Me, a beer judge?

<< 2007-12-04 19:50 >>

Homebrewing (boiling)

To my surprise, Geir Ove asked me whether I wanted to be one of the judges for the annual Norwegian Christmas Beer Homebrewing contest. Geir Ove is a board member of the Homebrewer's Association (Norbrygg), and has taken the beer judge course, so I was not really surprised that he was involved, but that they'd want me as a judge was really unexpected. It turned out they were short a judge, and given my RateBeer merits they thought I'd be up for the job. Well, it sounded interesting, and I wanted to help, so I said yes.

The competition is divided into two classes, one for "Traditional Norwegian Christmas Beers" and one for "Special Christmas Beers". The winners in the two classes go on to the Norwegian Christmas Beer Festival, where they are judged again by a panel of 5 judges together with the commercial beers in a separate competition.

We did the judging in the flat of one Norbrygg board member, who was obviously a keen home brewer, as there was brewing equipment all over the flat, and a fridge with taps and home-made pump clips. The host had prepared the beers (sorting them into categories and putting numbered labels on them), and as he knew which beers were from whom he could not participate in the judging. It was then left to a veteran board member and home brewer, Geir Ove, and myself.

The traditional beers

Armed with baguette slices, water, lots of plastic cups, and some very fancy-looking judging sheets we set about the task, starting with the traditional beers. Unlike on RateBeer, these beers were not meant to be judged on a subjective measure of appeal, but against the type definition. In addition, of course, they were meant to be judged on how good they were.

The first beer we tried went perfectly fine. The judges try to make the scores from all three judges to fall within 0.5 points of one another, and we were all within 0.2 on that first one. After that it got harder, with me usually rating the beers more than 0.5 points lower than the other two judges. It soon became clear that my tastes diverged sharply from those of the veteran judge, in that he favoured harmonic, balanced beers as close to the commercial beers as possible, while I was much more favourably disposed towards beers further away from the commercial norm.

A case in point was the pronounced apple notes in one of the beers. I quite liked this, and gave the beer good marks. However, I was told that apple notes are considered a defect in beer, and that this was why the other judges had given reduced marks for this beer. I wanted to know why this was to be considered a defect, but never received any explanation. There is a "mistake" you can make in brewing the beer that can produce this taste, but I couldn't see how it could be described as a mistake if the result is good. (There may well be some explanation for this; all I am saying is that I didn't understand it.)

As we went through the beers I got a clear impression that the other two judges knew their business quite a bit better than me. Of course, being home brewers they knew the process much better than me, the different kinds of substances that make various off-tastes, and also what produces these substances. I also felt, however, that they were better at identifying these tastes, and generally at analyzing what they smelled and tasted. It seems I have more to learn in this area, which is not really surprising.

Christmas beer festival judges (2006)

Eventually, I worked out that the traditional class is really about producing the best possible beer that could pass for a traditional commercial Norwegian Christmas beer. To me that seems like the wrong thing to do be doing. After all, we already have lots of these nearly indistinguishable beers. Why would we want more of them? I can see that for a home brewer it might be an interesting challenge to see if you could produce something good in the same vein, but, really, this is stuff you can buy in the shops already. Given that the main problem for the Norwegian beer scene is the difficulty in making the public accept any beer that is not a bland pale lager or a christmas beer, is copying these two beer styles really what we should be doing?

The special beers

I found this class much easier to judge, mainly because I was much more sympathetic with the goal of the competition in this class. In this case it was simply to produce the best possible beer, and, well, I found that an easy goal to sympathize with. Given what I had already learned that the judges were looking for in a beer (harmony and balance, and an absence of sharp edges) I found it much easier to approximate the scores of the other judges, and so this part of the competition went much smoother. (I think the veteran judge was also relieved to find me more in line.)

In the special class one of the beers really stood out, and we all agreed that this had to be the winner. It was brewed by Gahr Smith-Gahrsen, a well-known home brewer and writer in Norwegian beer magazines. I don't have the tasting notes any more, but it was really close to Haandbryggeriet's Norwegian Wood, a deep dark smoky minty brew. This was also the beer that scored the most points in any of the two classes, and the only beer awarded a "Gold" citation.


The full results are on the homebrewing association home page, and as you can see we rated 13 beers, and the best ones we rated twice. Then we tried some of the homebrews of the organizer. In short, it was a long night.

At the christmas beer festival the homebrews did reasonably well. The best traditional beer placed 6th out of 13 entrants, and the best special beer placed 7th out of 19 entrants.

So, would I do this again? I don't know. I might take the beer judge certification course, but I don't know that I would want to judge homebrews. I just don't believe enough in the style guidelines (or care enough about them) to fit in well. In the past I've been surprised by the ire these can produce in some people, but this experience made me appreciate how the guidelines can actually be a problem.


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Ken Nordan - 2007-12-05 00:16:46

I've never heard of Norwegian Christmas Beer. I'm second generation American-Norwegian and my Dad never talked about Chirstmas Beer, just Gløgg, which we make every year, plus Julekake, Saltfiskballer etc. Not real sure what is special about it. Anyway, I stumbled on your blog looking for more information about Topic Maps. My masters courses in KM never talked about TMs so I thought I learn a little, maybe build a website using TMs so I can brush up on my Norwegian. Ha det bra, hilsen Ken

John Wilberforce - 2007-12-11 08:48:20

Wow, sounds like a great task, to be asked to judge a beer competition! I hope one day I get asked to do something that cool! I don't think I've ever tried any Norwegian beer, but they sure do sound nice!

Arnoud Haak - 2007-12-12 04:09:52

I agree with you about the way the beers were judged. Looking for something close to commercial products isn't the right way. And when a beer tastes good it is good. I judge beer quite simple. There are beers that I like and there are beers I don't like. Simple as that.

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