The events below describe my first foray into a large-scale brewing contest to compare my ale with the best available amateur brews in the region.
(11:15) Cradling my six-pack, I rounded the corner of 2nd and Chestnut and approached Triumph Brew Pub. The confident feeling emanating from my convenient parking spot, which interpreted as a positive omen, dissipated when I saw a foreboding line of entrants ahead of me. I was under the impression that the entries would be limited to 30. From my spot at the end of the line, I saw one hundred or more competitors all brandishing 6 worthy bottles of wort.
(11:42) I finally entered the bar and registered my beer. The hostess alerts me that there are nineteen tables, each containing eight beers. The field grows even more menacing! As I nervously negotiate my beer through the sea of competitors, packing the dining room, I notice that everyone appears friendly. Amid the polished, lacquered wood tables and the minimalist, but sleek bar décor, the collection of homebrewers are all engaging, quick to strike a conversation, and happy to impart information upon request. This competition may convey the best example of sportsmanship fathomable.
(11:53) I drop my beer off at Table 7. I meet the other seven brewers at my table. One of them asks me about my beer, so I give him the description of the brewing process, along with the compulsory explanation of its gluten free origin. Everyone is intrigued by my use of quinoa, an amino acid rich seed that can be prepared like rice, and dehydrated grapefruit, a popular flavoring agent because it adds bitterness and a crisp aftertaste. This exchange helps bolster my confidence even more.
(12:01) After placing my beer on the assigned table, I swam through the sea of now beer-drinking humanity to Table 6 where we judged other homebrews. Amid the swirling glasses, smacking palettes, and friendly debate, I began to judge the unlabeled, numbered libations.
(12:15) As my having celiac disease prevents me some imbibing these concoctions, I used my eyes and nose in conjunction with the other competitors’ descriptions to select a winning submission from Table 6. The first beer had an overtly hoppy smell, a dark almost stout-esque color (think a translucent Guinness), and formed a nice head in the sampling glass. One can tell the strength of a beer’s head from the “lacing,” which refers to the foam residue’s ability to linger on the side of a tilted glass. A beer that laces nicely retains its flavor better than one with dissipating suds. This beer received high marks from everyone at the table for its excellent quality and straightforward approach, not using secondary flavoring agents.
(12:24) In contrast with the prior beer, this grog contained overpowering notes of flavoring agents. Upon my first smell, the aroma of raspberries and a sacchariny scent that overpowered the beer itself bombarded me. It did have a nice lacing, which likely contributed to its forceful flavor profile. Its pale yellow-orange color reminded me of a thinner Blue Moon. The other judges, professing their loves for more traditional brewing ingredients, dismissed this beer. Before emptying his glass, one sampler snarkily slipped in, “This should be marketed in a juice box.”
(12:32) After everyone cleansed their taste buds with water, we moved on to an interesting combination. The third selection had an evident, but not domineering hint of coffee. The intensely thick foam on the top of this stout helped retain a terrific blend of bitterness from coffee and the fragrant hop buds that the brewer selected. Its dark color, similar to that of Smithwicks or a dark English porter, matched well with excellent clarity, allowing the drinker to see straight through the glass. Although this is not necessarily a good or bad trait, it provides evidence that the brewer has a great deal of experience to achieve this level of clarity in a dark beer. High marks and praise appeared on all score sheets.
(12:41) The most unique, if not polarizing, selection of the day, went to a mint beer. Two completely different beer-sipping ideologies showed themselves at the table. The first was supported by two judges, lauding this concept. This duo both agreed that the floral scents of the hops blended well with the fragrant bouquet of the mint. They described the beer as crisp and refreshing. The remaining seven judges, more traditional in nature, furrowed their brows, cringed upon consumption, and denounced the flashy attempt at creativity as having too many competing flavors. More than one sampler compared it to Scope Mouthwash, dumping the remainder into the steel bucket in the table’s center. The minty fermentable received just two votes.
(12:52) Following a thorough rinsing after consuming “mouthwash,” a very outspoken judge opened the next bottle. This bottle was capped with a reusable top, similar to the ones found on Grolsch bottles, which consists of a plastic stopped and a metal release mechanism. It was a traditional Belgian beer. I could tell from the scent that the brewer used candied sugars to give it a sweet aftertaste. Its lacing was minimal as the head diminished fairly soon after the pour. The council of judges all agreed that it did not have the yeastiness that a Belgian requires and lacked flavor outside of the sweet aftertaste. It received average marks.
(1:02) A collective groan befell the beer tasting nine, and beer smelling one, as the next dark brown bottle yielded an under-carbonated, pale yellow liquid. One characteristic that all beer preferiti, or snobs as most call them, share is a vociferous hatred of light beer. Nouveau brauhauses throughout the city look at this American creation with scorn and ridicule all who order it. Eulogy, a pub on 2nd and Chestnut, actually states on the menu, “We do sell Miller Light, but consider it piss and would never drink it ourselves.” This beer received brief sips and immediate rejection. It became the punch line of jokes for the remainder of time at the table. Though this sad string of insults and slander was pointed at the undoubted hard work and care that a fellow brewer put in, he must be aware of his audience. It is no secret that homebrewers, and beer snobs loathe this style of beer.
(1:14) As time for the first round expired, we decided to sample the final two quickly. Both were interesting, but not remarkable enough to advance into the next round. The first, an IPA with a malty taste had many good characteristics, but they did not blend. The sweet, malty caramel flavor flexed its muscle and tried to outdo the bitter, citrusy flavor of the overly acidic hops – too much of too many good things. The second beer, a British Ale, displayed a crisp, clean smell with sufficient hoppiness. The judges all agreed that although it was dry, it balanced well with the rest of the beer. It reminded the tasting judges of reasonably dry champagne from its mouth-feel. It seems to be an ideal session beer, one that the drinker intends to have several of over a long time, however it did not have the extraordinary characteristics that the coffee stout did. The coffee stout remained the favorite and advanced into the next round.
(1:26) After chatting briefly with my fellow judges, we waited for the sampling beers to be removed from the tables. We waded back through the affable, jovial sea of humanity, up the twisting staircase to Table 7. Our submissions also were absent, having received grades. We continued our conversation, describing our beers to each other. I described my beer as citrusy IPA. Although most sorghum-based beer has a very sweet, cidery taste, my beer has a nuttiness to its finish and a hint of grapefruit, which I used in the secondary fermentation. I did admit that my beer’s cloudiness would likely contribute to harsh words from Table 7’s judges. Fortunately, my fellow tablemates offered advice how to remove the opaqueness from my beer. They also provided a great deal of wisdom in other areas from growing yeast to putting homebrew into kegs instead of bottles. This advice will likely save me a great deal of time as I continue to research brewing techniques.
(1:30) We continued to chat about their submissions, which included:
1.) A Smoked Rye IPA – He actually put his rye malt in a meat smoker to achieve the desired flavor.
2.) A Spruce Stout – He produced a rich stout with a hint of spruce needles, which he picked from a tree in his yard.
3.) A Belgian Triple – A flavorful beer that he measured at 11.4% alcohol by volume.
4.) Irish Red Ale – Similar to Killians, but abundantly hoppier – almost has a rusty aftertaste.
(1:40) As I waited for the selection of the final nineteen beers, I caught a glimpse of the fare that Triumph Brewery serves. As servers swerved in and out of the mass of people, they lowered and raised their trays to avoid spilling. The interesting items that I saw, including Philadelphia Cheesesteak Eggrolls and a Glazed Soft Pretzel Platter, appeared to be very tasty and carefully plated, although the presentation of the pretzels struck me as pretentious. The menu item that received the most aplomb was the hamburgers. The hearty offerings came between lightly toasted ciabatta rolls and were served alongside healthy portions of crispy curly fries. The guacamole burger received particularly loud praise.
(1:58) The announcement about the final 19 was finally made. The Spruce Stout received winning accolades from my table. Although not advancing initially disappointed me, I took solace in the fact that a knowledgeable brewer won. I had spent the afternoon sharing information with the duo that produced this beer. They provided me with valuable insight and advice. This imparting of brewing wisdom made the day well worth it. I headed to my car with ideas swirling in the head and a shopping list of fermentables on my notepad. The next submission awaits!