One of the things I do when I’m not judging or brewing for the SCA is brew for my local homebrew club. We have one event per year called the Homebrewers’ Jamboree and it’s a really good time. For the most part.
This event is a great opportunity for tasting new and interesting beers, wines, and meads that I would not normally get to enjoy in the SCA. Things like the jalapeno citra pale ale, coconut carmel cider, blueberry stout and a few other great tasting beverages which I will never see in the SCA because the style and/or flavor combinations would not have been possible in the Medieval World. Every year it inspires me to brew and gives me new ideas which help me understand brewing as a whole picture, not just the window of medieval brewers.
Let me start by saying this is not the SCA and is not the BJCP judging criteria for the homebrewers’ competitions. Every year I enter bottles and hash out 3 dollars per entry in the hopes not so much of winning but getting feedback which will help me get better at brewing.
This year I entered my Dandelion Wine and a Braggot. The Dandelion Wine scored 21.6 out of 50 and the Braggott scored 34.75 out of 50. Not terrible but being in the middle of the scoring range makes me wonder what was wrong that I didn’t do better. In the SCA, I win a lot of competitions and my scores are much higher. After the competition is over, you’re allowed to take home the judging sheets to get feedback.
The Categories are-
- Drinkability & Overall Impression
Now when these judges are tasting, if they have any questions about the beverage and what style it should follow, the steward (table waiter) should be knowledgeable enough to tell them what to expect and the parameters layed out by the BJCP style guildelines. The BJCP style guidelines are not the complete basis for judging.
Going back to the judging sheets, I first looked at the Dandelion Wine comments. 3 had no commentary at all. Yet they had opinions about it because the numbers were 20, 23, and 20. I won’t know why they scored that way because there was nothing telling me what they felt about the beverage. The 4th had only 1 comment “Fruity/Flowery”. Ok, well good, at least being a dandelion wine they got that much from the Bouquet/Aroma category. The last had “Quite Flowery” under Bouquet/Aroma and under appearance was a question “ Is it supposed to be carbonated?”. If you don’t know, that’s what you’re steward is there for. Admit you don’t know and ask them.
For the Braggot I had only 4 judges but I’m happy to say all 4 put commentary on the judging sheets. Such comments as “Smells Delicious”, “Dark and Bold”, “Flat”, “Some Haze” etc are encouraging which is some of what you want when you’re trying to encourage new brewers to continue but it’s also helpful to use more descriptors that give you a visual of the beverage. Things like “Clean”, “Refreshing” and “Bright” (all used on my judging sheets) do not give you an indication of the beverages quality or how you could improve it.
The worst comments I came across was one on the Dandelion Wine- “Sorry, Very” (????) what the hell is that? This was concerning Mouthfeel which after reading the brief description leaves me even more puzzled:
Allow sample to move around your mouth. Take note of how it feels. Is it sweet? Dry? Carbonated? Flat? Is it supposed to be? Refer to the style guidelines and compare.
Sorry Very what? Ok, I can only think the person may have been 3 or 4 glasses of wine in and their palette may have not been able to taste anything anymore. “Sorry, Very …..drunk and can’t taste anything”.
One of my friends actually had a note written on his a few years ago “Last in Flight”. Which is no help at all because it basicly means “I drank many beverages and by this point I couldn’t taste it”.
Hey buddy, you over extended yourself, tap out and let someone else judge. It’s no sin, it happens to the best of us. After 10 beverages of various sugar levels, your taste buds are spent, we get it.
The other bad comment I got was “Not for Me”. Why are you here? If you don’t like Braggots why are you judging them? You should be able to put aside your personal taste profile and see if the beverage meets the criteria set up by the guidelines. Sweet, dry, malty and other descriptors shouldn’t include your personal opinion as the leading factor. The entrant doesn’t know you hate tomatoes so when they enter the tomato wine in the competition, you have to look at it objectively.
(This happened to me and I was able to give the entrant a full detail description of how the beverage met all the criteria and why it scored so well before excusing myself to go vomit because I loathe tomato juice and raw tomatoes.)
So to be a good judge, you need to do the following:
- Have food in your stomach before you go to judge. Avoid spicy, sugary or strongly flavored foods so that your taste buds haven’t been warped before you even get to the competition. Ham and cheese on white bread is perfect. Fills you up so you don’t get drunk on the first few beverages and imparts no harsh flavors in your mouth. During the competition clear your palette with water and bread/crackers.
- Have an idea of the category you’re judging. Before you go into the competition to judge, read the category guidelines. If you don’t know the guidelines you probably shouldn’t be judging this beverage. If you’re judging stouts, you should have drank a few stouts before walking up as a judge. If the competition is desperate for judges, and you get ‘volun-told’ to judge, then turn to the other judges and admit you are not familiar with the category and could they impart some experiences to you to base your opinion.
- Calibrate with the other judges using a tester beer. This helps in two ways; you’ll get a line of communication started where everyone can give descriptions and you can come to a general conclusion where the flavor profiles are. It also shows you where folks taste sense is so you can be within a range of scoring with the rest. If you’re getting scores like 10, 25, 45 and 7, there’s a problem and talking it out will help bring those scores closer together for a general consensus
- Description, description, description. The more details you give, the better that entrant is going to get an idea what you tasted and what needs tweaking for next time if they didn’t win.
Example: Flavor- This red has a dry flavor around the gums and because the saliva in my mouth didn’t wash away the dryness I can tell it’s actually tannin (bitter) probably from the grape skins and seeds. The fruit flavor comes secondary to the tannin and I’m getting a lot of stone fruit flavors: cherries, plums, apricot. The finish is quick and has no sweetness. The entire flavor profile lasted 20 to 30 seconds before it was gone.
Bad Example: Flavor- Hey this didn’t taste so great but the alcohol was high so I was pretty F’d up. I liked it.
- Be kind. Don’t write “Well good news, the goat’s pregnant with twins”. This is how you lose entrants and wonder 3 years down the road why your competition isn’t taken seriously. If there’s a flaw, break it to them gently. Best thing to do is ask them questions about the flaw: Hey, I was wondering if you laudered the beer before fermentation? I noted it had a bit of a haze in the beer. (See how I did that? Mentioned the flaw but also gave them the possible cure for it as well/ and I did it without being a jerk or confrontational/ this is constructive criticism)
- Be patient. There will always be entrants who think they should have rated higher. This is harder to fight when several judges come to the same scoring conclusions. If one individual is giving low marks (Russian Judge) the entrant may argue that the judge doesn’t know the beverage. If the group is saying the beverage isn’t very good, the entrant may be convinced that improvements need to be made.
- Use your Steward! They should be the most knowledgeable person at the table because they are going to field questions the judges can’t answer for themselves. Give the steward a taste (they should have a glass anyway). If they don’t know the answer they at least can go ask someone higher up and get an answer back to the judging table while you continue to discuss and taste. Not using this resource is a waste.
There’s a fine line between brewing snob and brewing enthusiast and I think most of us really want to be in the second category. New folks will get turned away quickly if they think we’re Beer Snobs who don’t care or worse yet, don’t feel the new person is good enough to associate with and help improve their beverages.