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.
craftbeer.com, the online wing of the Brewers Association, just published an article entitled: “Craft Beer Styles: Why They Matter & When They Don’t.” Part of the author’s argument for beer styles is a complaint that some menus read like fashion magazine ads with the made-up citation, “Enjoy eating greatness? Then this super complex, one of a kind delicacy will indulge your deepest gustatory cravings.” This hyperbolic notion lasts for about half of the article before the author gets into the history and evolution of beer, which is the real reason there are beer styles (apart from the human obsession with categorization). Additionally, there is an ongoing debate about “what is craft beer?” and I would argue that saying “craft beer styles” is pretentious (Is lite American lager not a beer style because Coors Light is not craft beer?).
Beer styles, as we know them, evolved originally because of water, and brewers’ repeated attempts to create beer best suited to their water. Mineral content has a grand effect on the flavor of beer, and brewers have, over the centuries, adapted their brewing methods to the limits of their local water source. Entire books have been written on the subject. Styles have also developed through popular (and political) demand. If the Germans and Bohemians hadn’t enjoyed the paler lagers more than the variable-colored dark beers that existed before modern malting and yeast cultivation, Anheuser-Busch would be peddling a very different product with their Clydesdales.
Here we run into a (somewhat nonsensical) chicken-egg/Schroedinger’s Cat debate: Would there still be styles if Michael Jackson hadn’t gone about categorizing them in the 1970s? Would the Brewers Association and Beer Judge Certification Program have written their fairly strict definitions by which beers are to be judged, awarded medals and kudos? Style guidelines are basically a palate-training program with military instincts (disclosure: I’m a ranked BJCP judge, and enjoy judging beer and questioning authority.) . Beers that don’t fit neatly into a category may never receive the acclaim they deserve. One local example was brewed by Eugene’s Claim 52; Trevor’s War Steiner Weisse was a mishmash of styles and techniques: a high percentage wheat wort fermented with Kolsch yeast at Belgian temperatures (upwards of 75F, well over the yeast’s preferred range). Magically, the beer was excellent, with unusual fruit esters, smooth body, and a dually thirst quenching and inducing finish.
There’s a place you can go where the idea of style is turned on its head, where water (though obviously a factor) isn’t as important as yeast, and style isn’t as important as a brewery’s house flavor. That place is Belgium. Of course, there are classic styles like Dubbel and Tripel, and other brews from the monastic traditions that tend to conform to specific flavor profiles, but there are many, many more that do not. Even among the Trappist breweries there are beers that eschew moniker; Orval is a notable example, as are the Rochefort beers (6, 8, and 10 are available in the U.S.), which are much less estery than the average Belgian ale. A homebrewer friend who regularly makes Belgian-esque ales doesn’t often apply categories to his beers; he refers to them by brew number: “Oh, that’s #473, it’s pale, bottle conditioned with honey… try it!”
The whole idea of “style” kinda falls apart when beer is brewed with indigenous ingredients, spontaneously fermented, or otherwise given over to nature, so to speak. De Garde Brewing in Tillamook uses wild yeast and bacteria harvested from the air, much like Belgian Lambic breweries. Agrarian Ales uses river sage, a native artemesia, in some of its herbal beers. Propolis in Port Townsend, WA, uses wildcrafted herbs in all of its beers, which change month-to-month. Local flavors are slowly making a comeback– after several centuries of legislated hop use, Old World brewing practices are making a small return to the collective brewing unconscious.
The canon of beer styles is an important learning tool and cultural artifact, and cannot be dismissed. At the same time, pigeonholing beer can be detrimental. Try to embrace the “?” beers, the Category 23 beers; those are often the hardest to create, the riskiest innovations, and the most challenging to the norm.
Weird ingredients are in the air. Literally! Wild yeasts and bacteria are floating around, hoping to land on some sugar to they can eat it and reproduce. But that’s not important right now. It may be because of the 92 pumpkin & spice beers that have hit the shelves in the last few weeks (not to mention the ever-punctual Deschutes Jubelale), but it’s time to have a style talk inspired by a beer on The Bier Stein’s taplist right now. This one is about a virtually unknown traditional style that originated in Poland in the 18th century, and survived by the skin of its teeth due to intrepid and curious brewers: Grodziskie, or Gratzer in German.
Generally the terms “smoked” and “sour” are kept separate, and for good reason; we’re accustomed to the bold flavors associated with these words. Smoked sausage and sauerkraut for dinner? Yes. Campfire and fruity barnyard in a glass? Not so much. But the Poles made a refreshing, light, drinkable ale using the nuances of smoked wheat and sour mash technique.
A brief section of beer history: Old-world malting involved wood fires that would invariably impart a level of smokiness to the finished product (beer). Today, the Rauchbiers of Bamberg, Germany are the archetype, and exhibit intense woody, almost bacony, smoke flavors and aromas. Pale malts were a later development in brewing history (early-mid 1800s), but quickly gained popular demand– wheat malt kilned to a very light color would take on much less smoke character than the Bamberg rauch malts. And on a more technical note, beers brewed using all pale malt have a slightly higher pH than is optimal for the enzymes to convert the starches in malt to fermentable sugars, so a sour mash would help reduce the amount of unfermentable sugars, and produce a drier beer.
Dr. Fritz Briem is a professor at Doemen’s University, the brewing university in Friesing, Germany (where Weihenstephan is located). He has brewed a few historical styles to great effect: the intensely tart 1809 Berliner Weisse and sprightly herbal Gruit. The Piwo Grodziskie is brewed with barley malt and beech smoked wheat and sour mashed, where a portion of the grist (grains to be mashed) is inoculated in advance with lactobacillus and kept around 110-120F until the pH drops to the desired level, then added into the main mash. This method allows a brewer to make sour beer without infecting any fermentors, and brings out a smoother, more stable tartness in the finished beer.
As our keg of the Grodziskie is close to empty, some tasting notes are in order:
It is not as smoky as one would think. Nor as sour. It pours pretty foamy, and some light phenol and lemon notes roll out, with an undertone of grain. The body is initially light, though a low aftershock of smoke lingers. It’s a very unique notion. The only other interpretation I’ve seen was brewed by Nate Sampson at Eugene City Brewery a couple years ago. He used 100% smoked wheat and bittered it to 40 IBU, but it was still light, shockingly light, and tingly. Get it while you can, if for nothing else than a one-of-a-kind experience.
Over the past few years, craft brewers around the country have set out to prove that lager is not a four-letter word. In fact, there are plenty of good words to be said about lager.
Lager brewing is a test of a brewer’s skill; lager yeast is very particular, and will manifest strange off flavors if not treated right. Malt quality will become readily apparent, as lager yeast tends to emphasize the malt bill. Yeast count, fermentation temperature, even fermentor shape affect the final product, and should be taken into account when brewing large batches of beer.
In Oregon, there are many breweries that produce a variety of craft lagers on the regular; I don’t mean a “token” lager to appease macro beer drinkers (HUB’s Lager comes to mind– it’s a great lager, but is the only one they produce). There are more styles of lager than Pilsner, woudn’t ya know, and it’s gotten to the point where the idea of a craft lager “revival” is relevant to the beer conversation.
Full Sail has been producing their LTD line of lagers for several years now, and has showcased many lager styles, from Bohemian Pilsner to Vienna Lager (which is typified by Negra Modelo, woudn’t ya know). Heater Allen produces a range of German styles, mostly lagers, and they do it very, very well.
Perhaps the most important asset to locally produced and consumed lagers is hop character– they have it! I spoke with a Bier Stein customer about local vs. imported lagers, and the most defining difference seems to be the presence (and lack, in the import versions) of hop aroma. That long trip across the pond and through our Interstate system gives those imports a little too much time to breathe out their former hoppy glory (just another reason to go to there*), whereas a fresh Heater Allen Pils is piquant with spicy, herbal notes from German hop varieties (these include, but are not limited to: Hallertau Mittelfruh, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz). Some of these varieties are grown here in the Northwest (Saaz, Tettnang (which is remarkably similar to, and may in fact be Fuggle))– even better to showcase our lager brewing prowess! (*This is not to say that imported lagers aren’t good. On the whole, they are delicious– it’s mainly the Pils and Helles that have lost some of their pizzaz, but they’re still uber refreshing!)
A few other local breweries have a penchant for bottom-fermented beers: Falling Sky has practically run the gamut of lager styles, going so far as to produce an Imperial India Pale Lager, truly capitalizing on a Northwest fetish. Occidental Brewing in Portland had a Dortmunder at the Oregon Brewers Festival that seemed to nail the style description with plenty of malt and hop flavor, medium body, and a decidedly smooth but bitter finish.
While we’re on Occidental, let’s talk hybrids. They produce a Kölsch, described on the cans as a “German-style ale.” That’s partially true. It’s definitely German, originating in Cologne (Köln) in the late 19th Century; it’s definitely an ale, as the yeast is top-fermenting. But it’s so much more! “Hybrid” beers– Kölsch, Altbier, and California Common are the most notable– lie somewhere in the middle, and bear the marks of evolution in brewing tradition.
Kölsch and Altbier use ale yeast that produces a “clean” beer in cooler (55-60F) conditions, i.e. very low fruity esters and phenolics, much closer to lager character than typical ale yeast, which doesn’t ferment very well below 62F. The use of ale yeast is relegated to these styles, and Hefeweizen in Germany, and harken to the days before refrigeration and the isolation of lager yeast.
California Common, commonly known as Steam, is brewed in a somewhat opposite fashion. German immigrants brought lager yeast to North America; many used it to start breweries that grew into, for example, Pabst. Others brought it to California during the Gold Rush. Without refrigeration (or temperature-stable caves), they had to take advantage of the cooler coastal weather and hope for the best. The original example of the style is Anchor Steam, brewed by Gottlieb Brekle in the late 1800s. The beer is amber in color, with toasty notes from Munich malt, and distinctive woody-minty flavor and aroma from Northern Brewer, a German hop variety.
In Eugene, nearly every brewery has produced a Kölsch-style beer in the last year. Claim 52’s version is available around town year-round, while Falling Sky, Ninkasi, Oakshire, and Agrarian (Sommer Steiner) have done single batches. Everybody’s is a little different. My own homebrewed version is slightly more bitter than the standard (Reissdorf), and I change up the hops now and then because I can. Kölsch should be soft, with light and crisp maltiness, very low bitterness, and just a bit of hop aroma. The difference between it and Pilsner is a somewhat ethereal quality of fruit that comes from the yeast.
And so the crazed minds of craft brewers continue to defy; to upheave beer drinkers’ notions of what can be, what is good beer; to reclaim lager as “one of us.”