Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of serving as a judge for the “Harrisburg Beer Week Battle of the Homebrew Clubs” competition as a part of the inaugural Harrisburg Beer Week. My good friend Chelsie, one of the organizers of Harrisburg Beer Week, invited me to judge. I immediately asked how I could possibly be qualified, though I suppose my futile attempts to surpass my friend Tierney on Untappd unique check-ins has exposed me to a decent number of beers. In full disclosure this is was not a BJCP-certified event, and like the rest of the week’s festivities, the proceeds benefited Harrisburg River Rescue.
Before the event, I was style preference to judge, to which I said I wasn’t picky. Clearly, it was a mistake, as I was assigned IPAs, which may just be my least favorite style (and here I thought the popularity of IPAs would have made it some other judge’s first choice).
Confession: I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.
Fellow judges included a beer distributor, a professional brewer, a beer podcaster, and an attorney (who felt as under-qualified as I did, despite specializing in alcohol and the law).
The beers on the judging table were labeled not only with style and name, but (unfortunately) with the brewer’s names. Some of these brewers were friends of mine, and the other judges confessed of similar relationships. I didn’t pay much attention to it (if anything, I felt as if I was more critical to my friends), though we did recommend to organizer Chris Harvey that it be handled anonymously in the future.
Ultimately, I truly believe the judging was unbiased. A second round of judging had us choose the best overall beer from each judge’s final picks. This second round didn’t have brewers names staring back at us (Perhaps a correction from the first round?) and was done regardless of style.
Two things did surprise me: despite appearance being only one criteria, I think this subtle detail proved to be a tell-tale sign of which beers would advance. A concurrent “People’s Choice” series of awards surprisingly didn’t echo our judging results in any way.
Rating beer is hard. It’s not just a matter of drinking and giving a score on a five-point scale. Our grading criteria included aroma, clarity, mouthfeel, and overall perception and loyalty to style. Fellow judge Steph Heffner from Beer Busters gave me the really handy tip of smelling and rating aroma for all the entries prior to tasting. It was definitely helpful, as all those scents can get mixed up with the taste.
The experience actually reminded me of why I often grade on a curve when I teach–I can get a little too critical. I know some of the other judges chose to remain anonymous on their judging sheets, but I didn’t. Nonetheless, I was a little embarrassed that my rudimentary tasting notes and condemnatory scores made it into the hands of the contestants. One beer announced itself as a Heady Topper clone, and taste-wise, it was really close, but I denounced it for its lack of visual clarity. In another case, I found myself practically apologizing to one of my brewer friends for giving him such a low score on his beer. All this despite his being the second highest score I awarded, despite his beer winning an award as one of the best in the competition, and despite me recognizing it as a solid 5/5 on Untappd.
Overall, it was fun and there was a lot of great beer. Check out The Beer Busters video summary to get a good sense of the vibe at the event.