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BJCP Study Group: Category 12

by Rob Friesel

For better or worse, our eighth study session (for Category 12) was feeling a little bit… improv. A little bit fast and loose. Or as Erin put it:

Really great discussions and tastings at tonight’s BJCP Study Group. Sort of a weird, random, catch-all category (Pale Commonwealth Beer), punctuated by a finale of “…and this is an ESB and it’s very different…”

Category 12 (or equivalent) beers

Again: no guest judge.

Again: a bit of a mixed bag of to-style (but maybe old) and not-really-but-close-enough commercial examples.

As Erin (the night’s coordinator) put it: “Turns out this is a bit of a hard category to buy for around here.”

Category 12: Pale Commonwealth Beer

Broadly speaking, the Category 12 beers are fairly neutral (“balanced”) beers that are light in color and don’t have any particularly strong or stand-out aromas or flavors. If anything, all three of the styles in the category kind of run together except for the little wiggly bit that separates one from the next. A Category 12 beer shouldn’t have any caramel character whatsoever… unless it’s as 12C (English IPA) in which case it may have some. While all of them should lean toward bitterness in their balance, they shouldn’t be overly so; except 12C (again!) which (as an IPA) may have a more aggressive bitter edge. All the Category 12 beers should have brilliant clarity… except 12B (Australian Sparkling Ale) which must be bottled conditioned and may be intentionally served with the yeast roused. In each case, adjuncts are permissible (though not required)… except for 12B, where it would not be appropriate. And lastly, Category 12 beers should use traditional English (or British Commonwealth) ingredients… except for 12A (British Golden Ale) where citrusy American hops have become common.

As you can see, they are (by the numbers) remarkably similar beers:

12A. British Golden Ale 12B. Australian Sparkling Ale 12C. English IPA
20 – 45 IBU 20 – 35 IBU 40 – 60 IBU
1.038 – 1.053 O.G. 1.038 – 1.050 O.G. 1.050 – 1.075 O.G.
1.006 – 1.012 F.G. 1.004 – 1.016 F.G. 1.010 – 1.018 F.G.
3.8 – 5.0% ABV 4.5 – 6.0% ABV 5.0 – 7.5% ABV

Without too much fanfare, we launched into it.

  1. 12B. Australian Sparkling Ale. Cooper’s Sparkling Ale. Structured tasting. We went first with this one because it was effectively the only one that we knew for sure was to-style and was likely to be reasonably fresh. We spent about 10 minutes in the structured evaluation before moving into discussion. A bunch of the discussion circled around an oxidation question (a drain we seem to circle quite a bit) — specifically: in a style that is intended as neutral, how are you to know if “dull” flavors are “as intended” or due to oxidation? Regardless of the oxidation question, our scores were still fairly well-clustered: 35-39.[1] We also talked through the carbonation aspect on this beer; given that a single bottle was passed down the line and poured 4 or 5 times — was that amount of agitation sufficient to knock carbonation out of solution? thus interfering with proper style perceptions? Lastly, we had a semi-extended aside about the allegedly “iron-like” flavor imparted by the Pride of Ringwood hops. No one had enough experience with it to say with certainty whether “iron-like” was equivalent to “metallic” or “minerally” or… something else? At least one member of the group cited a minerally flavor, opening up the question: if you’re unfamiliar with an ingredient like that, how do you know? How can you tell the difference between Pride of Ringwood’s “iron-like” signature vs. a hard minerally flavor from yeast vs. high mineral concentration in the water vs. poor sanitation?
  2. “So how does the judging work?” Since I had the opportunity over the previous weekend to judge a local competition, and since we otherwise didn’t have a guest judge, I took a few questions about process and technique — through the lens of the first-timer. I’ll be posting about that soon and will update this space when that retrospective is available.
  3. 12A. British Golden Ale. 14th Star Recruit. Structured tasting. And/but/so… this was a stand-in equivalent beer. That said, as far as equivalents go… it did the job fairly well.[2] We talked through the beer’s characteristics that made it align well (e.g., color and clarity, light body, etc.) — but then also: the reasons it would not (as expected!) work as a 12A: e.g., pleasing balance but could use more pronounced hop character, pleasing carbonation but maybe too high for style. As I joked toward the end of the session: “Consider entering as a 1D or 18A.”
  4. 12C. English IPA. Samuel Smith India Ale. Unstructured tasting. (And admittedly where things got a little… chaotic? I started a scoresheet and a timer but apparently missed the part where the coordinator said not to bother.) Regardless, we had a decent sidebar discussion about (what else?) oxidation, especially with respect to hop-forward beers like an English IPA. (Short-short version: this one was sherry-like and vinous and very obviously old and oxidized, and/but this was over any biscuity-toffee-caramelly malt flavors…) At least two of us remarked that now we wanted to brew one just to see what they’re like fresh.
  5. Brief aside re: fresh IPL. Chris had quick-carbed Calypsonian on my behalf. We all had a taste. It was superb.
  6. Grab bag beers. Things got a little scattershot for a few minutes. Several cans and bottles were opened and circulated. They were mostly in the British vein (vis-à-vis ingredients and yeast) if not also scratching at the edges of Category 12 and/or Category 11. I’ll skip over these; we didn’t score them and my notes are woefully inadequate.
  7. Sensory exercise: packaging comparison. Old Speckled Hen. One in a can with a nitro widget; one in a bottle with “regular” carbonation. Both similarly aged — we estimated about a week or two of each other. Everyone took a sample from one of each. Some conclusion:
    • The bottled version had a better and/or more pronounced aroma.
    • The canned/nitro version had much longer head retention.
    • The canned/nitro version had a smoother mouthfeel.
    • The canned/nitro version had a creamier sensation in the mouthfeel.
    • The bottled version had a more assertive “bite”.

    Following up on all this, we speculated on whether there was a rubric that big (“bigger”) breweries followed for their decisions around what might get a nitro widget can treatment. For the most part, these seemed to be malty beers and/or beers that were historically served on cask.

Takeaways

Themes and broad observations from the night:

  1. “Metallic” aromas/flavors are tricky. There is plenty of literature out there saying that these aromas and flavors can be the result of poor sanitation. And/but there’s also plenty saying that these can come from mineral manipulation of the water. And/but apparently there’s also Pride of Ringwood. Ultimately, if you don’t have the experience to know the ingredient, you need to rely on your sense — was it pleasant or not? Was that appropriate for style or not?
  2. No fore-knowledge! Again! Any time you know a thing or two about how something is made, that really biases your against (or for!) particular flavors, etc. These biases are real and you need to watch out for them.
  3. Oxidation! Just once I’d like to get through a study group session without someone bringing it up.
  1. One member of the group originally claimed a “too harsh?” 29 — but that turned out to be an arithmetic error. []
  2. To be fair, and as discussed during the tasting round, everyone knew that Recruit wasn’t intended as a 12A. We were judging it as one, but opinions of the beer on its own merits were put aside for the purposes of this exercise. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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