“Relax!” he said. “Don’t worry!” he said. “Have a homebrew!” he said.
The totem, in Groucho disguise sitting in a cloud adorned-cart and wielding shuni mudra hand pose (patience, awareness of moment), maneuvered by Phil Farrell The Chicken Man dressed in a turkey suit, beamed under the nose of his mask at the rectangular objects his followers use to record and share their memories. They chanted, on command, “fooooooooam,” fervently, as though the mantra could impel his visage to the stage. The dream-like state within the tall box of a room in which the crowd had gathered pulled the half-drunk mass back from the flow tide of inebriation, even as a bitter, brown ale was distributed to to encourage revelry; a balance of forces. Magnetized by the sight of, it seemed, a man wearing the mask of the totem wearing Groucho glasses, two thousand standing heads followed the movement of the grinning guru; two thousand invisible spider threads sprouted from the heads and arced to the totem, and felt some satisfaction as they connected to a charge of affirmative energy. The chant continued until the totem reached the stage and took the human form of Charlie Papazian, the godfather and patron saint of homebrewers. For a few minutes the Groucho glasses lingered, a remnant of the comic chariot that had brought him there, an apt segue from idol to person. With a voice set firmly in the treble range, Charlie greeted the audience and began unraveling his mythology. Which came first, the homebrewer or the homebrew? Can one simultaneously manifest and stumble upon a new way of being? Those questions remain only partially answered, the true talent of a demigod. The answer lies in the culture. Charlie found a single viable cell (let’s call it thecan of hopped malt extract), fed it and nurtured it and smiled at it as it slowly reproduced. He learned its habits and adapted to them. The can of hopped malt extract proliferated around Boulder, Colorado in the 1970s, before cordless, satellite, and cellular phones caused disarray in human communication. It inoculated at first by eye contact and touch in classrooms and at parties. It bounded away from sterile bureaucratic environments that would restrict its growth and movement. The can of hopped malt extract was absorbing nutrients from its growth media and preparing, unbeknownst to anybody, for evolution. The guided became the guide. Timing was critical, and steam began to build as the can of hopped malt extract pushed up against the cracked dam walls of government sludge, control, and ego. Then, from the guarded, gated dungeons of legislation came a POP! A fissure opened, and the can of hopped malt extract tore off its lid and poured through, widening the gap and flowing as fast as malt extract can. Had Charlie waited or asked for permission, the receptors of the collective unconscious may never have been tickled by the idea, and the can of hopped malt extract would have gathered dust.
In the 40 years since the foundation of the American Homebrewers Association, the culture, the can of hopped malt extract, has mutated from a kitchen counter hobby to an industrial sandwich with all the fixins’. Economic impact, import and export, distribution, fiscal years and return-on-investment are now part of the homebrew lexicon. The can of hopped malt extract is an adult, and has adult successes and makes adult mistakes. And now Charlie can leave this nest to the next, return to his home in the clouds. Fooooooooam!
Put on your powdered wigs! You’re about to participate in a niche ritual, engaging your senses and translating them to the written word. Your wrist will be sore, your tongue deflated, your faith shaken. You are about to judge beer.
You don your clothes earlier than usual for a Saturday, eat a mild breakfast and consider not brushing your teeth. The recommended status of a “clean palate” conflicts with all morning rituals; do you choose coffee or toothpaste? Already, your brain is preparing for minutiae. Did you burn your tongue on pizza last night? What part? Can you still taste? Whew! Crisis averted. But please, revel in everything you do before you leave the house; it is the last bit of canny sanity you will encounter today.
“Just show up,” they said plaintively. “Free lunch, free beer.” This is community service. Your peers spent hours poring over the guidelines sipping on a glass of beer with pen in hand, trying to remain objective while deciding exactly how their malty offspring would be sacrificed. With only two gallons left in the keg, 36 ounces seems like a lot. But enter they must, whether gunning for ribbons or hoping for legible, coherent feedback. The dutiful entry process has stymied many, but not these stalwarts without whose gung-ho, go-gettem attitudes there would be no competition, no reason to get out of bed and join your fellow judges for a day of impeachment, veto, repeal, debate, gerrymandering, election, re-election, and insider trading.
The process takes place in a space in which you might not otherwise expect to drink. It is not a bar, a friend’s house, or a public park. You are removed from society and plunked down at a table, chatting with two other people in the same position, waiting to see what happens under your nose. Hastily, you fill out the basics on the scoresheets. Your name! You are now accountable for your words. Your BJCP judge ID number! Do you have one? Good! If not, expect to be the first to compromise. Your e-mail address! Dear god, are these people going to contact you? Will you receive beer judge-related spam? (“Spiral-bound 2015 BJCP Guidelines, with EZ-Grip Mechanical Pencil Embossed with Your Name, $17.95 + S&H”)
Engaging in this sort of sensory role play with other people is intimately platonic. All feelings are directed toward a beer; it is the collateral damage in a codependent relationship. It better behave, or else. The beer is treated as a child at cheap daycare, told when it is good but not receiving commensurate praise to scorn. A flawed beer hides its positive traits; a good judge teases them out for constructive criticism rather than putting it in time-out. A good beer is difficult to nitpick not because it is a good beer, but because it is a relief.
Part Two: Nobody Ever Gets a 50
The best-of-show lineup at Saturday’s KLCC Homebrew Competition judging contained 24 different styles, including a mead and two ciders. How on earth–why on earth–should they be whittled away like contestants on The Weakest Link down to the best three? They should all have merit enough to stand on their own; every one is a winner! BOS judge panels are experienced and trusted. My first time, I recused myself from having any actual input until, during the same session, I timidly gave some input that was accepted by the majority. Later, I was put in my place: “Do you like soap?” Long story.
In my experience, the high score of 50 is like the amp that goes to 11. Why not just make 40 louder? Maybe it’s a localized phenomenon, but nobody ever gets a 50. Nobody ever totally wins the game. Really, that’s not fair to the brewer who may not understand that a 35 is a pretty good score, even though it’s an academic C-. Judges should reconsider this tactic. I should reconsider this tactic. A beer without fermentation flaws should be considered quite good, and not be lumped closer to beers that exhibit careless practice.
Homebrew is no longer its own bubble, as it was before 5,000 craft breweries opened in eight years (roughly). The transfer of knowledge from the home garage to the commercial garage–and to taps in our neighborhoods–has shown that good beer and bad beer can come from anywhere. At the Oregon Beer Awards judging (which has a radically different format from a BJCP competition), I tasted roughly 80 different beers in a range of styles. And though flaws were less pronounced, they were just as prevalent as in the KLCC comp. They were also different; fusel alcohol and strong esters were rarely an issue. Pro brewers typically have control over fermentation temperature and yeast health, whereas homebrewers are more likely to produce apple and banana bombs due to the lack thereof. The tiny scale of a batch of homebrew makes it comparatively harder to ferment well. Even doing cell counts and dosing by weight is less foolproof by the gram compared to the kilo (but props to the nerds that do this!).
If a judge is able to assert confidently that a homebrewed beer could be found on tap at a good beer bar (a metric I will add to my lexicon), it deserves a very high score. Suggestions to tweak the water profile or this-and-that malt or hop adjustment should be considered trivial compared to good fermentation, carbonation, and pH balance for the style. Very few beers will achieve this; reward those that do.
Part Three: Judging Judges Don’t be the new guy who waltzes (because there’s 3-to-4 odds you’ll look like an idiot) into the judging chamber (judges suit up, beers are redressed) and thinks he knows everything (yup, you’re a guy). And don’t be the judge who doesn’t listen to the new guy. Remember, you are Lady Justice; Ego plays no part in this comedy.
A person, who shall remain nameless, made themselves a pariah at the judge table on Thursday (apologies for any grammatical confusion with genderless pronouns). They chatted loudly, texted, and showed extreme bias. They irritated their fellow judges. I heard about it a day later, and still wonder what my reaction would have been had they been at my table. This is an outlier situation. I’ve judged with brand new judges before (and I was one as well, starry-eyed in awe of the whole thing), and worked hard to help acclimate people to thinking and tasting as objectively as possible, while simultaneously accepting that everybody’s palate is valid. All this within a time crunch; it’s not easy. And yet there are experienced judges who refuse to give good feedback; two word reviews are a slap in the face to the antsy homebrewer awaiting results. No, you can’t print “shit sandwich.”
You, beer judge, are a hero. You step out of your comfort zone not knowing what is going to be in your mouth. You risk headache, palate fatigue, losing an argument, and being a guinea pig for some schmo’s carrot-ginger-raisin experiment in exchange for a sandwich, all from a sense of duty you can’t fully explain. You are a first world middle class homebrew hero. Act like one.