Certified judges mentor new recruits at Big Beers homebrew competition | VailDaily.com

Certified judges mentor new recruits at Big Beers homebrew competition

"It tastes like meat."

My hand was cupped around a plastic vessel holding someone's baby: a few precious ounces of homebrewed beer. I frowned as I peered down into it and then held it to my nose to take another whiff.

I looked over my tasting notes for this particular brew — dark fruit, jam, butter, salt — realizing it was a list of flavors better suited for a breakfast pastry than a beer.

Across the table, Cy ruminated on the brew, scribbling a torrent of tips to the brewer on how to remedy the carnivorous off-flavor he had just described to me. I took another sip, moving the liquid around in my mouth, chewing on the savory, almost umami quality of the beer before once again attacking my score sheet.

In a former life, Cyrus Bevenger was a chemical engineer making computer chips in the tech industry, but he leveraged years of homebrewing experience into his current role as Quality Kaiser at Grimm Brothers Brewhouse in Loveland.

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Bevenger also holds the distinction of being certified through the Beer Judge Certification Program, and together, he and I were working our way through the 10 beers that had been entered in the wood-aged beer subcategory of the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival homebrew competition.

For this particular competition, each newbie judge, such as myself, had been paired with a certified judge, such as Bevenger, and set to the task of evaluating as many as a dozen brews within a particular subcategory, according to prescribed style notes.

There's a lot more to it than popping the top, sucking down the beer and burping up a few descriptors. Each sniff and sip is pondered, the beer's aroma and flavor analyzed for qualities — good and bad — imparted by the brewing process and the recipe's balance of hops, malt, yeast and, in the case of this particular category, the complexities added by time spent aging on wood chips or in a wood barrel.

It's tedious but fascinating work, and certified judges such as Bevenger go through a rigorous examination process that has continued to evolve since the Beer Judge Certification Program's inception in 1985.

"It's different now than when I got into it, the testing," he said. "When I took it, it was a combined written and tasting test. You had to study styles and learn about off-flavors and then read as much as you could about brewing. It was a really hard written test, actually.

"Now, what you do is you do an online multiple-choice test, true and false, take a tasting test and if you get 80 percent on the tasting, then you can take a written test."

We continued through the field, making notes and then comparing them, with Bevenger occasionally correcting my vocabulary for describing various characteristics of each beer. After choosing our medal winners, Bevenger and I parted ways and I played musical chairs for the second judging session.

This time, I was paired with Bob Hall, a man who holds the rank of Beer Judge Certification Program Grand Master II and who has been brewing beer since I was rocking side ponytails and listening to Duran Duran.

"I've been judging since 1993," said Hall, who hails from Laramie, Wyoming. "I had friends who were brewing and it seemed like a fun thing to do. I was sort of rabidly into my brewing at the time and it seemed like a way to improve my brewing, to evaluate the beer."

You could say that Hall literally wrote the book on beer judging. He helped compose and continues to review updates for the Beer Judge Certification Program's beer style guidelines, which were originally developed for homebrew competitions but have since become recognized as worldwide industry standards.

We were picking our way through the experimental beer subcategory and I was somewhat flummoxed by the lack of direction provided by the guidelines. Aroma: varies; appearance: varies; flavor: varies; mouthfeel: varies. Fortunately, Hall came to my rescue.

"The idea has to work," he said. "The thing you're looking for is whether what the brewers say they're brewing stands out in the beer, and is it working and is it in balance. They are identifying a style."

I began smelling, sipping, scrutinizing and otherwise picking apart each beer on the list, repeating Hall's adage — intensity, adjective, noun — over and over in my head and on my score sheet. We finally reached the end of the bottle parade, which ranged from a gold medal-winning iced imperial stout to a somewhat lackluster cannabidiol-infused pumpkin concoction, and I thanked Hall for his tutelage.

My brain was abuzz with brewing terms and bits of the 19 different beers I'd judged.

"Do you know who you just judged with?" someone asked as I walked away from the table.

I responded with a big, goofy grin and a nod.

To view the list of winners in the Big Beers, Belgians & Barleywines Festival 2017 Homebrew Competition, visit bigbeersfestival.com/homebrew/competition-winners.

Rate your beer

The Beer Judge Certification Program 2015 Style Guidelines, the most recent iteration, recognize 34 categories of beer, with each containing from two to nine different styles. The organization’s standardized score sheet is used to evaluate beers in sanctioned competitions.

The sheet contains a handful of identification fields, both for the judge and the beer being reviewed, as well as five main areas in which beers are described and rated, with corresponding point values that add up to a perfect score of 50 points.

✦ Aroma (12 points)

✦ Appearance (3 points)

✦ Flavor (20 points)

✦ Mouthfeel (5 points)

✦ Overall impression (10 points)

For more information about the Beer Judge Certification Program or to read through the various style descriptions mentioned in this article, visit http://www.bjcp.org.