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.