For study group #5, we stuck with the bitter European beers and tackled Category 7. Similar to last time, examples in this category turned out to be difficult to find — and the ones that our coordinator did find were all brewed in the United States or Canada. Regardless of their country of origin, we had what we needed to tuck in.
For this session, we were joined by Tyler, a BJCP certified judge. After introducing himself, he broke down his judging philosophy for us as a series of tips.
- “It’s not really a 50-point scale.” The range is more like 13-47 points. “Don’t be a jackass,” he said; by the time you’ve gotten down to 13 points, the brewer got the message. At the other end of the spectrum… are you really going to give a 50? Is that really the best beer of that style you’ve ever had?
- “But don’t be that judge that just gives everything a 30.” A 30 point score is a “safe” score; it’s middle of the road, and all-too-easy to defend it while leaving wiggle room to come up or down a couple points. But you really ought to trust yourself and your perceptions. If a beer fits the style and tastes great, give it a great score! Contrariwise, if it veers off the style or tastes flat, give it a poor score. Be prepared to talk about it with the other judges, but trust your senses.
- “If the judge scores are 6-7 points apart, that’s pretty normal.” If the scores are 10+ points apart, that’s the danger zone. (More on that later.) But in the 6-7 point range, then it makes sense for the judges to discuss and come up/down a little bit, still be a couple points apart, and the scores will still seem consistent.
- “Try working backward from the total score.” Tyler’s recommendation was to get your overall impression, think of what seems like an appropriate overall score, and then allocate the points across the five factors from there. (This as opposed to scoring each factor and then adding them up.) Be willing to be flexible; if you need an extra point for appearance, bump your 34 to a 35. But sure, try it both ways while you’re studying; figure out what works for you.
- “If you remember nothing else about a given style, remember the Overall Impression.” The rest of the factors basically derive from that. For example if you remember from 7A’s Overall Impression that its malt flavor is not derived from “specialty malts and adjuncts”, then it makes sense that a “significant caramel or roasted aroma is inappropriate.”
So that was a great way to start the session.
Category 7: Amber Bitter European Beer
Category 7 is the family of amber-colored German-origin beers that feature a notable bitterness, particularly on the finish, but they’re also well-balanced, with prominent malt flavors. Beers in this category are not necessarily bottom fermented, but are typically lagered.
|7A. Vienna Lager||7B. Altbier||7C. Kellerbier|
|18 – 30 IBU||18 – 30 IBU||20 – 35 IBU (Pale)
25 – 40 IBU
|1.048 – 1.055 O.G.||1.044 – 1.052 O.G.||1.045 – 1.051 O.G. (Pale)
1.048 – 1.054 O.G. (Amber)
|1.010 – 1.014 F.G.||1.008 – 1.014 F.G.||1.008 – 1.012 F.G. (Pale)
1.012 – 1.016 F.G. (Amber)
|4.7 – 5.5% ABV||4.3 – 5.5% ABV||4.7 – 5.4% ABV (Pale)
4.8 – 5.4% ABV (Amber)
- 7A. Vienna Lager. The von Trapp Vienna Lager. Structured tasting. The scores were relatively closely-clustered; the lowest score was 29, the highest was 44, but the rest were clustered within a couple points in the mid- to high-30s. Tyler cited this as a good beer for studying the “bready” flavor character. We discussed this beer as a good example of one whose aromas and flavors change as it warms. And as we were wrapping up the discussion, one of the group members asks our judging mentor: “Where does alcohol go on the sheet? Flavor? Mouthfeel?” The answer? “Write it down wherever you perceive it.”
- 7C. Kellerbier. Les Trois Mousquetaires Kellerbier. Structured tasting. Big spread on this one: 24-42, and no real clustering. Several of us admitted that it was a difficult beer to over-score — that we weren’t familiar with the style, but that also it was difficult to interpret the comments in the style guide and apply them critically. Tyler suggested that this was a good place to apply the “bottom-up” approach to the score; that the bottle we had was a flawed Kellerbier that should have gotten a relatively low score, but it would be easy (especially for apprentice judges) to have trouble finding fault with the individual factors. Tyler’s rubric: “You have to find the Helles.” But Tyler also pointed again to the bottle: “This is a good example in oxidation.” 1 We discussed the aromatics of an oxidized beer, how many of those perceptions can be confusing, that they’re “tough” and can throw off other perceptions. 2 The discussion of aromatics moved on to malts vs. yeast esters. We tried to talk through how to cope with styles that are “supposed” to have “off flavors” — i.e., how a pale 7C is a “green Helles” with a more aggressive hop character. As we wrapped up, Tyler suggested to all of us to get another (pale) Kellerbier (a fresh one! [if we can]) and compare it to a Helles. And one last point as we wrapped up the beer, Tyler also prompted us to look for opportunities to give this kind of judging feedback: “I like this beer but try entering it as a __________.”
- 7C. Kellerbier. Zero Gravity Kellerbier. Unstructured tasting; just impressions, just to compare to the previous. It was decidedly fresher, and more of a pilsner malt showcase. “You can find the Helles underneath. It’s also got punchier hops.”
- 7B. Altbier. Long Trail Double Bag. Unstructured tasting. “It’s basically an alt, right? Close enough?” “Oh, it’s an alt.” One group member remarked on the rich, nutty quality of the malts and specifically called out “getting almonds”; Tyler laughed: “If you put down ‘almonds’ in your exam, they’re going to love that.” This led us into a sidebar discussion about writing down your perceptions — as in, “there are no wrong perceptions” and “the more descriptive and specific you can be, the better”. In turn, this led us to another sidebar about the judging format; about the size of the flights (i.e., 4 would be small, but 10 would be large). Again, Tyler reminded us that it’s common for judges to be up to 6-7 points apart, but not more than 10. Why not? “Because if the scores are more than 10 points apart then the feedback could be so different from each other so as to not be useful to the brewer.”
- 7A. Vienna Lager. A homebrew example from the 2017 Greg Noonan Competition. Unstructured tasting. Was that an extract twang? Or was it just under-attenuated? 3 Fairly flat overall profile.
- Erin’s mystery beer. “What do you think went into it?” There were some guesses from the group, but everyone admitted that they were just taking random stabs. (“Woody? Herbal? Not licorice but… something like that?”) Eventually Erin broke it down: it was a parti-gyle, the second runnings from an Imperial Stout that was (in effect) a glorified starter to build up an aging yeast strain culture.
- Side-by-side of “Fruity Pebbles”. Two group members (Aaron and Chris) had recently brewed a witbier-esque beer together, and both pitched the Wyeast 3463 Forbidden Fruit strain. So… same mash, same boil, same strain pitched… so the differences? Maybe just a little bit of variation in fermentation temperature and then one of them packaged a little later than the other. Most of us agreed: we couldn’t tell them apart. (Some cited some perceived differences but… seemed like they might’ve been reaching.)
- Scoring technique. Try both techniques: “score each factor and add it up” vs. “allocate to the factors from a total score”. Figure out which one works best for you, but know the advantages/disadvantages of each.
- It can be challenging to score beers in unfamiliar styles. Especially when it comes to “quirky” styles like the Kellerbier. Especially when it comes to styles that are effectively variations on other styles. Especially when it comes to styles that have tolerance for what would normally be off-flavors. Study the style. Prepare yourself to be critical. And seek out good (and fresh!) examples.
- Be specific and evocative with your descriptors. Whether or not you use a “common” descriptor is less important than if you’re able to express descriptive language that is specific and evocative.
- Remember to look for the off-flavors. This was a reprised theme, but not a re-litigated one. The group’s newcomer member mentioned this and a few of us threw out some ideas that have helped us to better incorporate this into our approaches to judging.
- Judging from markings on the label, we estimated that the beer was at least a year old!
- There was an aside about a 20 year old bottle of light lager they found once and how the drinkers agreed it could have been confused for a poorly executed barleywine.
- There was a bit of an intense (if isolated) sidebar discussion about this. I personally don’t believe that “extract twang” is a thing. When people say that, I believe that what they’re really perceiving is how the extract’s fermentable sugars simply don’t attenuate to the same degree. I don’t believe it’s a specific flavor but more of a violation of expectations. But that’s just like my opinion, man.