In it to win it
Rob Eveleigh lifts the lid on the National Homebrew Competition
Wednesday 19 October 2016
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It’s barely noon and Sam Tait is already on his tenth beer of the day, with an equally massive flight lined up for after lunch.
We’re hunkered down in the tap room-cum-warehouse of Bristol brewery Left Handed Giant, where we’re surrounded by beer; cans, bottles and Key Keg-laden pallets from some of the UK’s most exciting micros. But this is no kids-in-a-sweet shop jaunt, and the established big names of Britain’s craft beer renaissance don’t even get a look-in.
Sam is one of 30 judges tasked with picking the winners of the National Homebrew Competition, and his drinking today is strictly vocational. In fact, every effort is taken to prevent him succumbing to the task’s most obvious perk, by limiting his pours to a budgie-supping 100ml.
“You have to actually drink the beer to get the mouth-feel and after-tastes, and you can’t judge if you’re impaired,” Sam says without a hint of irony. “We’re here to do a job – people have paid money to have their beer judged, so we need to make sure it’s done properly.”
And paid they have, in droves.This year’s 450 entries sold out in just half an hour, with homebrew hopefuls staking their reputations on everything from coconut Hefeweizen to New England IPA. Somewhere among them is a beer cooked up in my own kitchen. In a few hours time I’ll be watching first-hand as it falls under the scrutiny of the judges’ trained palates.
Whatever the verdict, I can be sure of a fair trial. The National is run under Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) rules, meaning entries are marked against established style criteria by qualified judges, or experienced apprentices working towards accreditation.
“It’s not ‘do I like this beer?’, it’s ‘how well does it meet the style’,” explains Sam. “Brewing to style is a real talent.” Like the hop-forward flavours driving the UK’s beer boom, the BJCP is a US import.
Judges have the oh-so-tough task of familiarising themselves with every one of its 34 listed styles – plus all the variations within them – running the full gamut from Czech lager to Kentucky Common. If you ever find yourself flummoxed by the subtle differences between a Wee Heavy and an English Barleywine, commandeer a BJCP judge.
Today, they’ve come from all backgrounds: software engineers, bankers, warehouse workers, enthusiastic amateur brewers and a sprinkling of brew industry pros, all here as unpaid volunteers, purely for the love of beer. Working in pairs, they’re whittling down the entries to category winners before picking a ‘best in show’ in a final round of tasting.
If you ever find yourself flummoxed by the subtle differences between a Wee Heavy and an English Barleywine, commandeer a BJCP judge
Watching them mark entries in studious deliberation, cleansing their palates with bottled water and cream crackers between pours, I’m dealt a quick lesson in competition tactics, and realise my own tricksy offering - a peanut butter raspberry stout - has already put me on the back foot.
Bob Cary, brewer at up-and-coming Bristol outfit Good Chemistry, tackles a rhubarb and vanilla saison, swirling the beer in his Viticole tasting glass to release the volatile aroma compounds before taking a sip.
I follow suit, and agree with the judges – it’s a lovely beer. Classic British rhubarb and custard pudding on the nose, with the vanilla note providing the perfect foil for the acidity of the fruit and the saison’s dry tartness. It’s misty-eyed Euro-harmony in a glass.
At the same time, this brew poses a conundrum for the judges – it’s been entered as a saison, but the fruit addition means it’s also a fruit beer. The vanilla just complicates things further – it could also sit happily in the ‘speciality beer’ category.
“It’s a good beer, but I just can’t score it that highly because it goes out of the style parameters,” concludes Bob, giving an instant snapshot of how these style-straddling creations can suffer under the rigours of competition judging.
Fellow judge Derek Broughton drives the point home: “There are two kinds of people entering these competitions: those brewing beers they like, and entering them for fun, and people brewing beers with the aim of winning or doing well. The latter pick a style, study its attributes and brew towards them. Picking the right category is half the battle.”
It follows that brewing a less popular style improves your odds of scooping a ‘best in category’ gong, whereas an entry in the bloated IPA and American Pale Ale classes must really shine to stand out.
“They’re popular styles,” says Sam. “People are going out and drinking these hoppy beers, then they go home and try and make them themselves. The trouble is they don’t necessarily have the skills and knowledge to do it well, or to work out where they’ve gone wrong.”
All entrants get detailed feedback on their beers, but it’s not always taken in the spirit it is given. Says Sam: “Some people can get quite cross when you confront them with the truth about their beer. A common reaction is, ‘my mates say it’s great’. Of course your mates say it’s great – you’re giving them free beer!”
We’re deep into the afternoon session by the time the judges get to my entry. I’m already ruing entering it as a ‘speciality fruit beer’. They’ve just criticised a truly marvellous fig imperial stout, remarking that the fig lost its way in a maze of roasted malt complexity. I’m all too aware that a technical hitch in the process of brewing my beer means much of the raspberry and peanut flavours and aromas have been lost. Inevitably, the judges seize on the lack of fruit.
It’s excruciating to watch their perplexed expressions as they search their glasses for the beer’s claimed flavours. Ultimately, they grant my brew a charitable 20 out of 50 points. It’s by no means the worst in the comp, but a harsh lesson nonetheless for a first-timer.
While a small crowd gathers to witness the final, quick-fire round to decide the overall winner, judges and stewards mine-sweep unopened bottles (all entrants submit two bottles in case one breaks or they make it to the final), cherry-picking the big scorers, their reward for the day’s eight-hour toil. I grab a bottle myself from a box of imperial stouts.
After the slow burn of the earlier rounds, the finale seems brutal. “I put my ninja judges on this one,” says Ali. “Everyone is tired and jaded – you just need to get through it.”
They don’t waste any time. Beers are dismissed after just a sip. That coconut Hefeweizen – sublime though it is – is binned seemingly on a whim. And within minutes they’ve got their final three.
Surprisingly, perhaps, from the myriad exotic entries, it’s a simple Munich Helles that takes the crown.
People are going out and drinking these hoppy beers, then they go home and try and make them themselves. The trouble is they don’t necessarily have the skills and knowledge to do it well
“It’s just bang on style,” enthuses Ben Fields. “Lovely floral hop, not too bitter and very easy to drink. It’s a great Helles.” Sure enough, it drinks soft and creamy with a wonderful mellow bitterness and a kiss of honey malt.
Second place goes to a more arcane style, usually dubbed ‘Polish Champagne’. It is precisely what Sam expects of a Grodziskie; an oak-smoked wheat beer unique to Poland. “These more esoteric styles tend to attract better quality brewers,” he says.
Given its popularity, it seems the National is limited only by the number of judges it can attract to process entries – there are just 51 in the UK. “We have more this year than ever before,” organiser Ali Kocho-Williams enthuses. “And the judge pool is growing.”
That evening, I pop the cap from my own mine-swept bottle, entry 525196. It pours oily black and viscous, starts sweet and finishes with a lingering bitterness. Soft carbonation prickles gently. There are notes of tobacco, prune and raisin, and a warm, boozy glow.
I learn weeks later that by bizarre coincidence the bottle I’ve plucked randomly from the hundreds on offer has been brewed by...Ali Kocho Williams. It was one of his last homebrew efforts before he opened West Wales micro Seren, and has been languishing in a cupboard for the best part of five years.
It’s as good as good as anything you’d buy from a specialist retailer, and another reminder that my own homebrew efforts have some way to go. Now – where did I put that BJCP style sheet?
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