Beer 101: Picking the Winners

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For years there have been classes and seminars about wine—where it comes from, how to taste it, what food to pair it with and so on. Walk into most major liquor stores on a weekend and there will be small wine-tasting classes. There’s even an educational aspect to tastings at wineries. The Los Angeles County Fair has offered a full schedule of free wine education classes every September in Fairplex Wine, Beer and Spirits Marketplace adjacent to the Flower and Garden building.

With the many lessons about wine, there have been very few opportunities to learn about beer or distilled liquor. For the first time, Fairplex will offer educational sessions about these beverages, in addition to wine classes, at this year’s Fair, which runs from Aug. 29-Sept. 28 in Pomona.

While wine remains the focus of the pavilion, the marketplace has also spotlighted a growing number of spirits and beers in recent years, and this year the list of guest lecturers will offer their insights into distilled liquor, mixology and beer, among other topics.IMG_1048

The expanded educational program is appropriate, given the resurgent popularity of classic cocktails and craft brews, and the continued development of the Los Angeles International Wine, Beer and Spirits competitions. The Fairplex staff was kind enough to allow me to take a look at the process that goes into selecting the award-winners at this year’s commercial beer competition.

While all three competitions rely on the expertise of industry experts, they’re all very different from one another, as documented in this recent piece about the spirits competition. Beer judging much more complex than the process used for wine or spirits, said Curt Dale of Dale Bros. Brewery in Upland, supervisor of the beer competition judges, who are brewmasters, writers, restaurateurs and others with ties to the industry. Most are certified through the Beer Judges Certification Program, and the competition sticks to strict BJCP and Brewers Guild competition guidelines.

Jill Roman, the competition coordinator from Fairplex, said there were nearly 1,000 entries this year, which represented a 46 percent increase over 2013. Not surprisingly, the India Pale Ale (IPA) category drew the most entries, while the largest growth came in the Gluten Free Beer and Fruit Beer categories.

IMG_1047Twenty-seven two-person panels spent the entire day June 7 evaluating hoppy and malty brews, with many of the judges returning the next day to finish the 84 different judging categories before moving on to the Best of Show discussion.

 

Amy Pond-Cirelli, who is attractions and competitions supervisor at Fairplex, noted that wine judging is much faster, and judges may taste 90 to 100 different wines in a day. Spirits judges usually taste more than 50 in a day.

“Beer judges will typically taste just 25-30 beers a day, which is much different from wine or spirits judging,” she said.

“Part of the sensation is actually drinking the beer,” said Dale. “I’m pushing our judges to do 35 in one day.”

Aside from swallowing some of the beer they sample, beer judges are required to do a lot of writing. “Beer judges have to make notes about a variety of categories on all of the beers they taste, said Pond-Cirelli. “It’s a more involved process; it’s important to the entrants to see the judging notes. They want to know what the judges thought about their beer so they can choose to make changes to their recipes if they want.

“With wine, a vintage is based on the grapes and the climate, not so much a formula change that the winemaker makes each year. And you don’t often see any changes with spirits. But craft brewers are always changing their beer recipes, so the judges’ notes are valuable.”

Like the other competitions, this was a “blind judging,” meaning the judges knew the category they were judging, but not the brewery that made it. Big-name macro-breweries compete against small community craft breweries. With so many entries, Dale admitted this format makes it hard for even for the most seasoned of judges to identify specific brewery beers.

Beer judges weigh their scores against the BJCP standards, rather than against other brews. Based on those standards, beer styles are supposed to exhibit specific characteristics in each judging category (aroma, appearance, flavor, fourth/feel and overall impression). A beer may be particularly delicious, but not fit the style description. Judges then move the beer to the proper category, give it lower scores or eliminate it from the competition.

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“We’re looking at a lot of the same things as wine and spirits judges, like aroma, appearance and taste,” said Dale. “But it is different because each beer style is its own. For example, if a beer is supposed to be cloudy and isn’t, then it will be marked down. And if it is not supposed to be cloudy and it is, then that will count against it as well.”

As the number of two-person panels dwindled as they finished their work on the second day, one of the morning judges had to leave. Dale asked me to sit in to judge the Robust Porter category, pairing with Christy Elshof, who is a home brewer and president of the California Homebrewers Association. She’s been home brewing since 1996 and judging the Fair’s beer commercial competition since it started. A BJCP Certified Beer Judge since 1999, she’s been judging at competitions since 1996.

Christy provided me with tips on not only how to go about tasting, but what to look for in different styles. For example, the Robust Porter should have a dark appearance and a roasted malty nose. It’s important to have a well-balanced beer that does not have a lingering astringent (dry aftertaste, much like you find in wines from the tannins). The beer should have the right feel in your mouth, meaning it isn’t too thin, but also not too big. It should have a roasted malty flavor and a balance between malt, sweet and a little bitterness.

Because the preliminary portion of the competition was nearing its end, the Robust Porters were actually spread among three panels, meaning the fate of those who entered this category were not determined by a novice judge. Christy and I selected a clear winner from our group. She and another certified judge, Tim Thomas, compared our winner against other top Robust Porters from other groups. Apparently the one we chose was not up to the level of the others.

Judges are allowed to suggest several beers to be put forward to Best of Show consideration. If a beer is recommended by one of the panels and has scored enough points to qualify, it moves into the Best of Show competition. This truly is like trying to compare apples to oranges, because the beers represent a wide range of categories. There were eight gold medal-winning beers that were considered, representing eight different styles: Fruit Beer, Aged Beer, Sweet Stout, German Style Wheat Ale, German Style Hefeweissen, Imperial Red, Specialty Beer and American-Style Ale. Again, the idea is to judge against standards rather than beer vs. beer.

IMG_1052The final judging panel went around and discussed each of the beers, with each speaking about a beer they would eliminate from consideration for Best of Show. Five of the eight were eliminated fairly quickly, and the group agreed on the top three. The official results don’t list all of the beers that advanced to the Best of Show consideration, except the eventual winner, which was the seasonal Signature Quad from Choc Beer Co. in Oklahoma.

One of the judges had saved some beer that he felt was particularly worthy of consideration for Best of Show, but didn’t have the points to advance. One was a barley wine and the other a barrel aged beer (with clearly a high alcohol content). The barrel-aged beer could have easily been the Best of Show, in my opinion.

The list of winners is very diverse, with craft breweries from around the country claiming medals. Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams, had the most medals with 13.

Beer aficionados will have the opportunity to sample this year’s medal winners, along with award-winning spirits, wine and olive oils, at the “Cheers!” food and beverage festival at Fairplex on Saturday, June 21. Tickets are available online.

Articles from “Sips, Suds and Spirits” focusing on the local craft beer scene now appear in 9-0-9 Magazine. An abbreviated version of the above article will appear in the August magazine.

 

Local Craft Breweries are Booming

 

IMG_0547I’m pleased to note that articles from “Sips, Suds and Spirits” focusing on the local craft beer scene now appear in 9-0-9 Magazine. Highlighted below is the full-length version of the piece from the June magazine…

 

Most people of legal drinking age have had at least some experience with the vast and varied world of adult beverages. Be it a great beer, fine wine or well-crafted cocktail from an appealing distilled spirit, these beverages serve as intriguing and integral complements to our society. This column focuses on the outstanding and unique products, events, places, people, recipes and business aspects that embody the imbibing world. And, as always, we remind you to drink responsibly.

The current boom in the craft brewing industry continues to broaden opportunities for genuine innovative business ventures for local entrepreneurs to express their creativity in a way like never before. New establishments continue to pop up all the time, and it appears that the Inland Empire may be adding more soon. What a wonderful way to make an honest living, while also making a lot of people happy at the same time.CCA 2

“The growth of the industry is good for everybody,” says Andy Dale of Dale Bros. “We’ve got a lot of people in this region, and for a long time it has been a beer desert. But that is changing.”

With Dale Bros. Brewery in Upland, Claremont Craft Ales in Claremont, La Verne Brewing Company in La Verne and Sanctum Brewing Company in Pomona already firmly established, and Rök House Brewing Company scheduled to open Saturday in Upland, beer lovers in and around the local region have a generous choice of nearby craft beer-brewing taverns.

“It definitely seems to be good for everybody,” says Dale. “The analogy that I like to use is, ‘What if Napa Valley only had two wineries that were 40 miles apart? It would still be a pretty place, but there wouldn’t be a lot of wine drinkers going there.’ We help each other.”

The industry growth throughout the nation gives reason to believe that more new breweries will be dotting the local landscape in the months and years ahead. Nationally, craft brewers reached 7.8 percent volume of the total U.S. beer market in 2013, according to the Brewers Association. While that is only a small percentage of the nation’s overall beer sales, it is up from 6.5 percent of national sales in 2012.

There were a total of 2,768 craft and small breweries operating in the United States in 2013, an increase of 15 percent over 2012, according to a March report by the Brewers Association, the trade organization representing small and independent American craft brewers. That included 1,237 brewpubs, 1,412 microbreweries and 119 regional craft breweries. Last year alone, 413 new breweries opened in the United States (and 44 closed), and small brewing companies employed 110,273 people in 2013, also an increase over 2012. More than 1,000 breweries are currently in the planning stages across the country.

IMG_0929The movement is really just in its infant stages in the Inland Empire. While Dale Bros. has been pouring and distributing craft beers for more than a decade, most of the brewing operations spread throughout the Inland Empire and eastern San Gabriel Valley are relatively young. Among the others brewing locally are Chino Valley Brewery in Ontario and I & I Brewing in Chino. Extending a little beyond the immediate area, there is Hangar 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands, Ritual Brewing Co. and Donkey Punch Brewery in Redlands; Brew Rebellion in Yucaipa; Main Street Brewery and TAPS Fish House and Brewery in Corona; Sons of Liberty Ale Works in Norco; Kat Daddy Breweries in Moreno Valley; and Inland Empire Brewing Company,Packinghouse Brewing Company, Wicks Brewing Co., Thompson Brewing Co. and Area 51 Craft Brewery in Riverside.

While this may seem like a lot in a short time, it is nothing compared to the many offerings in San Diego County. There are more than 80 craft breweries in San Diego County alone, which has become what many people are calling the “Napa Valley of craft beer.” The industry has helped boost the image and the economies of their local communities.

Thanks in large part to the widespread overwhelming success of Stone Brewing Co., the region has embraced the San Diego craft beer explosion, and the brewers work and live together in a spirit of cooperation rather than competition, sharing ideas and recipes, collaborating on special releases, and even giving visitors to their tasting rooms recommendations on other breweries to patronize. The area truly has become a renowned beer community.

“You can tell the brewery that’s not going to survive is one that thinks it has secrets,” said Curt Dale, founder of Dale Bros. Brewing Co., explaining that much of the industry growth can be directly attributed to cooperation between breweries. He said that he and his brother Andy have helped several local breweries get off the ground, and the appreciation is reciprocal.IMG_0936

“Claremont Craft Ales even has a sign that says ‘Visit Dale Bros.’ on its tasting room wall,” he said.

A large part of the appeal of craft beer is the creativity that goes into making some the best beer in the world, as is evidenced at San Diego County heavyweights Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, Stone in Escondido, Mother Earth in Vista, Ale Smith in San Diego, Pizza Port in several locations, and many others. Brewpubs like Karl Strauss have their restaurants and tasting rooms spread throughout Southern California (and would be an ideal fit in the Inland Empire).

Sid at workMany of these places specialize in what would aptly be described as either “session beers” or “sipping beers.” I find the best way to sample craft beers is much like you would taste wine – in small quantities. Try an assortment of beers in small “taster” glasses, and then enjoy a pint or two after sampling several offerings. Better yet, take home a 22-ounce bottle or a 64-ounce growler to savor later.

Along with the craft breweries where you can test a variety of a single brewery’s production styles, brewpubs, restaurants and bars throughout the country are now offering a wide selection of craft beers. Liquor stores, grocery stores and even big wholesale club stores carry generous collection of beers you’ll never find in a 30-pack carton.

Cheers!

IMG_0984The Los Angeles County Fair has been holding one of the top wine competitions in the nation for 75 years. Limited to California wines up until just before the turn of the century, the expanded to include wines from around the world, and today the Los Angeles International Wine Competition is one of the most prestigious in the United States.

The competition also serves as the platform for wine education programs and tastings during the annual Fair, as spotlighted here last fall.

Over the years, Fairplex has continued to expand its educational outreach into the worlds of wine, beer and spirits, along with olive oils and other agricultural products. The Fair’s first spirits competition was held in 2007, but was only focused on tequila. The following year it opened to all distilled spirits, and it has continued to grow annually. In 2010, the spirits competition added a separate category for mixers and garnishes.

IMG_0976Thanks to an invitation from competition honorary chairman Dana Chandler (Chopin Vodka) and his wife Sally, I was fortunate to take a behind-the-scenes look at this year’s Los Angeles International Spirits Competition.

The judging panel included a diverse collection of experienced and noteworthy evaluators representing a variety of interests throughout the beverage industry – from mixologists, sommeliers and restaurateurs to beverage distributors, news columnists and a vice president from BevMo (Brian Bowden).

IMG_0989Fairplex Creative Administrator Colene Nath worked brilliantly behind the scenes to organize the 2014 Los Angeles International Spirits Competition, which this year received 347 spirits entries from 134 producers representing 32 nations. She said there were 89 entries in 29 whiskey categories alone. That itself was a tremendous increase in that division over previous years.

Colene said other big growth category was Shochu, a Japanese spirit distilled with rice, barley, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, Thai rice or a number of other ingredients. There were 40 Shochu entries in six categories. She told me that one of the judges said that last year’s Shochu division winner saw a doubling of its sales in Japan after winning at this competition.

The mixer category also has continued to flourish, with everything from Bloody Mary and Mai Tai mixes to rim salts, bitters and garnishes.

“Last year the judges debated about giving the Best of Show award to a mixer, but felt that wouldn’t be right. So the mixers were awarded separately from the spirits,” Colene said.

The well-known brands of distilled liquors already have strong followings, so the event is all the more important for new distillers and those who might not be as well known. It’s also an opportunity for established brands to test new products.

All winners are able to tag their bottles with award decals when they distribute their products to stores, which is a benefit to their marketing efforts to boost retail sales.IMG_0977

After watching four separate tables filled with judging panels, Colene offered me the opportunity to sit in on an afternoon judging session of the top whiskeys. At my table were Alfredo Gama, Southern California spirits manager for Wine Warehouse; Michael Nemcik, founder of Red Clay, an event service and beverage consulting company; and Ryan Steely, owner, creative director and designer at SOA32 Creative. Ryan not only participated as a spirits-tasting judge, but he also headed the packaging design competition panel.

Earlier in the competition, the judges had selected the gold medal winners from all of the whiskey categories. They did not know what brands they were sampling, but they were aware they were tasting within each category, such as single barrel bourbons, small batch bourbons, and so on. The gold medal winners from those categories then advanced to this panel, which selected the top whiskey from the gold medal-winning Bourbon, Canadian Whisky, Scotch, Rye Whiskey, American Whiskey, Irish Whiskey and other categories.

Much like judging wine, spirits evaluation is a step-by-step process that begins with a visual examination of the spirit and a deep inhale to capture the aromas and smells.

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Michael Nemcik

“It’s a lot like judging wine in that you start with the nose and search for the characteristics in each glass before you taste it,” said Michael Nemcik. “Then you let it work along your mid-palette for the flavor notes. After that you measure whether the finish is strong and smooth. Is it hot or not? Is it a long finish or a thin finish? You look for a longer finish, a smooth finish. You don’t want one that hits hot and then goes away quickly. You’d rather it be smooth and consistent as opposed to on and off.”

Added Ryan Steely, “The higher alcohol spirits are the hardest to judge because of the burn they leave in your mouth.”

Given the rich flavors inherent with good whiskeys of all varieties, I naturally assumed this would be one of the easiest and most pleasurable divisions to judge. Likewise, I assumed that vodka would be much more difficult, since it is often described as “colorless, odorless and flavorless.” However, Steely disagreed.

Ryan Steely

Ryan Steely

“Vodka is not as difficult as you would think, because good vodkas are fairly complex with distinct characteristics,” he said, but cautioned that flavored vodkas are much harder to evaluate.

“Most tend to start with a base vodka that is not as good, and then smack it full of a cotton candy syrup or whatever else they put in there, which makes it unpleasing. We’re really judging the flavored syrups rather than the spirit itself.”

While the judges knew the categories for each of the gold medal whiskeys they were re-evaluating, I was without the benefit of a judging sheet, so I didn’t know which glass contained a Canadian whiskey and which was filled with Scotch. But after sampling from the 13 different glasses that were set in front of me, I was pleased to learn that the whiskeys I preferred the most (bourbon and rye) were the same varieties I prefer at home. I appreciated all of the whiskeys that I sampled (and dutifully spit), and I would have loved to test the wide variety of other spirits that the judges examined over the two-day competition.

The judges at our table and those at the adjoining table were in agreement in awarding the top whiskey to Glenmorangie Quarter Century 25-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch. It also received the Best of Show for the entire spirits competition with an impressive 98 points. Other people must think it’s decent, too, because on the competition results sheet lists the retail price at $579.IMG_0985

The Powell and Mahoney Sriracha Bloody Mary Mix took Best of Show for mixers. Best of Category awards included (by category): Shochu: Satsuma Godai, Shochu, Sweet Potato; Tequila: Dos Vidas Blanco, 100 percent Blue Agave Tequila, Mexico, Silver Plata; Vodka: Chopin Rye, Unflavored; Liqueur: Schwartzhog, Amaro/Bitter; Gin: Half Moon Orchard Gin, unflavored; Brandy: E&J Distillers Brandy XO, Cognac XO; Rum: Bayou Spiced Rum. A list of all of the award winners can be found here.

The third and final day of the event was a bottle packaging design competition, in which Steely, Gama and Flori Cademartori, a graphic and fashion designer, looked over a dozen different design categories, including typography, container, illustration and so on. I’ve featured some of the finalists among the pictures posted here.

Tastings of award-winning spirits, as well as beer, wine and olive oils, will be available at the “Cheers!” food and beverage festival at Fairplex on Saturday, June 21. Tickets are available online.