Our BJCP study group reconvened on cadence, this time to cover Category 2. Two brief asides about that: first, that our main BJCP mentor recommended against going in straight category order, and instead to choose the styles based on the season, meaning to hold off on those stouts and bocks until it got cooler; the second was that the session coordinator duties were now on a rotation, and I’d volunteered to cover this session.
As the volunteer session coordinator for Category 2, I took the two weeks leading up to the evening to get things sorted out. A few notes on my lessons learned there.
- Get familiar with the styles first. At least… I found that reading the style guidelines for each of the styles in the category worked well for me. I spent about 30-60 minutes per style, reading them closely, highlighting specific lines, and generally trying to come up with (1) a suitable summary that captured the category rather broadly and (2) specific aspects of each style that helped to differentiate them from one another within that broadly applied style description.
- Don’t wait to do the shopping. Unless you know for sure that you can get the examples that you want, try to get out on the early side to pick up your example beers for each style. While I easily found my first choice for 2A, I had to go with my second choice for 2B; meanwhile I had to make a second and third trip out to find a suitable 2C example. That being said…
- Be flexible on the choice of style example. To be fair to myself here, I could probably have stuck with my 2C “oops” beer and been fine; in retrospect, it would likely have served as a 2C example if I’d just paid closer attention. Here’s what happened: when I was out the first time to pick up the example beers, I grabbed a six pack of Modelo Negra, having confused it for a six pack of San Miguel Cerveza Negra. Where I got tripped up was when I saw that Modelo Negra is marketed as a Vienna lager (7A), albeit a macro example. While I didn’t panic (i.e., if nothing else, I knew I could find Shiner Bock somewhere), it was frustrating. Then I noticed that Brooklyn Lager (listed in the 2015 BJCP style guide as an example of 2B) was also marketed as a “Viennese-style American Amber Lager”. By the time I noticed this, I’d already “settled” for the Shiner Bock to be on the safe side.
- Sort out a “bonus” sensory training activity. In addition to “just” reviewing the styles in the category, we agreed that for each session, we would also have at least one other sensory training activity. Some ideas: the ever-versatile triangle test; “guess that style” blind tasting; off-flavor training with dosed beers; and feedback on homebrews. Two additional thoughts here: (1) if you have other sensory training exercises, please share them; and (2) I’ll hold off on exactly which one I organized… because I’ve got that one listed below.
- Don’t forget the saltines. I forgot to bring saltines.
Category 2: International Lager
Overall, beers in Category 2 should be smooth, “easy to drink” beers, that are balanced toward the malt, but otherwise have a neutral palate. All three sub-styles have low/restrained hop bitterness, with styles getting sweeter as they get darker; the darkest versions may be sweet to the point of being out-of-balance. Darkest commercial versions may be artificially colored.
- 2A. International Pale Lager: Think “American lagers” but with fewer adjuncts, and while maybe more flavor, still not strong flavors; more hops in the balance (compared with American lagers) but still leans malty.
- 2B. International Amber Lager: Compared with 2A, more pronounced caramel or toast quality to malt; well-attenuated, restrained bitterness, easily-drinkable.
- 2C. International Dark Lager: Compared with 2A and 2B, sweeter (caramel [albeit low], hinting at coffee, molasses, cocoa); may be colored. Munich Dunkel and Schwarzbier styles are superficially similar, but will have richer flavors than 2C. Very low hop bitterness means beer is dominated by malt and likely out of balance.
The evening’s notes:
- 2A. International Pale Lager. Birra Moretti. We had a semi-lengthy discussion about brewing water and (more specifically) about its mineral content; many of us agreed that there was a minerally aspect to this beer, but we couldn’t put our collective fingers on just what that was. (An area for future study?) This discussion also included some hair-splitting over whether a “watery” finish was neutral, or whether neutral referred to the malt/hop balance “while still being recognizably beer”. Also, similar to the Category 1 session, we debated how much personal preferences factor into a given score; for example, in this case, we cited how low hop character was to-style, but also how we felt that the overall balance would benefit from more bitterness and more hop-derived flavors.
- 2B. International Amber Lager. Brooklyn Lager. This turned into a case study in how to not allow your personal preferences to influence your score. (In other words: this is why judging is done blind.) Almost everyone at the session had some experience with Brooklyn Lager, and while it wasn’t anyone’s favorite beer, most people at least had a favorable impression of it. So, while we went around the table to review our notes from the structured evaluation, we did find aspects of the beer that were questionable or else did not seem to-style (e.g., was it appropriate to dry hop? was it not dark enough?) — but then we also admitted that we maybe kinda/sorta scored a couple of points higher because… Well, because we liked it.
- 2C. International Dark Lager. Shiner Bock. If Brooklyn Lager led us to the question of “is it appropriate to apply bonus points because I like it?” — then Shiner Bock was a return to the question of “is it appropriate to knock it down a notch because I don’t like it?” (At this point I think we’ve hashed out this question multiple times.) Discussion of beer color came up again — specifically “is this dark enough?” We also got into a question of “sweetness” in the beer, trying to puzzle out if this one (oddly?) had too much malt character? and also whether it was fermented too warm, contributing to esters that increased perceived sweetness?
- “Name that style!” While I’d originally planned to do a triangle test between two different styles (e.g., 2C. International Dark Lager vs. 8B. Schwarzbier), I ultimately decided to bring in two 22 oz. bottles of homebrew for a blind “name that style” similar to our introductory session. After samples were poured, we allowed about five minutes for sensory evaluation and then opened it up for guesses which included: Baltic Porter, American Amber Ale “but darkened”, Scottish Heavy “but too dark”, and Belgian Dark Strong. No one guessed the correct style: 16A. Sweet Stout. However, one group member did correctly guess one of this beer’s defining characteristics: that it was brewed from an extract kit. (Though no one guessed that it was also approximately two-and-a-half years old.)
- “Find the flaw!” As a bonus “sensory training” exercise for the session, another of the group members had brought in an “obviously flawed” example of some homebrew. “A real dumper of a Märzen,” he said; “Go on, guess what’s wrong with it.” And for what was probably the first in my life, I could definitely perceive diacetyl. “Probably like five times the normally perceptible amount,” he said. I’ve historically been taste-blind to diacetyl but… not at this concentration.
- Just for fun feedback. We finished the night with a little wrap-up, and with a couple other samples of homebrew that people had brought in to share for feedback.
- Again: study off-flavors. While not a challenge for everyone, this continues to be a challenge for me. I don’t always “look for” the off-flavors or faults in a given beer. Perhaps this is because we’ve mostly sampled commercial examples and I’m simply assuming that they’re passing quality control before headed out to market? That being said, I plan to spend some more time studying the “technical faults” section in Chapter 7 of Gordon Strong’s Brewing Better Beer.
- Resources for water/mineral profiles? Given our discussion of the session’s 2A example, I suspect we’ll want to do some further study of water, the mineral content of the water, how it affects flavor, mouthfeel, etc., and how to identify and/or make suggestions about brewing water.
- Consider “blind” tastings even for (especially for?) the commercial examples. Considering how the structured tastings went with Brooklyn Lager, we might (as a group) want to consider blind pours for all of the beers we study.
- How to score on “intangibles”? Circling back on the acknowledged biases while scoring Brooklyn Lager, we have an open question about the appropriateness of scoring a beer higher when it’s intangibly more pleasing. This is not to suggest scoring a beer as a 50 just because it’s a favorite, but rather assuming it otherwise adheres to the style guide’s description, then is it appropriate to give “bonus points” because it was pleasing? Contrariwise: is it appropriate to knock a beer down a couple points if it’s not… “intangibly” a beer that you “like”?
- That being said, Category 2 seemed just fine for late June. [↩]
- Meanwhile… anyone want a six pack of Modelo Negra? [↩]
- As an aside: given the “International” in “International Lager”, I wanted all of the session’s example beers to be from unique countries not named the United States of America. Alas, this was the only one that I managed to pick up with such an international source. [↩]
- BJCP style guide had nothing specifically to say about this so… it’s probably fine as long as the beer is otherwise meeting the style’s criteria. [↩]
- Well, the BJCP style guide does list it as an appropriate commercial example for 2B so who are we to second guess that? [↩]
- I believe there were other styles guessed here, but I didn’t get them all written down. [↩]