homebrewers?
Have you ever tasted someone’s home brewed beer?
Would you ever be interested in learning how to brew? Why or why not?

I have about 12 pages of draft posts, one started as far back as December 2015, on the topic of homebrewing but I am going to forgo those for now and go with something else I have had in draft since September on judging at homebrew competitions and the massive ask that takes place for judges to consume large amounts of alcohol.

Judging

As of today, I have judged at 6 full-sized homebrew competitions, 2 smaller homebrew comps, 2 commercial craft beer comps, and 3 quarterly club comps for my local homebrew club, COHO.

I started judging before I was BJCP certified and before I started homebrewing. The latter bit puts me in the weird column compared to most judges who start out as homebrewers first.

I have also taken two formal beer sensory analysis classes, one informal, have done a 12-week BJCP Exam Prep class, and have participated in an analysis of the Siebel hop sensory kit, amongst many other smaller sensory learning experiences. I also became certified as an MBAA Beer Steward and as a Certified Beer Server by the Cicerone Certification Program.

There are scores of homebrew comps all over, all the time, and they almost always needs judges. Being certified as a BJCP judge seems to carry—at least for me and the ones who trained me—an ethical commitment. To use your knowledge to serve others, I guess. Perhaps that’s just me (as career military) and a couple of my fellow judge peers/trainers (as career law enforcement).

Competitions need a lot of judges. Logistically this is the case for several reasons. First and foremost though, ought be the realization that you are asking these people—people who are donating their time, energy and bodies—to ingest large amounts of alcohol. Often for more than one consecutive day. That is a big ask.

I have rarely been shy about ingesting large amounts of alcohol over a sustained period of time but I try to be a lot smarter about it than when I was, say, 25. Also, my almost-60-year-old body does not process alcohol as well as it used to do. Most of my judge friends are my age or getting there quickly. No idea how their bodies are doing but I can guess.

Here is an example from the most recent competition I judged:

Friday evening [2 5A, 3 5B, 2 5D] [1 13A, 1 13B, 2 13C]
Saturday [1 2A, 4 4A, 2 4B, 1 4C] [2 17B, 1 17C, 1 17D] [21B 5 Be black, red, black, 2 NEIPA] [30 6 assorted; Eng brown with chocolate, blonde w/basil & honey, Am wheat w/cucumber, Am wheat w/habanero, dark lager w/habanero, Eng BW w/pumpkin & spice] [BOS 33 beers]

To make it more understandable, I had 2 flights on Friday evening. The first was 7 pale Euro beers, the second was 4 brown British beers. Not too bad of an evening quantity-wise.

Saturday began with 8 pale malty Euro Lagers, then lunch after I think. Then 4 strong British ales, followed by 5 specialty IPAs, followed by 6 assorted spice, herb or vegetable beers.

Then it was time for the best of show judging at the end of Saturday. Thirty-three (33) beers to be tasted in rapid succession and whittled down to just the top 3. Thankfully, this doesn’t take near as many sips of each beer as does a full judging of that beer but it is still a lot more alcohol to ingest.

Short recap: Friday night I tasted/judged 11 beers. I felt a bit off Saturday morning but quickly recovered and got to business. We started a bit later than originally planned on Saturday, which we knew in advance, so those both helped. Then I tasted/judged 23 very different beers. And then I had 33 even more varied beers to try.

I was a wreck Sunday and my lips were radically chapped for a couple days after.

Another example:

January 2017, I judged at a commercial craft comp. I had 2 full flights of IPAs, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. [~11-13 beers/flight]. This also means the mini-BOS round for IPA is not included in my count of flights as I also judged that. So three large flights of IPAs over the day.

I got up Sunday morning to begin my prep to return for a second full day of judging but was clearly not well. Besides barely being able to, much less wanting to, function–putting another drop of alcohol in my body was both physically and mentally a non-starter of the highest degree. I let the organizers (my friends, which made it worse) know that I was unable to judge as I had committed to do.

All of which is to say, I am going to radically begin considering when/where I judge anymore and will begin curtailing it. I will continue to judge at my local club’s quarterly competitions as they have yet to be an issue since the number of entries is quite manageable usually. I will also probably switch to only committing to one day of judging at both Spring Fling (COHO’s annual large comp) and Best of Craft Beer (commercial comp). I will also consider comps like the Worthy Garden Club fresh hop homebrew comp, and local pro-am comps like BBC, Silver Moon, and Three Creeks have done. For the near-term future, anyway, I think this is my plan. The larger question of how long I can do even that still looms.

Most recent update: I was planning on doing one day of judging and then one day of stewarding at the 2018 Best of Craft Beer Awards at the end of last month but I ended up doing neither this year, for reasons outlined above.

There are other issues with judging that also have an impact—questions of ethics, objectivity versus subjectivity, styles of judging, attitudes to the process, etc.—but none is an issue as large as the one that is the sheer amount of alcohol one is ingesting.

One of the driving issues is that these competitions are generally put on by a local homebrew club and the competition is usually their biggest money-making event of the year. This drives them to grow and, perhaps, allow more beers to be entered than can be adequately judged by the pool of available judges.

I am not claiming that any particular individual or any particular club is intentionally doing this, just that the money-making angle has the potential to negatively influence competition planning that includes proper care and concern for judges.

I used to enjoy the (potentially deep) philosophical issues, such as the completely inadequate but necessary codification of styles and other issues mentioned above, but the far more immediate dangers and potential health issues–short- or long-term–have taken a much greater share of my attention.

Judging homebrew (and commercial) competitions can be fun and are usually a definite and valuable learning experience. But there are issues.

Discomfort Beer (Session #119)

This month’s The Session on the topic of “Discomfort beer” is hosted at mostly about beer … by Alec Latham.

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

The Session, or Beer Blogging Friday

“For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.

I think this could be a good archive for people researching fads, the origins of styles and the dearths of others – but especially how new ones were initially perceived.”

My wife told me to keep this simple and focus on this one specific aspect of the question. I will attempt to do that but from there I hope to extend the same concept because my discomfort beers are like that.

Not talking about

And to get it out of the way, as the host said, “bad” beer was not on the table. I agree. I am a BJCP Certified judge and I taste a few discomforting beers while judging; and, to be fair, the same is true at the one professional craft beer awards I judge at. Beer that is infected or full of diacetyl when inappropriate and so on. Bad beer.

I am also not including styles I simply do not like or even beer with ingredients I don’t like in beer; except in one instance. To cut to the chase, I have had to drink a few peanut butter beers to realize I do not think it a proper ingredient for beer that I am going to drink. They exist; drink them if you enjoy them. Same goes for most nuts. Nuts are simply too oily for beer, for me (Although Ninkasi’s versions of Ground Control Imperial stout with Oregon hazelnuts were exquisite). Same goes for a few other ingredients and that includes almost every instance of spiced beer. Fremont and a few others can pull off spicing, for me, but most cannot. I will not be going into detail about these beers in this post.

Styles not loved as a whole

What I will talk about are a few styles that I do not love as a whole; that is, I do not love the entire spectrum but a only very narrow slice of that style spectrum appeals to me; immensely so. Two particular instances are IPAs (any strength) and American sours. There are a handful of IPAs—that I am aware of and can get routinely—that I simply adore. The bounty of Oregon and nearby surrounds, again.

The same is true for American sours, although I am aware of and get fewer. My wife does not like any sours so being my primary drinking partner I get them at bottle shares and on draft here and there on occasion. But most American sours are way overdone for me. Making a beer sour for the purpose of being sour is just as unbalanced of a beer as going extreme on anything else (IMHO and not saying they are all made with that intent as that’s silly). I like very few of these. I do love many Belgian sours and Berliner Weiss and … though. Different animals often.

So I particularly love a (few) very narrow slice(s) of the IPA and American sour spectrum and there are large slices that are, to me, nasty beers. There are, of course, some that are tasty enough and are also superbly executed beers but simply not to my palate.

The point

The point is that to find this narrow slice of heaven that my sensory palate adores implies drinking quite a bit of discomforting beer. It is not that I inherently dislike the entire style nor is it that I “need to adjust” to them. The world is rarely that simple.

My palate / Judging

I have a long, interesting and hopefully fun, journey ahead of me but I have a pretty good handle on what my palate likes within a huge range of the beer spectrum, although there is always so much more to learn, which I am actively attempting to do.

Helping others is the point of judging, for one. It forces me to be better about recognizing my experience for what it is, as it is happening, and to turn that into words useful to the brewer of that beer. It also forces me to learn all about brewing and the causes and fixes of issues, and to have a good grasp of many styles. I did this for me for my own learning but the ethical duty is towards others.

As BJCP judge I must drink in styles that I do NOT like. But I can objectively tell the difference between a bad beer and whether or not it is to style (as codified currently). These are discomfort beers that I consume out of a sense of duty. Getting certified as a judge tends to bring along with it the duty of actually judging—everybody always needs judges—and sometimes you have to judge styles you do not like. “Christmas” spiced beers—and others—on a 90°F (32.2°C) day in May; for example. But you must be professional (and ethical) and do your best to determine whether the beer is within the style, if not so how not, and whether the brewing processes were successful, and if not, what and how to overcome. That is completely different than “do you want to be drinking that beer ever” or “just not right now.” This again implies drinking quite a bit of discomforting beer.

Reductionism is (generally) futile

Of course, I earlier critiqued the idea of “you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to” as being simplistic. So is my current topic/reduction of “I think a few exemplars of this style are the bee’s knees of the beer world but I could not care less for the rest of the broad spectrum of the style” or I simply do not like that style or ingredient.

Because sometimes as you figure out whether you do or do not like a style (I find it sad to rule out a whole style unless you simply cannot do, say, sour then OK all of the sours are out, I guess, but, again, it is rarely that simple. IMHO.) or perhaps as you “adjust” to higher ABV/IBU/pH/… levels you are in the quandary as presented. There are other ways to be in it too but those seem the basics to me. Those are only some of the slices of life that can lead to consuming discomforting beer, as I see it, is what I am saying.

Complexity

I have presented two other angles above, and now I want to make it more complex.

There are also the styles I particularly love, my go-to-styles, if you will—Pilsners, Imperial stouts and barleywines, bourbon-barrel aged Impy stouts—to name a few.

But here’s the thing, you can’t just put some crap Imperial in a bourbon barrel and have me call it good. See the discussion of my palate above. I have a great handle on how my sensory enjoyment prefers these. There are few combinations of the various elements that can vary within ranges but I know what I like; even if it is a new combination. I also know the difference between a well-executed one and a bad/off one, as above.

The same goes for these other styles: Pilsners, stouts, barleywines. I might tend to stand a broader range of the style from “amazing” down to “meh” than I do for say, American sours, but that still implies I drank a lot of potentially discomforting beers to find this narrow slice of sensory heaven for myself.

Bringing it together

Within the beer styles of which I choose to drink any exemplars—whether I love the style as a whole or not—there is a very narrow slice of heaven for me. Those are the beers I want to drink as routinely as possible. But I also like experiencing many different beers, although that is slowing down. So maybe I’ll be better able to put this hard-won and often discomforting information to even better use.

To find out what my preferred flavor profile is for any individual style implies drinking lots of discomforting beer (Not to imply the many “merely good” beers also consumed are discomforting).

Secondarily, as a BJCP judge I have an ethical responsibility to both judge and to accept sometimes judging styles I would really prefer not to even consume. Lots of discomforting beers.

Main point, recapped, in brief

I experience discomforting beer in looking for outstanding examples of a narrow range of these styles to both learn what I do like and what I do not and to also learn that I do not like a style/ingredient wholesale and then being called on to consume them anyway.