A wine expert dons the mantle of beer judge at the 12th Homebrew Alley beer competition.
Today I jumped in with both feet as a judge for the 12th annual Homebrew Alley, an event put on by the NYC Homebrewers Guild. It was my first time as an official beer judge, ever. Talk about an exercise in humility! I was surrounded by people at the upper echelons of certification, including two Master Cicerones and various local brewers.
But like they say in tennis, if you don’t play with people better than you, you’ll never improve. So in that spirit, I threw myself in over my head.
A whopping 593 entries were divided amongst us. During my two exceedingly well-organized sessions, I was assigned European sours (Berliner Weisse, Flanders Red Ale, Oud Bruin, Lambic, Gueuze, Fruit Lambic) and Amber and Brown American Beer (American Amber, California Common, and American Brown Ale).
Like a dog show, there are strict standards for each category. A beer might be good, but if it doesn't fall within the parameters of the category, it loses points. You can’t have a poodle with a corkscrew tail. That was the sticky part for me, a neophyte judge: knowing those descriptors in detail. (Fortunately, a copy of the 93-page Beer Judge Certification Program’s Beer Style Guidelines was on each table. It never left my side.) We had many mutts—no surprise, since some submissions were presumably by first-timers. But as a judge, you can learn from those too.
Unlike any wine competition I’ve attended, the set-up here was to pair up judges in teams of two. We’d each taste and score, then discuss our judgments. We had to be within 7 points of each other, so there was some horsetrading going on.
I was teamed with two guys (typical for a beer event, the room was 95 percent white dudes, though the master of ceremonies was Mary Izett, secretary of the NYC Brewers Guild, a super competent lady with a big voice, who kept the train running on time). Both of my partners were at the high end of the certification spectrum, as their plastic name tags showed. They patiently walked me through the process—which involved lots of QR code stickers, name stickers, and numeric category codes—and didn’t condescend when we discussed our impressions. (Happily, I wasn’t paired with the guy at my table who kept talking about types of vomit—baby vomit, day-after vomit—when conjuring up acetic descriptors for our sour ales. He said he majored in vomit in college.)
Leaving that aside, I came away humbled and enthused. Once home, I immediately downloaded the Beer Style Guidelines and made a pledge never to buy another 6-pack again (my go-to is Brooklyn's own Sixpoint Bengali IPA), but to explore, explore, explore with every single bottle…with that guide open on my desktop. We’ll see where I am this time next year.