Thursday, 16 October 2014

IMBC14: homebrewing, beer styles & judging

We were invited by Connor Murphy to take part in the home brewing panel at the Friday evening session of IMBC 2014. The plan was for each of the four homebrewers to introduce one of their beers and talk through how that beer was brewed, especially focusing on any processing problems and lessons learned, while the audience sampled the beer. We also planned if time permitted to have some discussion on the topic of judging beers...

Connor started started us off with his Ace in the Rye - a rye pale ale brewed with Sorachi Ace (often described as a marmite* hop). The high percentage of rye malt in the mash made for a troublesome and l-o-n-g brewday, so long in fact that the boil didn't happen until the next day. I think anyone who has brewed a recipe with a high percentage of non-barley malts will have sympathy. The first thing I noticed about this beer was its savoury aroma. Many times I’ve heard people say this hop can be savoury but in the past I’ve only ever really gotten citrus aromas/flavours from it. But this time I got a strong dill character from it. I'm quite into the concept of a savoury tasting pale beer and I like rye so this beer was a hit with me.

Next up was our own Wit & Wisdom: a 'white IPA' with lemon verbena and sage which we brewed specifically for the Northern Craft Brewers Competition in April. The story behind this one is that when we first went to the US together a few years back and tried a load of west coast IPAs I found some of them overwhelmingly bitter and couldn't really handle the hop intensity. So when we happened across Deschutes Chainbreaker white IPA I was really happy. I tried it again this summer and I still love that beer. It's hoppy without being too bitter, it's mildly sweet and spicy from the yeast - it's just incredibly moreish. 

When we tried to brew our own white IPA we had a spectacularly bad brew day, having never used so many different, troublesome grains before (multiple types of oats and wheat) we didn't really know how to handle such a gluey mash. Our efficiency was so poor that the finished beer ended up closer to 5% ABV than the target of 7%. But we got some really useful feedback from the judges at the competition. Essentially, if your beer doesn't taste like an IPA (i.e. lacking hop bitterness and flavour) then don't call it one - as you set up a false expectation which the beer won't meet. However, they did really like the beer and said it would have scored even better if we called it a witbier (as it would actually fit that that style category). You see, that's the kind of useful feedback you want when you enter a brewing competition.

After us came Al Wall who had a problem with the beer he wanted to bring, arising from issues with sanitiser/alterations in the local water - a problem so bad that he refused to bring his beer along for the audience to taste. In all honesty I said that he could have brought it and allowed the audience to see what a chlorophenolic beer tastes like because recognising commonly occurring faults in beer is useful for beer lovers (even those who don't brew their own beer). But that's absolutely his decision and it was good of him to participate in the panel discussion regardless because of the experiences and opinions he brought to the debate.

Saving the best for last we had Andy Parker of Elusive Brewing sharing his seasonal beer - a Bourbon Pumpkin Pie imperial stout (spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla). As well as being a deliciously smooth and very easy-drinking stout, this beer was also an interesting exercise in the precise tweaking of an existing successful recipe. Andy made the very good point that if homebrewers want to experiment with weird beer ingredients they should just go for it - while they are still brewing on a small scale as the degree of 'waste' if a beer goes wrong is pretty minimal in the grand scheme of being a home brewer. Experimentation is a much more risky (and expensive!) prospect if you're brewing on a commercial scale.

Some of the questions we had from the audience about beer styles and the evolution of styles (for example what style we should call our Wit & Wisdom if entering it in a competition) segued nicely into a wider discussion about the value of home brew competitions. The fundamental question about such competitions is why are you entering? Are you entering to win? Are you entering because you are looking for feedback?

We've discussed these questions about judging beers in competitions so many times between ourselves and Andy Parker, as well as with other home brewers we socialise with in London. On some points we all agree, on others we disagree. Andy's point - that if you are entering to win you absolutely must brew to BJCP style guidelines (providing that is the alleged judging criteria for that competition) is true. But that's not the whole story though. We always read the BJCP style guidelines thoroughly prior to selecting a category to enter our beer into. Actually for some of them, like saison or APA or US IPA, I've read them so many times I could probably get pretty close to reciting them off the top of my head. 

So we know we are entering our beers in the correct category in competitions. However, so much is dependent on the judge assigned to that category on the day. What if their preference is for tamer, middle-of-the-road, examples of a style or what if they haven't even experienced the full spectrum range of beers which fall within a single BJCP style? Also, what if competition beers are not stored appropriately before judging? For competitions in the summer, if you send your beers by post or drop them off the day before then they might sit at 25 degrees C and not even get slightly chilled prior to judging. In an ideal world beers should be judged at least near to the ideal serving temperature for the style - cold for lagers (4-7 degrees C), cool for American pale ales (8-12 degrees C), cellar for IPAs (12-14 degrees C) and warm for barleywines/imperial stouts (14-16 degrees C). A very helpful temperature guide for wider styles of beer can be found here on Ratebeer.

While appreciating that the task of judging a very large number of beers is not easy, the simple matter remains - give everyone a chance of being judged fairly. With high hopping rates in our IPAs and APAs, we've had feedback of 'grassy' and 'over hopped for the style' levelled at our beers in competitions while individuals we've given the exact same beers to have described the flavour and aroma very differently (citrusy, tropical fruits, piney, etc,). Why? Because they chilled the beer to the correct temperature before drinking it.

As for the value of feedback from competitions (and let's remember that entrants are effectively paying for the privilege of this feedback), aside from the Northern Craft Brewers competition mentioned above we have yet to receive anything useful from a BJCP judged competition. Since we began brewing we have given samples of our beers to professional brewers, fellow homebrewers and beer writers who have always been happy to provide honest and valuable feedback. For free.

At the close of the panel we, along with Connor, said that we did not intend to enter any further BJCP competitions as there is nothing for us gain from it. But what we would definitely be interested in would be independent competitions (much like the Norther Craft Brewers) where the judging criteria are essentially i) does this beer have any faults? ii) how much do I like this beer? In fact, we would really, really like to discuss the option of doing something like that at IMBC next year. The potential evolution of that would be the subject of another blog post. We're definitely interested in what other homebrewers feel about that idea... so please tell us what you think.

Finally, thanks to Connor for inviting us and thanks to everyone who came to listen and join in the discussion. We appreciate it was all a little rough and ready. Maybe in an ideal world we could have done with a panel moderator to field questions and give a little direction to the discussion. I was told afterwards I'd been a bit too respectful and deferential to my fellow panelists. Looks like I'd better work on that. ;)

*by marmite I don't mean that it tastes of marmite but that some people have very strong feelings about this hop: it’s a love-hate thing


Pastey said...

I was lucky enough to be at the Dunedin Craft Beer festival last month, and they had a homebrew competition as part of that. The beers were entered earlier and were judged (bar the final panel) before the event opened. The final judging was done at the event, with the winner announced on the stage on the day. And I was quite impressed by that.

I’d like to see an independent homebrew competition, it’s also something we’ve talked about as part of Brewcamp, where the only reference to the BJCP styles was a rough guidance to get categories to help with judging, not to limit the beers.

I’m not totally sure IMBC would be the best place for this competition though, as the tickets sell out quickly. To make it work, there’d have to be a ticket with combined entry into the competition and the event, and if it was popular and got large, then it could get difficult for homebrewers to get tickets, or for those just going along for the festival to.

But I’d definitely like to see a competition that allowed homebrewers to show off their beers, and have them judged by a range of people who all loved good beer.

Emma said...

Cheers, Pastey. I'm keen to get as much input as possible in terms of ideas which we can then feed into another specific blog post.

As for where/when such a competition would happen, well there wouldn't necessarily have to be just one single competition... we just suggested IMBC because to be honest it's way more in-keeping with the independent, flexible. easy-going face of beer.

But I would hate for this to be yet another 'elitist' slur which people would level at IMBC. In fact, we saw LOADS of homebrewers whom we knew there. It happens the same time every year and the tickets are not THAT expensive and they are NOT hard to get hold of if you book when they are released in April. It's not like Copenhagen Beer Celebration where the tickets sell out in less than half an hour!

From what we discussed initially on the night of the panel, there wouldn't be an entry fee for the competition. Nobody is paying to have their beers judged and nobody is getting paid to judge people's beers. Both the entering and the judging should be done simply because participants want to do it. I guess it could be a sweepstake if people really want to win a prize (beyond being the winner).

Yes, as you say, you'd have to make some reference to the style of beer when you enter, but just as a descriptor. Probably the biggest issue we have with BJCP competitions is the speciality category. We got a medal in it once but it's so hit-and-miss in terms of judging.

Pastey said...

Most competitions have some form of entry cost involved, to cover costs. If this could be done without that, then that’d be great.

IMBC is a great festival, one of the best, and it’s the fact that it’s open to anyone that makes it *not* elitist. A lot of beer festivals are targeted at, and attract, a particular sort of real ale drinker. Over the years these festivals have added things like cider and foreign beer bars to cater for more people, but there’s always been an undercurrent of thought from those involved that they shouldn’t be there. Yet right from the start, IMBC set out to provide somewhere for drinkers of all sorts to mix. Having the brewers, cider producers and the drinkers chatting away and discussing beers on the same level made sure that it wasn’t an elitist event, but somewhere more accommodating. I’ve not managed to make it the last two years, things have got in the way, so I can’t say much about this last year’s event.

As for the competition itself, it’d be good to make up the judges from those attending IMBC. If they’re there, they’ve got a love of beer. A mix of brewers and drinkers would give a nicely balanced panel. Given the number of potential entries (this could be really huge) there’d need to be several panels, I know at several of the beer fests I’ve helped with the judging on there’s been four or five panels of around six or seven people. If the base categories are things like the base styles (bitters, strong bitters, ipas, stouts and porters, milds and tables, saisons and sours, imperials, anything goes, could be a starts) then four panels doing two rounds each to put their best two beers through to the final, might work nicely.

The more I think about this, the more I think it should be done, and that it should be done at IMBC (if they’ll have us).

tabamatu said...

Thanks for writing the session up, Emma. Thanks also to Connor for organising it and inviting us on. Some very interesting points were raised and I think some good debate was had, especially on the merits of competitions and what people want from them and of course judging them.

I understand the purpose of the BJCP guidelines and judging 400+ beers without them would be a mighty task. They can also be useful as a reference point for learning about a style. When it comes to the judging process, I have limited experience personally but have stewarded a couple of times to see what goes on behind the scenes (and I'd urge anyone to do the same before writing the BJCP judging process off). The first point I'd like to make is it's not always a case of the 'best' beer wins, sadly - there are too many variables - but if we ever reached a point where we poured beer into a machine and it determined the best beer scientifically that'd be a sad day in my view.

So where's the middle ground at a BJCP comp? Ideally there would be number of judges per category all intimately familiar with the style they're judging with countless recently sampled commercial points of reference to call upon. In reality though, that's not the case of course - far from it, so results will always vary. I bet you could even double-enter a beer and get different scores. In my view, doing well at these competitions, if you wish to, is about tipping the odds in your favour. I have my own things I do in that regard but it's all very subjective - and it doesn't involve entering a specialty beer! Picking a style (one that judges are likely to know well) and absolutely nailing it is always your best bet of course.

One thing I think we all agreed on during that discussion was the value of quality feedback. I've had good and bad feedback from BJCP comps (I'm talking about the 'usefulness' of it rather than than liking the beer or not) and that, for me, is something that should vary a lot less. Even if your beer was judged to be crap, you want to know why in more than three words with specific, considered opinion and a view on what you need to do to improve it. That's the least you should expect in return for your entry fee.

Personally I love the idea of 'freestyle' competitions with looser guidelines - less prescriptive and restrictive. The beers on the table are going to vary a lot so making your beer stand out is the main challenge there. Judging is going to be equally as prone to 'the human factor' of course. A fun challenge though and one I'd love to see in some form at IMBC next year!